Podcast

Matrix Podcast: Interview with Leigh Raiford

Leigh Raiford

 

In this episode, Michael Watts interviews Leigh Raiford, Associate Professor of African American Studies at UC Berkeley and author of Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle, finalist for the 2011 Berkshire Conference of Women Historians First Book Prize. In her book, Raiford argues that over the past one hundred years, activists in the black freedom struggle have used photographic imagery both to gain political recognition and to develop a different visual vocabulary about black lives. Offering readings of the use of photography in the anti-lynching movement, the civil rights movement, and the black power movement, Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare focuses on key transformations in technology, society, and politics to understand the evolution of photography’s deployment in capturing white oppression, black resistance, and African American life.

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Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California Berkeley. Your host is Professor Michael Watts.

Michael Watts: Hello and welcome to Matrix Podcast. This is our opportunity to showcase some of the Social Science Research that’s being conducted on the Berkeley campus. And today, I’m delighted to have with us Professor Leigh Raiford. Leigh is a professor in the African-American Studies department. She’s been on campus since about 2004, has affiliate positions in the program in American Studies and Department of Gender and Women’s Studies.

And she teaches, writes researches about questions of race, gender, social movement, political activism, and particularly with respect to visual culture or the image world, and especially photography, which we’ll be talking about, I hope today. Leigh completed her, I think, as I recall, her high school education in Manhattan and went off– am I right? And went off to Wes–

Leigh Raiford: Oh, we’re going right back. OK.

Watts: Yeah, way back. Then to Wesleyan and then to complete her PhD at Yale. Although, I also recall, Leigh, that in the ’90s, you spent some time at Berkeley.

Raiford: I did.

Watts: In the midst of your Yale graduate work.

Raiford: I did. I was an exchange– what do they call it? An exchange scholar. And I spent a semester in the Department of Ethnic Studies right before the African-American Studies department started. We’re still in Dwinelle and/or I guess in Newly and Barrows. And I took classes with Norma Alarcon, and Waldo Martin, and Angela Davis.

Watts: Fantastic, fantastic. And I also recall that you got into trouble with your involvement in the anti-prison movement, hip-hop, spoken word, that sort of thing-

Raiford: Where’d you hear that?

Watts: –when you were here.

Raiford: I did.

Watts: Anyway, it’s fantastic to have you, Leigh. I should probably say that Leigh’s, work, her first book, Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare— it’s entitled– Photography in the African-American Freedom Struggle. We’ll be talking about today, a fantastic piece of work, looking at the relationship between the photographic archive and Black liberation movements, but also Leigh has written about a number of Black artists and has curated, served as a curator in various ways around African-American art. So it’s a real treat, Leigh, to see you even if it’s virtually and to have you along with us.

Raiford: Thank you so much, Michael.

Watts: So I want to start not explicitly on your work, but something that I think will lead into it. And that is that, of course, I don’t need to tell you of all people that Black Lives Matter has released this enormous political energy not only in this country, but globally. And that’s shown up in various fora in exposing institutional racism in universities, schools, corporations, but also in a world that you’re quite familiar with, namely, the museum world.

And in the last year, we’ve seen heads roll, let’s put it that way, a senior curators at Guggenheim, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art. And in fact, you were interviewed and quoted in the New York Times around this issue. I wonder if we could start there for a moment. And how do you see and what’s the significance of this intersection of, if you like, Black Lives Matter movements and the museum world?

Raiford: Sure, yeah. I mean, it’s such a powerful conjuncture thinking about how in June the protests around the murder of George Floyd and the kind of resurgence of the movement for Black Lives, as I think now, what we’re understanding, is the largest social movement of our current moment. Also– and I’m still trying to find exactly the right verb that we can understand also the movement around public art, around All Monuments Must Fall, around decolonizing museums that are all converging in this moment.

It’s not that sort of one leads to another per se, but that there is a kind of I think– really, what this moment tells us is that all of the kind of structures– structures and legacies, the afterlives of slavery and colonialism manifesting in both the coercive force of the police and the state and the consent building forms of art, museum, culture, and our public spaces are really up for– they’re on the chopping block, right? And so I think this is the ways in which we kind of– for a long time, I think people have really understood the art world and activist worlds as distinct, as fundamentally distinct.

