Through the Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People

The documentary explore the role of photography in shaping the identity, aspirations, and social emergence of African Americans from slavery to the present, Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People probes the recesses of American history through images that have been suppressed, forgotten, and lost. Bringing to light the hidden and unknown photos shot by both professional and vernacular African American photographers, the film opens a window into the lives of black families, whose experiences and perspectives are often missing from the traditional historical canon. African Americans historically embraced the medium as a way to subvert popular stereotypes as far back as the Civil War era, with Frederick Douglass photographed in a suit and black soldiers posing proudly in their uniforms. The documentary also shows images of whites in blackface enacting stereotypes associated with the ‘Negro in America’. Considering that most blacks in the late 19th and early 20th century were rarely subjects of a photographer’s gaze, blackface images had an opportunity to dominate the pictorial history of African Americans. By authoring images on themselves, African Americans were able to claim ownership of their own history and subvert the dominant racist narrative of the time. These images show a much more complex and nuanced view of American culture and its founding ideals.

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