African Americans have participated in the technical art of photography since the introduction of the daguerreotype in the 1840’s. From this inception, black Americans like Frederick Douglass understood the power of photography to visually represent a more truthful depiction of humanity more accessible than painting, illustration and sculpture. Douglass, who was highly active during the abolitionist movement, through the Reconstruction era, and in the early years of Jim Crow, utilized photography as a means to represent black Americans as humanly dignified, intelligent, and as equally worthy of socio-political positions as white Americans or any other race. He, along with other photographers and visual theorists, such as Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, combated racial supremacy with photography by authoring their own likenesses.
An equally powerful activist, who collaborated with Douglass at times, employed photography in her advocacy campaigns with a radically different approach. In the 1890’s, Ida B. Wells became the pioneer of the anti-lynching movement. Though she incorporated self-authored photographs in her campaigns, Wells commandeered photographs of black tortured bodies that were taken by white community members working to sustain and spread their racial ideologies. Wells used photography to fight white supremacy and it’s resulting violence. The photographs chosen for print were of lynch scenes– tortured, broken bodies bound and hanged, proud murderers and accomplices gathered around the death scenes, all in black and white.
The act of photographing a lynch scene was in part born out of a deliberate need to control how black Americans were depicted and perceived in order to strengthen the power white of supremacy. Rather than solely creating new images to counteract racial injustice, Wells re-contextualized what was already available and reclaimed the images of black bodies, as gruesome as they were, for black Americans.
Wells began her campaign against lynching in Memphis, TN in 1892, after her friend, Tom Moss, and two of his associates were lynched for protecting their grocery story. Wells was forced to leave Memphis after she condemned the murders in her local newspaper. Wells lectured extensively in America and abroad calling people to action to end assaults against black Americans. She published “Lynch Law” in 1893 and in 1895, The Red Record, Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. In both publications, Wells incorporated photographs of lynch victims to accompany her writing, comprised mostly of factual accounts, as proof of the atrocities happening in the American south. Since her work, anti-lynching activists, artists, and families of lynch victims have used lynching photography to fight for and, for the most part, achieve racial and social justice.
History of Lynching and Lynching Photography
In America, the phenomena of lynching reached extensive proportions from 1882 to 1930; at least 3,220 black Americans were murdered at the hands of predominately white Southerners. However, lynching of black Americans began after Emancipation in 1865. Under slavery, white slave owners saw black bodies as commodities; slaves were lucrative to the financial wealth of the owners. Seldom were enslaved peoples murdered, rather their spirits were broken, their families torn apart, their histories erased, and their bodies injured. After the enslaved were freed, made citizens, and allowed to vote by law, white communities, mostly in the south, worried that their economic, political, and reproductive ownership would be disrupted by equal participation of black communities. Thus, false justifications were made to lynch blacks under the pretenses of justice and security. There were no laws to protect black Americans from the lynch mobs.
The spectacle of lynching, which at times attracted massive numbers of attendees, was documented through photographs taken by both professional and amateur photographers. These photographic objects were kept by whites as souvenirs, often sold in the form of postcards along with other more demented mementos, such as the hair, teeth, and clothes of the victims. Photographs and postcards were also used to extend white supremacy to a wider audience within an inner circle of white southern communities in an attempt to strengthen and align them with racist ideology. The images were available for newspapers to print along with published accounts. However, most newspapers abstained, sometimes to protect the identity of the mob members, other times to refrain from sensationalizing violence. “Although the paper agreed that Hilliard was a “criminal monster” who committed a “diabolical crime,” it objected to the display of the photograph because it “pander[ed] to a base taste: of those “readers who delight in everything that is exceptionally horrible.” In some instances, mob members would not allow news reporters to photograph the lynch scenes, instead the right to photograph was given only to participants in the crime. This allowed mob members to control what images were documented and how the images were disseminated.
That white southerners understood their need to control the images gives evidence that they also understood their ideology was flawed. They feared that, in the hands of non-like-minded people, the photographs could be used to counter their assaults and disrupt their economic enterprises. Nevertheless, white communities were unable to contain the images solely in the hands of those sympathetic to white supremacist ideology. African Americans commanded jurisdiction over the photographs for their own political and social campaigns, continuing in the footsteps of Ida. B. Wells.
In 1912, twenty-seven years after the publication of Ida B. Wells’ pamphlets, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) printed photographs of lynchings in The Crisis magazine. An image of the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, was printed on the cover of The Crisis magazine in 1916, along with an eight-page article about the event. “Copies were distributed to 700 newspapers, all the members of Congress, and prominent individuals in the arts and politics, as well as the 42,000 who subscribed to The Crisis.” By reprinting the images into widely circulating black press, the NAACP not only challenged white ideology but propelled larger numbers of Americans, white and black, citizens and politicians, to speak out against lynching and push for laws that would prosecute those responsible.
Two exhibitions were held in 1935 to further push for legislation to criminalize lynching. The NAACP organized An Art Commentary of Lynching, and a collaborative effort between the Artists’ Union, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, the Harlem-based Vanguard group, the International Labor Defense, and the John Reed Group organized the exhibition, Struggle for Negro Rights. Though the two groups had a rivalry with each other, their goals were the same. Within these two exhibitions, the context of lynching photography further metamorphosed in the form of original works of art. All the artworks either directly referenced or responded to the photographic images of lynchings. Artists took what was, again, originally in the hands of white supremacists and challenged their doctrine. Some of the works of art brought to light undocumented violence, along with the documented lynchings. “Artists were also able to provide insight into activities that took place under cover of night or were shrouded in secrecy for which no photographs existed, making visible lesser-known expressions of mob violence, including the work of posses and manhunts or private mob tortures and executions.” Though an anti-lynching law still did not pass in legislation, the attention received by these powerful artworks reshaped perceptions of violence, black representation, and body image within a larger demographic, both nationally and internationally. The two exhibitions included artwork by both black and white artists at a time when there was not much collaboration between the two within the art world. The joining of forces between various artists and political groups, unified in the fight against supremacist tyranny, produced some of the most compelling socially aware artwork of the 1930’s, including works by Isamu Noguchi, Hale Woodruff, and Thomas Hart Benton.
Lynching photography continued to be employed in the work of artists and activists in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. “Black Panther Party Minister of Culture and artist, Emory Douglas, used photography to place lynching within a longer historical continuum.” Douglas’s photo collage, “Freedom is a Constant Struggle,” was published in a 1972 issue of The Black Panther newspaper. Artistic representations of lynching photography transformed the messages of earlier activists and artists into a modern context. As the fight for civil rights continued, black Americans used lynching photography for historical documentation of a brutal, not so distant, past, in order to attain political and social equality. The images were also used to critique the ways in which black Americans were viewed, by themselves and others, as dictated by the negative representations of their bodies objectified in the photographs and the spectacle of the lynchings.
“The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges. Being isolated and precisely for that reason this sector is the locus of illusion and false consciousness; the unity it imposes is merely the official language of generalized separation.” The spectacle of lynching, evidenced by photography, exposes a truth of false consciousness in an era of American history. Ida B. Wells knew that by exposing the spectacle, she could then expose the false consciousness of the society that created it. She used lynching photography as evidence of the most vicious and depraved expressions of colonialist and capitalist ideology, and used the photographs as weapons against the ideology itself. Her work influenced countless artists and activists who followed in her footsteps, fighting for legislation against lynching and for equal human rights. Contemporary artists and activists, black and white, gay and straight, male and female, continue to refer back to the history and imagery of lynching in their struggles against oppression, violence, and racial stereotyping.
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