And this kind of– I can’t tell you how many panels I get invited to be on arts and activism as if they are these two magical things that we don’t know how to put together. They’re fundamentally intertwined. And I think at least what Black Lives Matter in this past summer gave language to the museum world to articulate or to expose the racism, the structures of colonialism that have long been embedded in the museum that people have been fighting against for a long time, but that there was a language and an energy that enabled people to broader world to really hear it and really understand what was happening.

I mean, obviously, the museum– I like to say that the museum is the last bastion of deeply entrenched liberal white supremacy. That it’s kind of veneer of we’re just here to create conversations and hiding behind art to a certain extent, really masks the histories of theft, of appropriation, of exclusion that have buoyed the museum world for so long since the 1700s. So I think this is a really– it is really exciting. And it makes a lot of sense to me that the fight to defund the police is also a fight to decolonize museums.

Absolutely. And that presumably extends way beyond the purported power of the curators, whether they’re white, Black, whatever they may be, to, as you’re obviously invoking, questions of the historical legacies of colonial theft of artworks that can and should be returned, et cetera, and what types of art presumably ends up in the collections, the types of purchases that are made. So it’s a deep and structural and multifaceted set of questions that get thrown up.

And I would add to that. I mean, I would add to the types of stories that art tells through the work of the curators, the type of work that gets collected, as you mentioned. But also the makeup of the boards, board of directors, and the kinds of institutional funding and power and the financial profile of these institutions as a kind of handmaiden of capitalism, I think is also–

I mean, thinking about what happened at The Whitney Biennial a couple of years ago in which a number of artists started to pull out of the Biennial in protest of Warren Kanders and Safariland, and how the money that he made building tear gas canisters being circulated, being utilized by police states from Ferguson to Palestine is underscoring the Whitney Museum. It’s bankrolling the Whitney Museum. So these kinds of institutional entanglements, I think, there’s– the art world can be is really sexy, and pretty, and glamorous, but it also really hides really a lot of nastiness.

Absolutely. Well, as someone who studies the oil and gas industry, you take a look at the relationship between the Tate in London and big oil and one could multiply that, those types of connections. That’s terrific. Let me segue from that into the world of photographs in particular. And before we get into your work and your analysis of photographs, can I just ask a personal question about how did you end up gravitating toward photographs? Did your father give you a Kodak camera when you were young, or what’s the trajectory by which these loomed so centrally in your work and in your life?

I mean, I think fundamentally, I– well, a couple of things. I think one, I’m just a kid who watched a lot of TV. Growing up, I grew up– I was born in 1972 and spent a lot of time watching television in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, all of my life, basically. And so I’ve always thought a lot about images about visual culture broadly in popular cultural forms.

And one of the questions that actually drove my first book was being born when I was recognizing that I was born at the end of the Civil Rights and Black Power eras, but I also understood that all of my life choices or opportunities had been made possible by those movements. And so I was really trying to think about how did I come to– how did I actually come to understand or know the histories of those movements. And I realized it was through images.

It was through McDonald’s commercials of Martin Luther King giving the “I Have a Dream” speech for Black History Month. And so really, for me, photography opened up a way to just to think about how– I mean, just sort of go back to Stuart Hall and think about how we are produced, how I am produced through culture.

But I think also growing up in New York City, I spent a lot of time in museums. I used to go to run away to the museum a lot. And so I really– as much as I have a pretty trenchant critique of museums as institutions, I also have a deep love for museums as public spaces, as the place where we get to access art, beauty, and think differently. And so I actually did want to be an art historian. And I took AP Art History in high school.

I wanted to be in the museum world. But certainly, I would say like 20, 30 years ago, there really weren’t as many opportunities for young Black women to really find their way into the museum world. So if you weren’t just going to focus strictly on art, art outside of politics, art outside of a very specialized history, art historical framing. So I think a lot of also what I bring to– what brought me to photography and what I bring to photography is a kind of deep love of close looking, and being in the museum, and being kind of quiet with images that I didn’t get to explore otherwise.

