Editor’s note: This article was originally published April 2, 2021, here.
As early as the 1890s, photography has been used to empower African Americans. Newly freed African Americans were looking at photographs as a way to reshape the narrative. With these photographs, they took photos of themselves that were “beautiful and glamorous”, quite the opposite to how they were usually captured in photographs where they are regarded as objects to be studied and sold. In these photos of themselves that they captured, they were dignified, dressed to their best, and captured in a very complimentary way.
Photography as a way to change and empower communities is a method that’s been used many times throughout history. It speaks to the power that images, especially photography, have. Or as renowned photographer Gordon Parks liked to call it, it’s a powerful weapon.
It’s a weapon that Parks was very comfortable using. And he used it often. Whether during a protest on police brutality or a documentary capturing the idyllic moments of African Americans’ lives in rural Alabama, Parks always used his photographs as a tool to tell different narratives that would fight against racial segregation and violence he saw — and experienced — around him.
Gordon Parks could wield the camera like no one else. He knew how to use his weapon to serve him best. With his journalistic coverage as the first photographer hired by Life magazine, the photos work like a blunt hammer, presenting the reality of the situations to those not aware. Protesters held up signs in front of a white policeman who almost looked bored at the situation. He recorded the violent ways police would deal with suspects. Even the most out-of-touch person could immediately understand what was happening and why it was happening. But blunt as they are, these photos of protests or crime scenes were never “rough”. With the skilled hands and eyes of Parks, the camera yielded stunning images that looked straight out of a cinematic masterpiece.
Then there are times where his camera acted more like a surgical knife. Parks was in control of every single aspect within the frame. He’s consciously creating a narrative within his camera that would serve his purpose. One of his most well-known images, Government charwoman, Washington, D.C. or more commonly known as American Gothic after Grant Wood’s painting of the same name, was a result of Parks’ composing as evidenced by other photos he’s taken of Ella Watson (the woman in the photo) in various poses and lighting. He would later visit Mrs. Watson’s home and continue to document her and her family there. Here, he would both arrange and candidly captures the Watson family, presenting a poignant look into the lives of African American families. His goal was to humanize this woman beyond her job as a cleaner, someone who has a family to care for, with a long and meaningful family history behind them.
Parks would similarly employ this surgical, crafted method in another series later on, titled Segregation in the South. It was another project commissioned by Life magazine to document the segregation tension in Alabama. Here, Black families were photographed going about their daily lives. They were gathering on the porch with their families, going out into the town to watch movies, or buying ice cream with their children. It’s the small details, however, that tell the story of racial segregation. The ice cream parlor seperated into windows for “whites” and “colored”. Two water fountains stood side by side, one for “whites only”, the other for “colored only”. A group of young Black children looking through a fence at a faraway jungle gym. An impeccably dressed pair of mother and child standing under a bright, neon “colored entrance” sign. With his photographs, Parks sent out a clear message that Black families are like any other families, so why are they treated so differently?
There’s no denying that Gordon Parks successfully wielded his weapon throughout his life. He’s regarded as one of the best photographers of his time and a pioneer in his own way. With his photography, he’s changed the opinions and views of so many people about a variety of civil rights issues. To this day, even after his passing, many look up to him and similarly use photography as a powerful weapon. They say an image is worth a thousand words and Gordon Parks made use of every single one of those words eloquently, successfully, and beautifully.