Nashville, Tenn. (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.

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.

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 activists close to Withers, including Rosetta Miller-Perry who, upon discovering his work with the FBI, questions Withers’ intentions.

Click to view the full film: The Picture Taker | Ernest Withers, Civil Rights Photographer, FBI Informant (

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.

“The Picture Taker” made its broadcast debut on INDEPENDENT LENS on
January 30, 2023, at 10:00 p.m. ET (check local listings). The full version of the film is also available on PBS online and on the PBS app.

The Picture Taker | Ernest Withers, Civil Rights Photographer, FBI Informant (