Well, that’s a wonderful segue into what I thought we would do next, which is that before we get again into your book, I’d love to give you the opportunity to talk a little bit about how you approach photographs and that close looking and that close reading that you just invoked. And I thought the way to do that, particularly for our audience, might be to bring up a couple of images and about a photographer who I think we both love, Dawoud Bey, and just have you talk a little bit, and to give a bit of a flavor about how you approach a reading and interpretation of these images.

OK, so Dawoud Bey, I thought we would focus on Dawoud Bey because perhaps some of our listeners may have seen his show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art before it was closed because of COVID. And I know he’s someone who you’ve written about extensively. And I thought I’d show a couple of images that you could talk about from his most recent work. He’s, I guess, it’s fair to say– correct me if I’m wrong– his work on Harlem and his Birmingham Project were deeply concerned with portraits among other things, but this work is quite different. And let me just show them a couple of these images from Night Becoming Tenderly, Black.

Night Coming Tenderly, Black, yes.

So I’m just going to show a couple of images and talk to them in whatever way you wish.

Sure, well, I mean– so one of my training is sort of as a historian, as a cultural historian so I feel the need to set a little context for Dawoud’s work, right? So Dawoud really began making photographs in the 1970s. His first show at the Studio Museum in Harlem was called Harlem USA. And it was a series of street portraits, black and white street portraits that he made of Harlem residents. And like you said, portraiture has really been the kind of dominant mode, dominant genre of his work.

And it’s a really– for him, it’s really about a kind of collaboration about really spending time, and time, long or short, but really, kind of paying attention and listening to his sitters. And certainly, for African-Americans who have largely historically been excluded from the genre of portraiture, Bey’s work, with their kind of real technical crispness and a very loving eye, really just made a space for Black portraiture. And I mean, one of the things that you can’t– in some of his images, the images are so crisp that you can see the reflection of Bey as a photographer in the sitter’s eyes, right?

Right.

And also a lot of attention to children, et cetera. And so over the course of his career, he’s made a number of different portraits, street portraits, school portraits. And then in the last few years, his work has kind of shifted in a couple of ways. He returned to Harlem in the early 2010s and worked on a series to visualize what was happening in terms of gentrification in Harlem. And so, how do you photograph a place? How do you photograph a kind of economic process, right? And how do you make sense of a place in which Black and brown people are, who culturally made this space, are being pushed out?

And so those photographs called Harlem Redux start moving away from portraiture and more into a kind of landscape, street landscapes. And that starts to create a language, I think, a visual language for Bey to move to what we’re looking at now, Night Coming Tenderly, Black. This series in which Bey visits sites on potentially that were part of the Underground Railroad and tries to visualize the experience of the enslaved escaping what they might see, how they might kind of render– experience the darkness.

And I should also add that this series coming between Harlem Redux or around the time of Harlem Redux, also before Night Coming Tenderly, Black, is based Birmingham series, which you also mentioned, which returns to Birmingham, Alabama to photograph the kind of afterlives of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, right? So that series for Bey’s also deeply thinking about history how we access history and how history holds meaning and affects us in the present.

And so these works, the Night Coming Tenderly, Black, which takes its– the series takes its name from a Langston Hughes poem. “Night coming tenderly Black like me,” is not trying to engage a historical verisimilitude, right? It’s not saying like I’m– he’s not documenting these sites of the Underground Railroad. But again, to get at a kind of affective experience of escape, and also to really pushing the kind of, for me, what was fascinating and the boundaries of the– I think what I try and call– I call it the teleology of representational progress, right?

That the idea that what– the ideal form of representation is to be seen and to be fully legible to be kind of in the light as it were. And these works are dark. What’s amazing about looking at this on the screen is that it’s actually very legible. But when you see them in person, they’re very, very dark. And you kind of have to shift your body to be able to actually figure out what you’re looking at.

And there’s something also really– I think it’s a really powerful lesson in also the ways that we think about how knowledge is produced through visibility, what we actually– that we have to see in order to know. And I think these works really encourage us to think about what knowledge is produced from darkness and from not seeing, which is also a really powerful metaphor for how we think about Blackness as both a color and as a racial formation.

