Documentary Explores Civil Rights Photographer Who Was on FBI Payroll
A new documentary explores the life and works of Ernest Withers, an iconic civil rights photographer who was revealed to be an FBI informant after he died.
The Picture Taker, directed by Phil Bertelsen, will explore Withers’ complicated legacy and ask whether the photographer was a friend of the civil rights movement; or an enemy.
Withers traveled with Marin Luther King Jr. extensively, capturing the moment he rode the first desegregated bus. He was also the only photographer who fully covered the Emmett Till trial, even sneaking a camera into the courtroom. The case brought violence against Black people in the southern states to national attention.
Withers was a stalwart of the civil rights movement and was entrusted to record its history. He was present on the night King was assassinated.
A Memphis newspaper unearthed FBI files documenting his role as an informant. They revealed Withers had been playing his double role since at least 1968, meeting with agents and providing them with information ranging from insider details on upcoming protests to the license plate numbers of the movement’s leaders.
The reporters were unable to find out how much Withers was paid to spy on his colleagues, or how and why the FBI was able to recruit him in the first place. The amount of money he was paid by the government is also unknown, although there has been speculation that he only agreed to inform in order to help provide for his eight children.
According to the New York Times, The Picture Taker presents several perspectives on Withers’s link to the FBI and noticeably does not come down on a particular side.
The Times says the film makes great use of Wither’s incredible archive which “gives the documentary a visual language that coheres from start to finish.”
“The Picture Taker artfully plays with rendering the photographic image for the screen. It graphically alters Withers’s likeness, transforming pictures of him into telling animations and cutouts that pull him out of the background in which he so often dwelled and into the foreground,” writes Beandrea July.
“Ultimately, the film immerses viewers in Withers’s considerable storytelling abilities as an image-maker at the same time that it examines his motives for taking those very pictures — that tension is what makes for an engrossing watch.”
The Picture Taker is in theaters now.