(TN Tribune) — Born and raised in the segregated South, Ernest Withers (1922-2007) captured over six decades of African American history that witnessed the height of the Civil Rights Movement and The Cold War. The Memphis, Tennessee, native photographed legendary icons, ranging from prominent activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and
Medgar Evers to musicians like Elvis Presley, Tina Turner, and B.B. King. Despite his commitment to truth-telling through photojournalism, Withers took a closely-guarded secret to his grave: for over a decade of his professional career, he worked for the FBI.
“The Picture Taker” makes its broadcast debut on INDEPENDENT LENS on
January 30, 2023, at 10:00 p.m. ET (check local listings). The film also will be
available to stream on the PBS app.

Emmy and Peabody Award winner Phil Bertelsen (“Who Killed Malcolm X?”)
tells the alluring story of Withers’ career—from his mom-and-pop photo shop
beginnings through the shocking revelations about his FBI cooperation.
Withers learned his craft while serving in the segregated U.S. Army during
WWII. Through dogged determination, talent, and courage, he established
himself as a photojournalist with unprecedented access to the movers and
shakers of Southern culture and politics. His camera snapped nearly 2 million
images, creating a photographic treasure trove of Black history from the
everyday to the momentous. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the trial of
Emmett Till’s murderers, the desegregation of Little Rock High, the Memphis
sanitation strike, and the turbulent aftermath of Dr. King’s death were all
captured by a man whose boundless energy and work ethic put him on the
front lines of newsworthy events.

Withers’ images spread the word about civil rights and wrongs throughout the
nation, making him a hero in his hometown of Memphis. But that legacy was
shattered by a newspaper exposé published after his death, detailing years of
secret FBI service. Bertelsen gives voice to this work by interweaving archival
testimony from Withers’ FBI handler, agent William Lawrence, to whom
Withers reported and provided photographs and identification of key activists.

“The Picture Taker” includes interviews with Lawrence’s daughter as well as
activists close to Withers, including Rosetta Miller-Perry who, upon
discovering his work with the FBI, questions Withers’ intentions. Throughout
the documentary, the juxtaposition of Withers’ work—as witness,
photographer, and potential spy for the U.S. government—is explored within
the context of Withers’ coming-of-age in the Jim Crow South and the civic
upheavals which threatened that status quo.

“There is almost no one else in contemporary U.S. history who has chronicled
African American life with such depth and intimacy as Ernest Withers,” said
Bertelsen. “We set out to capture the complexity of Withers, from his
undeniable accomplishments and contributions to Black history, culture, and
journalism as a whole, to the underlying question of his work with the FBI and
how it impacts that legacy. We wanted to honor Withers’ work, his
community, and the labor of activists by using his photographs to convey the
realities of the segregated South for future generations.”

Described by The New York Times as “a compelling biography of Ernest
Withers” and “an engrossing watch,” “The Picture Taker” showcases Withers’
incredible photographic archive alongside testimonials from those closest to
him, providing an in-depth, multilayered account not only of Withers’ career,
but also of milestone moments in American history and the ongoing fight for
African American liberation.

Visit “The Picture Taker” page on INDEPENDENT LENS to learn more about the