Right. I mean on a technical level, the dark tones that you refer to give these images a type of almost a haunted and a type of dreamlike– and actually also, again, you’re right. In the museum, they’re darker still, and they’re quite intimidating too, and in their own way, rather terrifying. So in that technical register, they’re also doing, I would guess, a lot of work in relationship to the reference to the Underground Railroad in Cleveland where he was working, et cetera, et cetera.

Yeah, I mean I think for me, what was interesting writing about this, and I write about this image, which is Untitled #17 (Forest). And I think intimidating is one word. I think it was the level of uncertainty and what it means. And part of what I have always loved about photography or what I imagined I loved about photography was a kind of certainty. And even going back to– I always loved the Flemish paintings, the Flemish masters, the still lives of food, and cheese, and chalices.

And I realized actually what I loved about them is their photographic quality, like the way those images catch the light, and they reflect and refract it, and the kind of precision of the rendering, right? And I think what– so writing about this in May and June at the beginning of the protests, we’d been sheltered in place for so long, for months, and then the protests erupt.

And it forced me to think about what it means to trying to travel, trying to find a way towards what you hope will be something better, but not actually knowing what that path is, if it’s safe. Will we be caught and be turned back? But also trying to have a certain amount of faith in the need to move forward. And that is– Fred Moten sort of says, the slave doesn’t know that they’re as free so much as when they’re running, right? And so trying to take this image as a kind of invitation to, I guess in a sense, just to keep moving.

Exactly, exactly. Well, let me segue again from your observation about Bey’s efforts in his revisited Harlem work where you say he was trying to– how do you photograph a process, an economic process, and use that as an entree into your own book where you are there, in a sense, exploring the question of how do you understand through photographs, the history of Black liberation. An incomplete project moreover, you point out.

So I’m wondering, how did you approach that? In your book, which has a spectacular title, Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare, how did you approach this bringing together an archive, a historical archive, about Black liberation, Black struggle, Black playing, Black suffering? How did you bring that together, that archive, with the actual history in a way that in a sense isn’t cliched?

Because we’ll see in a second some photographs that we would all immediately recognize from the Civil Rights Movement or from the period of the Black Panthers or the anti-lynching movement, all of which, those three things are central in your book. So my first question would be, how did you think about the challenge of how to photograph Black struggles, and maybe, what the archive for such a project would be?

Right, no. Yeah, that’s a great question. Well, I will say, one of the values or the benefits of being an interdisciplinary scholar is that sometimes I feel like I get to inhabit other fields. And so I really approached– and as a graduate student, I approached this project as an historian and trying to think both synchronically and diachronically, right?

And so thinking about why, on a really basic level, not taking for granted that social movement organizers would use photography. And sort of beginning with photography as a social movement choice rather than as a given kind of opened up a lot of– opened up a lot. And so to think then, especially in the anti-lynching era, why these absolutely charged really difficult images would be taken up by Ida B. Wells or W.E.B. Du Bois, and again, not take it for granted.

And so by approaching that, it became thinking about photography as a set of choices, and a set of opportunities, and also a set of challenges, and a visual terrain that has to be navigated. And then thinking also about the photograph– and of course, the photograph itself presents this kind of unique challenge because on one hand, we do look back, and they become documents of history, and they help construct this kind of, as you said, foregone conclusion that’s already twice told tale, right?

But thinking about really every photograph as a choice, every photograph as a kind of construction. Not that– icons are made. Iconic images are made. They’re not born, right? So what is it then that sort of attaches? What kinds of politics, what kinds of feelings, what kinds of histories can then connect to a particular photograph that then gives it a kind of power and movement?

So I spent a lot of time– well, there were a few things I had to work out. First of all, I had to work out the relationship of photography to history, which is complicated, right? And I think one of the questions you had asked me to think about was how social scientists use photographs. And so the first place, I was thinking, well, how do historians use photographs?

And largely, what I think is that historians to use photographs as illustrations to underscore a point that’s already made rather than thinking about how a photograph helps construct that point in the first place. It helps make that argument. And that becomes, I think, very clear the work of photography in making meaning rather than conveying meaning or making ideology becomes very clear when we’re thinking about race and we’re thinking about Blackness, Black people in particular.

