Cameras Can be a Tool for Social Change

Black agency Communication Social Change Wade's World

            New Orleans      Phil Allen, Jr. is younger than I am, but he was quick to agree with me when we were talking about Darnella Frazier and her fast phone fingers in Minneapolis.  She’s the young woman, now widely recognized, including with a Pulitzer Prize, who had the presence of mind and the dexterity to point her phone in the direction of George Floyd and the Minneapolis police for nine excruciating minutes to capture his gasping death at their hands.  I marveled at what I can guarantee would have been my fumbling to find my phone, then manage the video button, and somehow hold it to catch the scene.  That kind of quick draw and steady fire with a phone camera is not in my repertoire.  Phil wasn’t sure it was in his too, and underlined the point that without a young Gen Z woman for whom a phone, and especially its camera is like another extension of her fingers, this could have been missed entirely.

Phil is a student of the impact that cameras, still and video, can have on change.  We were talking about his new book, The Prophetic Lens:  The Camera and Black Moral Agency from MLK to Darnella Frazier, on Wade’s World.  Phil’s overarching theme is that over the last fifty years, the camera has been able to capture a truth that brings many events, previously hidden or invisible to only its immediate witnesses and participants, to light.

The examples he offers are numerous and well-know.  He asks if the opposition to pure racism would have been so final and profound if Emmett Till’s mother had not insisted that her young son’s brutalized body be displayed in an open casket where a camera could record the crime?  He, and we all, know the answer.  There’s even a movie out now on this issue, proving its ongoing impact.  The photo is so horrific and emblematic of unconscionable hate in the Mississippi Delta that it has urgency and power still, more than 50 year later.

The same impact was inescapable in documenting the civil rights movement and the violent opposition to nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Selma, and so many other cities where not only photographs, but then television cameras were able to bring the violence as well as the hope, inspiration, and raw courage into the homes of tens of millions of Americans, making it impossible to ignore the struggle to enact the fundamental right to vote.  There’s no question that the strategy and tactics of not only the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but SNCC, CORE, and others relied heavily on drawing the camera into the movement to make change, or that the pressure it created was fundamental in moving the White House and Congress finally to act.

Phil argues, correctly, that the camera creates Black agency because as a prophetic tool it refuses to abet the invisibility that the dominant society might want to maintain.  We talk about radio as the “voice of the people,” but it’s important to remember how the camera can be the “eyes of the people” providing both safety and potentially hope.