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These Images of the Black Experience Offer a Corrective to the Lily-White Photo World

The new issue of 'Aperture' highlights the joys, struggles, and beautiful complexities of life as a black person in America.

by Winslow Laroche
Jun 7 2016, 1:30pm

Jamel Shabazz, 'The Ranks,' Chicago, Illinois, 1997

It doesn't take a large amount of research to see the dearth of black and POC faces within the world of photo-editing. From TIME to the Fader, to Bloomberg Businessweek, National Geographic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Guardian, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Dazed and Confused, OUT, Wired, and Nylon (as well as this website), the photo editors of leading publications are predominately white and/or benefit from colorism.

Although the editors at the photography magazine Aperture would be included in the list above, their newest issue "Vision & Justice" offers a noteworthy corrective. Guest-edited by author and curator Sarah Lewis, the issue advances the idea that representation politics are a necessary stepping-stone on the road to progress. Featuring specifically curated starting points on the black experience, "Vision & Justice" charts an urgent path into racial and political territories that are often left unexplored by mainstream arts publications.

Covers of 'Aperture' "Vision & Justice" issue. Left: Awol Erizku, 'Untitled (Forces of Nature #1),' 2014. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King, and his son, Martin Luther King III, Atlanta, 1963 (The Richard Avedon Foundation)

The issue includes a wide variety of principal artists from poetry, writing, filmmaking, and music to help convey photography's role in decolonizing visual imagery and shaping the American zeitgeist toward tolerance. "Vision & Justice" is comprised of photography from true masters such as Lorna Simpson, Deborah Willis, Jamel Shabazz, Dawoud Bey, and Awol Erizku, as well as LaToya Ruby Frazier and Deana Lawson, two of the most important people making images right now. Providing a backbone to the visual are essays from greats such Margo Jefferson, Claudia Rankine, and Teju Cole. "What am I looking at and for?" asks Jefferson in her essay on Lorna Simpson's photo collages of images taken from Ebony and Jet Magazine. "What am I projecting onto what's here? What must I let go of?"

Though Jefferson's questions ring true, what I really wanted to ask is why it took the magazine so long? Has it been a fear of black voices like so many other magazines named above, which would not have run an issue like this until the idea of black liberation has been thoroughly commodified? I'm reminded of a conversation I had earlier with artist and scholar K. J., who contended, "The art world is the most transparent arena of racism and how it operates in society." Conceptions of the black experience must expand to keep blackness free from imposed limitations and caricature.

I recently had the honor of chatting with the wise Sarah Lewis about black photography today, the white gaze, and what role the institution plays in black photographers and artists' efforts to bring about change. Don't get too alarmed, we out here.

VICE: Why do you think it's taken Aperture this long to deal with an issue like this, especially when there's so many black photographers who've been making for decades now?
Sarah Lewis: I was explicit about the fact that this would not be a one-off engagement with African American photography. This would not be a singular event, and if I were to guest edit this issue, it meant a transformative change for the organization as well as a commitment to a broader sense of inclusivity that I feel has been reflected in a couple of ways.

I was very pleased they agreed to have two covers for the issue, a signal for me that this was meant to be more synoptic than any one issue. The Avedon [of Martin Luther King, Jr., with his father and son], being a nod to the historical imagery, and the Awol Erizku, being more contemporary.

Jamel Shabazz, 'Remembering Malcolm,' Harlem, New York, 2008

What was your criteria for choosing, when the pool is very vast?
This, for me, was not going to be an issue just devoted to the theme of black photography, because that's far too vague, far too vast, and far too probing for any one issue to deal with that topic alone. Instead I wanted to look at the work of photographers who have engaged with the way in which imagery offers a corrective move to the cultural narratives about African Americans in public life.

The issue is meant to be as synoptic as possible on that score, so I went to historical scholarship and imagery like that of Frederick Douglass, who really was the first to look at the corrective role of photography for American citizenship, all the way through to photographers who are engaging with this in the current day and have just left photography graduate programs, like Awol Erizku. I also wanted to deal with, as much as I could, works that weren't only in the "art world," like commercial photography, as well as works that are used on the platform of social media. That's why you see works from Annie Leibovitz or Radcliffe Roye in the issue. I really wanted to push this further to see how these works operate in the world, not just the art world. And then you're dealing with a filter that's about honoring excellence and the enduring presence of artists like Carrie Mae Weems, who offers this counter narratives, to Deborah Willis, who's been foundational for the scholarship of black photography, to Lorna Simpson.

Deb Willis, 'Untitled,' 2010

I moved out of the photography world, and I have friends who are still in it, and obviously we are really happy about this issue. But it's really hard to see the people in the first issue who are only photographers in the canon or with established social media presence, meaning they are established in the Western institutions, or they have a BFA.
Is that true though? Look at Devin Allen. What about Ken Beckles, Ruddy Roye, even writers like Carla Williams on The Black Photographers Annual?