So in my research, I did definitely start with the most iconic images, but then took those as a single history, as a single path that was chosen when every photograph suggests another path, right? It suggests another opportunity, another narrative possibly. So I spent time not just obviously with the most well-known photographs, but I spent time looking at contact sheets, looking in our archives to see what were the images– what on that contact sheet got chosen to be the poster or to be the circulated image, and what is just left of the archive, thinking about other people’s personal photo collections, trying to do–

I did a lot of interviews with social movement photographers with SNCC and Panther, Black Panther Party photographers, which was fascinating because when I was doing these interviews, no one had really asked them about their practice of photography. So they really would often talk about the movement’s goals and et cetera, but I was really interested in well, what kind of cameras did you use? And where did you develop? And what did it mean to– did you ever want to throw your camera down and get into the mix, right?

Actually, I’m going to– this photograph behind me is an image from a photographer named Matt Herron who just passed away a few months ago, a resident of San Rafael. But Matt was an independent photographer who worked with SNCC and trained a number of SNCC photographers, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee photographers, built the darkroom, and helped build the darkroom darkrooms in Atlanta and New Orleans.

So in our conversations, he talked about the different roles that photographers played in social movements, sort of as photojournalists, as movement photographers, as social documentarians. And that also was really important to recognize not just the photograph then as a series of choices, but the photographer themselves not as a kind of innocent eye witnessing history, but also kind of engage, sort of mediating their relationship to the world through the camera.

Can I just extend that a little bit by saying if the movements actually had their own, if you like, photographic departments, what about earlier characters? You mentioned Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, Reverend King. As activists, what were their views of the photograph, of the photographic archive?

I mean, so what’s exciting is that we now understand, know that Frederick Douglass was the most photographed man of the– person of the 19th century. He wrote extensively about photography. One of the– so the first time actually that I wrote about Dawoud Bey was at the invitation of Sarah Lewis who edited the Aperture Special Edition, Vision and Justice, which sort of takes Frederick Douglass’s notion that photography is necessary to a functioning democracy at its core.

So Frederick Douglass had a very deep, intimate relationship to photography, really believed in its power, really understood that representation is not just about our– is, at once, a political and a cultural concept. So photography was central for him. And the same for Ida B. Wells in that as a journalist– well, as a journalist, her pamphlets, her anti-lynching pamphlets, really drew on every form of data, of evidence that she could marshal, right? So charts, graphs, newspaper articles, interviews, and images, and photographs. Du Bois as well, the 1900 Paris Exposition, the display that he put together.

So the beautiful book that has come out recently on his data visualization charts on Negro life are absolutely stunning. Part of that, another part of that exhibition was a series of photographs that he commissioned from Black Georgia photographer named Thomas Askew of what he called Negro types. But they were also these kinds of– they were really portraits of African-Americans in Georgia at the turn of the century. So as a journalist, a social scientist, an abolitionist, all key figures in the long Black freedom struggle all understood the power of photography, both personally and professionally.

But in a way, if I hear you correctly, a part of that turns on almost a type of enlightenment view of the photograph. It’s a source of authority. It actually documents. This is a truth. Whereas you’ve already in our conversation on a number of times shown that you have to be very careful with that idea. And in your book, I think you have a lovely quote from John Berger who says something like a photograph is an interruption without a context or something of that sort.

Right, right, right.

I love a quote by Diane Arbus. She says “a photograph is a secret about a secret.”

It’s a secret about a secret.

But apropos, what your discussion of Reverend King and Du Bois, they were making use of a certain standing that the photograph had in this type of this is how it was is.

Right. And I think that’s absolutely right that the sense of seeing is knowing. We need to be visible. We need to assert ourselves. The photograph is a kind of unmediated certain kind of evidence that it provides. But that said, I think they were also all aware that in a sense, Blackness was an interruption, right? Blackness– race is a way of seeing that actually– and Fanon describes this so powerfully in “The Fact of Blackness” chapter of Black Skin, White Masks in which he really describes the– it’s just like that his presence as a Black man, he can’t be– his meaning is already made before he kind of enters the space.

