What do you see in a photo?
An image is more than a picture of a moment in time. Images tell stories, but the question we must ask is whose story is being told? The truth behind a picture is more fluid than one can grasp at a glance.
To examine these narratives in photography, Documentary Arts will be launched its online interactive website, “Truth in Photography,” Feb. 19 at truthinphotography.org.
The website features a wide array of subjects throughout various eras and expertise with the goal of providing diverse perspectives.
“Photography is inherently subjective, it’s factual and whether or not it’s truth remains a question,” curator Alan Govenar said, adding that Truth in Photography is ultimately more of a question than an answer.
“One has to consider the context in which the photograph was made and the intent of the photographer and the publisher,” he commented. “Civic leaders in photos strive to affirm that they are taking a stand against injustice. Someone on some alt-right site using a photo taken out of context might communicate hatred.”
Truth in Photography features the Four Corners Project, developed by Fred Ritchin, that’s “meant to increase the authorship and authority of the photographer and the photograph itself by providing a fixed template to add context to each of the four corners of the image online,” the website states. By using this interactive feature viewers can get a fuller context of what’s presented.
The winter edition of Truth in Photography features 16 photo essays by professional as well as community photographers, depicting subjects such as the migrant crisis at the U.S./Mexico border to Moscow residents embracing tradition in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re looking at people who are trying to maintain the vestiges of community life,” Govenar said of Nanna Heitmann’s COVID-19 Moscow series. “It’s an expression of unity in dire circumstances and the triumph of the human spirit and endurance. In some sense it’s haunting and in another it’s hopeful.”
The same could be said of many of the collections featured on the website, but it’s particularly resonant within the African American Community Photographer series. Perspectives of the African American community throughout the centuries draw on culture and innovation, featuring work from the Texas African American Photography Archive, founded by Govenar and Kaleta Doolin. From the crayon portraiture of the 1800s by D. A. Woodward to the work of Alonzo Jordan and Eugene Roquemore, visitors are introduced to a perspective of history that would have gone ignored.
That’s something the curators are seeking to avoid by engaging others and bringing them together in dialogue both visually and orally, Govenar said.
Going forward he remarked the website will evolve in many different directions, from content to curators and contributors such as Sandrine Colard featuring the work of photographers from the Congo. The site will be updated quarterly and each edition archived. There will be an ongoing presence of African American photographers in the website’s future photo essays, Govenar said, with one being a series of African American daguerreotypes made featuring white Americans.
Daguerreotypes of Black Americans made during slavery often treated the subjects as cultural specimens, he added, and ownership over these images has been the locus of controversy.
Another point to consider is the importance of photography, particularly during the years of segregation, Govenar stated. African American photographers chronicled “the importance of social groups such as the NAACP and other organizations that were committed to advancing the rights of the communities where the people in these photographs lived and worked,” Govenar said.
Alonzo Jordan had photographed the high school picture of James Byrd, Jr., a Black man lynched in 1998 by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas. His death led the state to pass a hate crime law as well as another at the federal level–The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act– a decade afterward, expanding a 1969 hate crimes law to include gender, sexual orientation, and disability, among others.
Jordan’s photographs of Byrd at an important moment in his life is an example of the role community photographers play in the legacy of their subject. In response to society’s willful ignorance of the normalcy of African American life, bodies of the Black press depended on these photographers and published photos centered around the celebration of life rather than the sensationalist images of violence and Black pain during segregation. Images of African American parades, beauty pageants and coronations such as those by Elnora Frazier were an affirmation of life within these communities and provided a positive value to them, Govenar said. “One story that was echoed by many of the photographers I interviewed was that the African Americans they focused on rarely saw a positive photo of themselves above the fold in newspapers,” he stated. “These photographs of community life visualize the forces that bind people together … It was a way of saying, ‘Look, we have human dignity, too.”
To share your truth, visit truthinphotography.org and connect with community and professional photographers alike.
Truth in Photography is produced by Documentary Arts in collaboration with Magnum Photos, Aperture Foundation, and International Center of Photography.