By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences
Photography has the power to change people’s minds; it also has the ability to reinforce stereotypes.
Which image do you take away from the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis and elsewhere? Anger and flames? Or that of a high-school senior (above) at a protest in next-door St. Paul, incongruously dressed in the cap and gown for the graduation that COVID-19 canceled?
That senior, Deveonte Joseph, told CNN that he wore his graduation gown that night precisely to challenge racial stereotypes. "People look at my people like we're down, like we don't have anything. I just don't think we're respected enough.“
Writing for Nat Geo, the historian John Edwin Mason puts the Deveonte Joseph portrait—like images of unarmed protesters before heavily armed authorities or the epithet-graffitied Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond—into a transcendent category of protest photography. Of the Richmond photograph (below), Mason writes: “Its gist is that the edifice is less a memorial to Lee than a monument to white supremacy."
Mason doesn’t minimize the facts of flames and anger; he just urges the viewer not to fall into familiar fear-stoked tropes. In his work from New York, photographer Ruddy Roye seeks to convey the humanity of the people who are protesting, trying to help the viewer understand that this is part of a 400-year-old struggle to convey equal treatment for all.
The fundamental issues are the same, from a hoary tribute to the general who rebelled against America 160 years ago to the daylight suffocation of a man on a Minneapolis street last week, Mason writes: “Will the nation recognize the full humanity and citizenship of African Americans? Will the promise of democracy become real for all?”
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Your Instagram of the day
Why protest? In Brooklyn, Nicole Harney and her son, Justin, are pictured at a mural of Harriet Tubman and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, aka Malcolm X, during protests following the death of George Floyd. Nicole said she watched the video showing George Floyd under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin. She broke down when she heard Floyd call out for help: “We’ve had enough. As a mother, I was in pain when I heard George Floyd cry for his momma. I thought about my son immediately, and I knew I had to come out here in these streets,” Harney told Ruddy Roye in this Nat Geo story. “I could not stay on Twitter or any other platform. I had to come march outside.”
Related: George Floyd’s mother was not there, but he used her as a sacred invocation
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Today in a minute
The toll on photographers: The professionals documenting the protests over the past week say they’ve never encountered the type of treatment from U.S. police and other enforcement officials. Photographers were blinded, one permanently, by police projectiles aimed at them. Others were hospitalized, among the at least 148 documented assaults on or arrests of journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists has recorded more than 300 U.S. press freedom violations in the past week.
Lauded: 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, who courageously recorded the Floyd killing in a single 10-minute, 6-second take. The Hollywood publication The Wrap called her “the most influential filmmaker of the century,” not just for the video’s worldwide impact, but for her mastery of filming on an iPhone with a 2x optical zoom. “I worry that Frazier, who was the right citizen journalist at the right time, will not be recognized for her footage that showed America just how little things have changed for black citizens,” columnist Ross Johnson said. “As long as the human eye can recognize an image, Frazier’s name must not be forgotten.”
Art history: Since the Floyd killing, the Pulitzer-winning critic Sebastian Smee has dedicated his influential Instagram account to African American painters, photographers, and portrait subjects. It is a striking Intro to Art for viewers who have not moved past the white-dominated canon of American works. Included: Charles White’s Our Land, Jacob Lawrence’s The Wedding, Amy Sherald’s Grand Dame Queenie, and photographer Mariana Cook’s portrait of a young Barack and Michelle Obama.
#RIP Elsa Dorfman: The portrait photographer, who had a knack for capturing small, tell-tale human moments and projecting kindness to put her subjects at ease, had become more known beyond the art world in her later years after Errol Morris directed a documentary about her. "A Dorfman portrait may be the closest one can come to an embrace from your Nana: It’s fast and fierce and loving and uncritical, and the perfume lingers long after the moment is gone,” Boston Globe critic Ty Burr once wrote. She died Saturday at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of kidney failure.
The big takeaway
It’s personal: The Senegalese artist Omar Victor Diop makes four centuries of the global black struggle for freedom so personal that he portrays every male role in a photo series of that fight. On the left, Diop portrays hoodie-wearing Trayvon Martin, who was shot on the streets of Florida in 2012, as laying on a bed of Skittles, the candy the unarmed teenager was carrying when he was slain. On the right, a portrayal of Aline Sitoe Diatta, who led a Senegalese farmers’ revolt against the French in the 1940s. Diop depicts her death on a bed of hay, a symbol of the farmers’ rebellion.
Subscriber exclusive: These reenactments put a personal face on the history of black protest
In a few words
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The last glimpse
Early color: Photographer W. Robert Moore captured this image of cows grazing in Normandy, France. Our senior photo archivist Sara Manco says she is struck by the soft color palette of the Dufaycolor plate, “making this image look as if it were an Impressionist painting.” Nearly a century ago, National Geographic photographers used Dufaycolor and Autochrome processes in tandem to make color images for the magazine. These color glass plates, shipped all over the world, document life in the early 20th century, before the rise of the much easier-to-use Kodachrome film.
Related: These vintage Nat Geo photos are candid snapshots of the past