The Power of the Camera in Recording and Shaping Social Movements

PBS NewsHour aired this 7-minute Race Matters segment on the camera’s role over the past decades in not only documenting social movements but also shaping and shifting public perception. (Warning: This video contains violent and disturbing images.)

“I see the camera as a visual diary,” NYU photography historian and curator Deborah Willis tells PBS reporter Jeffrey Brown. “It is recording the voices and the images of people who want to make a change. How do we make a change? We have to show the evidence of what’s going on in the community.

“Evidence through different kinds of images, those of lynchings used by whites to further terrify the black community, and the brutally beaten body of 14-year-old Emmett Till in his casket in 1955, photos his mother insisted the world should see.”

Till was brutally lynched after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store, and photos of Till’s body sparked an intense public reaction. 65 years later, images of George Floyd’s killing at the knee of a Minneapolis policeman (after allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill) led to public outrage and worldwide protests over police brutality and systemic racism against black people.

Gordon Parks said he used the camera as a weapon to show the stories of injustices,” Willis says. “I see that photographers today are doing the same, that they’re using their lenses to capture moments, to say, we need to make a change, we need to make a difference, because we can’t live like this anymore.”

And with how ubiquitous smartphone cameras have become, the power of cameras for social movements has become democratized — the George Floyd images that changed the world were shot on an iPhone.

Black photographers are on the front lines documenting and sharing the story as it’s being written. One of them is 32-year-old photographer Mark Clennon, on Instagram as @mark.c.

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I spoke to @time about this moment. The NYPD violently arrested my friends @ria.foye and @mr_lubin in Times Square on May 30th. They were peacefully protesting and never posed a threat to any officer in any way. The only reason they were detained was because the NYPD decided to escalate to violence in that moment. I saw them from across the street. I blindly ran over and entered the scuffle. I was pushed, and I pushed back. They yelled, and I yelled back. As an artist, I never expected to have my own hand in the frame of my images, but instinctively, I never took my finger off the shutter. I can still hear these photos. Ria and Chris were detained for hours with no food, water, or phone calls. The next day, they marched again. #shotbymarkc

A post shared by mark clennon. (@mark.c) on

“I just want to make sure that we have a first-person account,” Clennon tells NewsHour. “I want to make sure that the black voice is not left out of this conversation, especially since we are the center of this conversation. We black Americans are taking ownership of our stories, right?

“We can now educate our peers and educate ourselves as a community. And that is unique. That is the number one differentiator between now and the original civil rights movement, is our ability to tell our stories.”