April 23, 2021
As the tear gas burst in the backstreets of San José and the police encircled the last signs of dissent, Khennedi Meeks, a Black woman, knelt in honor of George Floyd. This image was captured on film and quickly flooded newspapers and social media; it became a symbol of not just the San José protests, but of the resistance to racism and police brutality across the nation.
Dai Saguno, the Asian-American photojournalist who captured Meeks’ bravery, is one of many who work to capture the unspeakable horrors minorities face. Other important photographers and social justice advocates include Corky Lee, who photographed the viciousness of anti-Asian and Pacific Islander sentiment in America, Jacob Riis, who photographed the poor living conditions of immigrants during the Progressive Era (which lasted from the 1890s to the 1920s), and Lawrence Jackson, who is currently photographing Kamala Harris’ tenure as Vice President. Their careers and their colleagues’ contributions play an important role in how we see and shape American history.
According to Mr. Scott Brenfleck, the photography teacher at Atholton, one of the reasons photos have such a powerful impact on social justice movements is because they are able to “capture that one moment in time.”
Photography forces us to face the harsh realities of what it means to be an American citizen. From the lynchings of the past to the Capitol Riot, to police brutality, a photographer has always been there to capture it. These photos force us to change the way we think about our role in systemic discrimination against minorities. Whether it’s about voting for politicians who enabled police officers to harass Black Americans with little to no evidence, or spreading stereotypes about Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) culture, we all have partaken in racist and broken systems designed to serve a select few and repress millions of Americans.
Photography shapes how we see the past but also provides us with a lens through which we can glimpse the future. Whether it is through reminders of how photojournalism prompted change in the Progressive Era, or photos of solidarity between minority communities and their allies, most people can agree these images convey a better future through the hope of the past.
Photography itself has changed with the times. The rise of social media and the widespread use of cell phone cameras has generated increased interest in photography. This has resulted in mixed results from the wider communities of both photography and social justice advocates. Some claim “performative activism”, a term used to describe using social justice movements for clout or popularity on social media, has created a dampening effect on the power of recent movements like #BlackLivesMatter or #StopAsianHate. Others claim social media has resulted in substantial change. A freshman Debate Club Member at Reservoir High School best described the effects of social media as “a mix of both” performative activism and social change, with issues like desensitization and virtue signaling being addressed in some communities but rarely being addressed by big corporations or celebrities.
Regardless of the changes in photography, one thing remains constant: the sheer power of a simple camera. One of the most cited examples is that of Jacob Riis, a Danish-American photographer who captured the effects of poverty and birtherism (prejudice against foreign-born Americans) in the late 19th and early 20th century. His photographs reached a wide audience by allowing illiterate Americans to understand economic conditions and by reaching “the people who were the agents of change, upper-middle-class, high society New Yorkers,” as ninth-grade history teacher Mr. Richard Jones phrased it.
Photographs have played a large role in illustrating the diversity and accomplishments of Black culture and in revealing the pain years of racism causes. Photos from Lawrence Jackson of Vice President Kamala Harris, who is South Asian and Black, and from various photographers (such as Kay Nietfeld, Robert Burns, etc.) of Secretary Lloyd Austin demonstrate the political power Black Americans have in shaping American society. Photographs of Black musicians like Kendrick Lamar, Lizzo and Prince writing and performing iconic and award-winning songs demonstrate how Black Americans shift the cultural landscape. Photography is used at the forefront of many Black liberation movements to capture the horrors of racial injustice and to force white people to confront their privilege. For example, photographs of the infamous Bloody Sunday (a peaceful protest against voter suppression and the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson met with a violent response from the police), forced many Americans to reexamine the roles that race and white privilege play in the workplace and in society at large. As Ms. Cheryl Grimes, the Black Student Achievement Program (BSAP) teacher stated, “photos have a way of exposing the viciousness of racism that words just don’t really properly convey.”
Photographs of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have played a significant role in dismantling the model minority myth and showing the diversity of AAPI culture. The model minority myth was coined as a way to divide the AAPI community from the larger narrative of people of color in America. Its key claim revolved around a racist stereotype which claimed AAPI are hardworking and not politically involved, and as a result excel relative to Black, Indigenous, and Latinx Americans. Photographs, however, show a different story. People of Asian and Pacific Islander descent routinely gave their lives as first responders and military officers. Despite this, they were frequently denied immigration to the United States and faced violence from bigoted Americans. AAPI were and are routinely seen as threats. Photographs like those taken by Corky Lee exposed these harsh realities. He captured images such as those of a Sikh man wrapped in an American flag after 9/11 and the beating of a Chinese man (Peter Yew) and the subsequent protests. Throughout his life, he captured the patriotism in the AAPI community and mistreatments inflicted by mainstream America.
The roles of racism are just as important in the photography community as they are in politics and government. According to a Time magazine article, a lack of representation among minorities in photojournalism poses the threat of future generations solely remembering the narrative of a “white middle-class heterosexual man.” While this may change, it’s important for the photography community to both better embrace people of color and to mandate that white photographers reckon with their own privilege. As Ms. Grimes stated, “we need more people of color […] determining what photos will be shown because photos can be incredibly powerful.”
Feature Image Courtesy of Mercury News/Dai Saguno.