Origins1839 - 1900
Instrumental 1839 - 2020
We the People1900 - 1950
Justice for All1950-2000
Digital Democracy2000 - 2022
“What is the frequency of images? Some photos are not quiet at all.”
Tina M. Campt, 2017 (Listening to Images, Durham: Duke University Press, 2017, 116)
Today we are surrounded by a cacophony of images. Anyone can view the recording of an array of documented injustices, from police shootings or choking someone to death to migrants drowning on their quests for better lives. As Elizabeth Alexander writes about whom she dubs the “the Trayvon Generation”,
They watched these violations up close and on their cell phones, so many times over. They watched them in near-real time…. They watched them on the school bus. They watched them under the covers at night. They watched them often outside of the presence of adults who loved them and were charged with keeping them safe in body and soul. (The Trayvon Generation (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2022, 69)
Before countless loops of so many lives became so readily accessible in our very hands 24/7, the photograph galvanized public opinion and drove activists and legislators to action. Having been born in 1965, I know the photographs I encountered, in the daily newspaper on our doorstep and the magazines in our living room, shaped my life growing up during so many decades ruled by change. Many of these images were created before I was born but remain, to many generations, the iconic ‘memories’ of the civil rights movement.
In April 1963, Charles Moore photographed Birmingham firemen using their hoses on young, Black protestors and police dogs tearing their clothes during a non-violent campaign against segregated businesses. These images capturing the depths of racism’s depravity appeared in Life magazine, swaying public opinion and getting the Civil Rights Act signed a year later. According to many, “[s]eldom, if ever, has a set of photographs had such an immediate impact on the course of history.” (Michael S. Durham, Powerful Days: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 1991), 90.)
Although I have vivid memories of the names of those American soldiers killed in Vietnam each night scrolling on the tv, the photograph of Ann Vecchio crying over the dead body of Jeffrey Miller is in all of the history books because it changed history. In 1970, the Ohio National Guard killed four students at a rally against the U.S. invasion in Cambodia at Kent State. The photographer John Paul Filo was also a student there. Fourteen-year-old Vecchio’s grief expressed by her bent knee and outstretched arms reminded us of Neoclassical paintings, of Shakespeare. We were killing our youth here also. The nation could not turn away.
Another pivotal photograph in the anti-war movement was the “Napalm girl,” nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc who Nick Ut captured as she ran naked after U.S. planes dropped napalm onto her village. Ut’s poignant image received international exposure as he was working for AP at the time. The impact that seeing human suffering can have on other human beings can never be underestimated. From Emmett Till’s beaten and distorted face in his open casket published by Jet magazine in 1955 to Freddie Gray’s bandaged body on life support in a hospital bed across national news channels, such photographs have engraved generational trauma into the psyche and the politics of people of all races. These images were meant to be as loud as sirens calling a nation to action.
I will end on an image that, unfortunately, has returned as a timely one. It is the graphic black-and-white photograph of Gerri Santoro, who bled to death, prone, naked, and face down on the floor of a hotel room after a botched abortion. In 1973, Ms. magazine published the image with her tragic story about trying to escape poverty and an abusive husband. As various legislative bodies have compromised a woman’s right to control her own body, this image and the coat hanger resurface to symbolize what is at stake. As a young girl, when I first encountered this image in my older sister’s apartment, I knew it was about sex and death and being a woman. How exactly, I was not so sure, but it shook me, and it elicited a tsunami of empathy, fear, anger– and conviction. Forty years later, I witnessed my own daughter face a mural-sized photograph of bloody fetal remains hung next to her soccer field. She was ten, sitting upright in her bright orange uniform casually, but forcefully, instructing her teammates to keep looking at the game. She was shielding them from the power of that photograph marring the clear blue sky behind them. What we see cannot be unseen, and therein lies the power of those arresting images that compel us to do better.
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The Democratic Lens lecture series will include six sections, each with a corresponding humanities theme, historical era, and selection of contributing scholars. In alignment with NEH Special Initiative’s “A More Perfect Union” theme, scholars will present photographs that connect audiences to the diverse cultures, landscapes, histories, and individuals who collectively shaped the nation. The Democratic Lens will prioritize underrepresented histories to emphasize the diversity of the citizenry. We will present accounts that illustrate the challenges our country has endured and the stories of how Americans have worked together to overcome them.
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