I'm just saying I got concerns from other photographers who saw these names were chosen and reinforced this weird barrier for breaking into the scene.
I would simply point out Jamel Shabazz, who's been doing this work without the support of various institutions for decades, and Devin Allen, who undermines the point they are trying to make about it being overly institutionalized. Again, it's just meant to honor the work that's happening in the world.

Lyle Ashton Harris, 'Untitled (Face #160 Kara)' and 'Untitled (Back #160 Kara),' both from 2006

Why do you think white or colonial gaze is a topic so widely ignored within current photography? For example, when Roy DeCarva is featured in the issue. To me, he's one of the best film photographers capturing black skin. A lot of people study his work and yet these people are still using white gaze and editing black skin poorly as non-black people.
I think the premise of the question speaks to the need for people to look beyond mainstream text to find these answers. There are many scholars who are dealing with issues surrounding the "white gaze"—you can look at Kobena Mercer's work or Deborah Willis's work. The point of the issue is to make sure everyone understands there is work being done on complicating and questioning this relationship between race, gaze, and image-making. The selection of the writers was as important as the selection of the photographers for this point. For example, I hope that if people don't know one of the scholars' research, they'll actually come to know it because they were intrigued by what [the scholar] wrote about a certain photographer. This is why you have scholars from Leigh Raiford to Steven Nelson, to Cheryl Finley, to John Stauffer. All of these people have done phenomenal work on this exact question.

Have you read the interview that Ava Devernay and Bradford Young did for this issue by the way?

Yeah. I still feel like it's just not enough talk. I look at photography every day, and so many times I am like, Why was this OK'ed on so many levels? It's hard to see that a lot of black photographers talk about how white gaze is very damaging, and other-non black people continue to do it.
I think the more we can highlight works from Bradford Young, Arthur Jafa, or Haile Gerima, then we will start to complicate our notions of what a proper gaze is, or what a capacious gaze is for black subjects. That's why I wanted to highlight their work. I think at the heart of your question part of the answer has to do with one word—it's simply "power." Power is expressed often through a repeated position, and a repeated stand in order to fashion subjects out of bodies. That kind of force is why representation by image-making is so tied to the history of race. You could not create a hierarchy of races without the work done in the 19th century to create a composite of images next to one another to show superiority the way racial scientists did in the mid-century. This is why photography has served a corrective role, because it's undoing the very truths that were created through representations themselves.

Leslie Hewitt, 'Riffs on Real Time (7 of 10),' 2013

It's true. It is a really a big task for a lot of black photographers to take on especially when they have to traverse through the systems America has built.
Yeah, and they're not alone. It's not just looking for one person to do this work, and the reason why this is an issue and exhibition is because it is a battle of collective effort that has taken generations and will continue to.

What do you think about the Trojan horse method that certain black artists do by going through certain Western institutions and fighting from the inside out? Do you think that's the best strategy to travel through photography as a black artist? Do you think that method is a little assimilationist, or is it actually a direct opposition of the forces?
I sort of reject the premise of one method being best. I think we need multiple strategies, and again, the table of contents reflects the multiple approaches that photographers have used. I think they are all important. I think it's important to use the platform of social media the way Ruddy Roye has. The way Jamel Shabazz has the unlit corners of black communities as his primary studio for decades without even a care for what institution is going to honor the work is as important as Deborah Willis having done incredibly powerful work from at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, then at the Smithsonian, and then at NYU, so that she's able to expose those who might not know about black photography to its force and power. All of these strategies are done in concert with one another, so I don't think one is best.

What do you think is the best advice for a new photographer who's trying to be like all these great masters in this issue while still trying to deal with capitalism, which is anti-black?
A colleague of mine and I were on a crit panel thinking about advice for someone for their summer, and I love what he said, it's so true, it's just, "Look up and look down." That's really what I'd advise. Shoot as much as you can. Expose yourself to as much as you can. But look up for that inspiration and look down at the foundation that is paving your path. Think about all the work that has come before you and make sure you are mining it, understand it, and that you know all of the foundation on which you stand.

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The "Vision & Justice" issue of Aperture is available now. Scroll below for more photos from the issue.

Young boy standing in front of police officers at a blockade, North Avenue, West Baltimore, April 28, 2015. Photo by Devin Allen

Community cleanup, prayer circles, and protests the day after a 10 PM curfew was imposed, North Avenue and Mount Street, West Baltimore, April 28, 2015. Photo by Devin Allen

Radcliffe Roye

Radcliffe Roye

Leslie Hewitt, 'Riffs on Real Time (10 of 10),' 2013

Devin Allen

Jamel Shabazz, 'Culture and Refined,' New York, 2005