And so any idea that– anything that– there’s no presentness in the way that we understand him. So even Ida B. Wells used a photograph in part because– but she still had to provide context for it. Du Bois also, he used these photographs not just sort of to– I think what was really fascinating about it is that he called them Negro types and some of the photographs actually adhere to a kind of phenotypic profile frontal view set of images or genre, which is very scientific.

And we see this in the J.T. Zealy Agassiz daguerreotypes of Renty and Delia, et cetera, as a kind of like the visualization of racial science. But even as he used the frontal and side portrait, they’re also framed in a kind of oval frame. The sitters are highly very well dressed and very well quaffed, so necessarily having to disrupt the genres in which photographic meaning is made.

So I think there’s– so yes, there’s a kind of appeal to an enlightenment knowledge around or investment in truth and visuality while also recognizing its limitations. But I think also, the other thing I will say is that my work now has been I guess more interested turning– or not– it’s turning towards thinking about of quieter images that people make and thinking about also the longer practice of photography.

So how many photographs did studio portraits, did Ida B. Wells or Frederick Douglass sit for that they rejected because they were not the ones they liked? And we think about the pictures we take of ourselves and what we choose to show and what we don’t. And I think there’s something also about the camera as a way of knowing oneself, right? And that practice of imaging is a kind of mediation between oneself and the world that is, in some ways, a recognition that– is a very clear recognition that we may be striving towards a truth, but we also are– we actively have to craft it.

Let me bring up, if I can, Leigh, a couple of images that our audience will assuredly recognize. And I want to ask you a couple of questions about them, if I can. OK. So here are some that will be– I think most of these were published in Life. And they were, as you point out in your book, explicitly used by the movement in various types of ways. These are instantly recognizable. They’re iconic. They’re enormously powerful.

But you have a sentence in your book that I want to read to you. And I wonder if you could just walk us through it. You say, exactly, these are enormously powerful. They were explicitly deployed for political purposes, et cetera. But you say, images of pain and suffering can– be careful of them, you say, as I understand it, because they are part of the necessary performance of appealing to liberal humanism. I wondered if you could just unpack that for us and to flag what is it in spite of the fact that these images do do that authority documenting work and enormously powerful, what were you what were you trying to convey there?

Yeah. And this is where I start. I start the book with these images because they are exactly the kinds of photographs that were entered into congressional record, that were published around the world, and that built a kind of moral authority for the Civil Rights movement And they are also an invitation to the sense of rescue, of Black folks needing to be rescued and saved from this violence, this kind of they’ve done nothing wrong, the performance of an innocent victim that deserves the protection of the state and its citizens.

And I think that has become a really– well, I shouldn’t say become because these images fit into a long line of the ways that African-American Civil Rights or abolition have been visualized, right? If we go back to, “am I not a slave and a brother,” the kneeling slave figure, or the photograph of Gordon, the whip scarred man, all we see is his back with the wounds of slavery literally etched on his back.

And so this appeal to a kind of white empathy and the need that we are a kind of– we are all human, this standard of humanity. And I think– and part of why I used– the book is called Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare, it’s a Martin Luther King quote where he describes the importance of these images as imprisoning centuries of white terrorism against Black Southerners or African-Americans broadly in the camera’s luminous glare and it’s vigilant eye.

But it also means that these images become the kind of framework in which people can– Black folks are meant to protest or argue for rights, for the rights of citizenship, and partly, sort of going back to where this project came from, I think about being a young person participating in activist struggles in the ’90s. And so much of– we were taught, well, you want to link arms, sing “We Shall Overcome,” and this is going to be a nonviolent–

And it’s like, no, there are other modes of protest. And actually, so will you go– I think you have the next image. If you go to the next image, this is the one that actually, to me, really encapsulates the movement. It encapsulates the sense of Black Power and Black efficacy and also joy in the struggle and the kind of mitigating of the power of the police power. And it’s iconic, but it’s not the image that showed up on the cover of the New York Times.

Exactly.

