April 23, 2013

Stereotypes of Black Violence … and Photography Playing with Your Head: That Karales Photo at Lens Blog

Karales LensBlog Greenberg Collection 1

One thing Lens Blog and Lightbox have distinguished themselves for is unearthing historical photo archives. The latest gem at the NYT is a set of photos of Martin Luther King and his family and activity surrounding the March on Selma by photographer James Karales. Karales’ images can be unusually intimate, daring, domestic or impressionistic, often combining these qualities.

As you know, part of the wonder of experiencing historical photos — political images for me — is the way they create an immediate collision in which this stimulus from the past hits your present day frame of reference.

How did this photo play in my mind (or, with my mind) when I first saw it yesterday? (I’m also very curious how it struck you, especially if you’re seeing it for the first time above.) Given the sympathetic context of the article and Karales’ activist relationship with the movement, I was lost — lost for meaning, but more so, for context. Racism and racial stereotypes being so grounded in our culture, when I asked an astute friend (a liberal) about her first impression, her immediate take, after confusion, was: “black-on-black violence.” In my case, my mind scanning anxiously first for something less pejorative, I landed on domestic violence, underpinned probably (given the man’s face in shadow, as much as the grip) by the stereotype of the aggressive black male.

Such are photography’s psychological mechanics — in this case, deftly engineered by Mr. Karales, who I imagine, saw the magnificent set up. For myself, I couldn’t have felt more relieved, guilty, surprised and then, aware of the simmering power of those stereotypes, upon learning that this was a passive resistance training session at a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee meeting in Atlanta in 1960.

What I don’t have a sense of, though, is the effect this photo would have had on you or I at the time.

Civil Rights, One Person and One Photo at a Time (NYT Lens Blog)

(photo: James Karales, courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York caption: Passive Resistance Training, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Atlanta, 1960.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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