Not the image. And so I think that increasingly what’s been powerful about the Black Lives Matter, the images coming out of Black Lives Matter protests, is that we get more images like this one. Because I think fundamentally, what Black Lives Matter is not necessarily an appeal to say that Black people are human too, right? Which in many ways is what the previous image argued for, right? But it opens up the space where we actually have to question what the human is and how a human has been defined, or as [INAUDIBLE] says, is overrepresented the category of the human is overrepresented by the white male figure.

Correct, yeah. I wonder if I could show you one last image, which is in a very different type of register. But in your book, I think figures in a very important way for you. And I wonder if you could give us a little reading of this particular image. This is Timothy O’Sullivan’s.

I love this book– this image. It’s actually not in my book.

OK.

I had been thinking about it in the conversation that I did with Hrag Vartanian in Hyperallergic around Juneteenth. And this is that– so this is the Timothy O’Sullivan who has photographed the Civil War and this fleeing African-Americans pause at Chalford. And I love this image because we think about photography as– well, I should say, we think of– oftentimes, we think of social movements as we look back on them as already written. We know who was on the right side of history.

But I think also what’s powerful about photographs as a record of coming out of a particular single moment is that they’re actually always asking questions of the future, right? We don’t know what’s next. We don’t know what comes. We know what’s behind, but we don’t know what’s coming next. We don’t know– there is no certainty.

As African-Americans were participating in what Du Bois called the “General Strike” where leaving, removing themselves from plantations, taking advantage of the decree that the enslaved would now become if they left their plantation, their enslavers, and found their way to Union armies. They were contraband. And so there could be something better.

But I love how– I appreciate– I shouldn’t say I love because it’s an awful image. But it is the tension between movement and stuckness of trying to make this very cumbersome wagon filled with people and personal items make it through this river stuck the blur in the image as well. That people reminds us just what photography actually– that photography, when we think of photography, it’s freezing a moment, and yet, we are constantly in movement, and we are not always captured by the image.

And I think– but what’s also cut out of this image in the way that this particular version of this image is cropped are also the Union soldiers standing on the sideline watching and doing nothing. So all of the ways in which we can think about what’s happening in the image, what’s happening, what we can’t see, what it captures, what it doesn’t, how it travels, like how it makes its way through history, how Walter Benjamin wrote how it flashes before us at different moments of crisis and danger and what it can tell us anew about our moment, these are all the things I love about photographs.

Absolutely. That’s fantastic. We are getting close to the end of our time, Leigh, but I feel sort of compelled to ask one last question, if you don’t mind. And that is, of course, we’re talking an extraordinary moment in history. We’re in a run up to an election. The importance of which is impossible to exaggerate. We’ve had a release, as you’ve said, of this fantastic political energy around Black Lives and other things, thrown into that, a pandemic, which has exposed the massive fractures in American capitalism and on and on.

From your vantage point with that attentiveness to visual culture, but deeply rooted in politics and political economy, what’s your reflection on this current moment, if you like? And what, again, from your vantage point, you would want to highlight? It could be about images and photography, et cetera, but you’ve talked a little bit about that with regard to the types of images that BLM and Black Lives Matter has been making and deploying, of course. But what’s your reflection on– it’s an enormous question. I realized it’s quite ridiculous.

Well, it’s only– it’s hard because we are so still in it. We are so in the thick of it, right? And I think maybe that’s also what I hold on to, is reflect on that we are in the thick of this movement. Well, OK, I guess we’re– a couple of things I would say. One, going back to the Dawoud Bey. I think about that there is no turning back. There’s no going back to the plantation. There’s no going back to the before, right? The only way through is through.

So in the moments of difficulty where it’s just like, this is so– especially when the fires were raging, and it was just surrounded on three sides by smoke, right? There’s no going back to the practices, the structures, the ignorance, the willful and comforting ignorance and magical thinking that I think has– I don’t know– kept us going for longer than we needed to be going. And so I think– and in some ways, photography reminds me of that too, because we may make an image now, but it’s significance, it’s going to mean something– continue to mean different things as we progress and as we move forward.

And then I think the other thing that I also hold on to, reflect on in this moment, are all the ways that current movements are. And this is always the truth about movements, right? They don’t just spring up. They emerge from their part of a longer conversation. And they emerge from earlier formations. And so thinking about that our language about abolition, for example, is 20 years old at least, thinking about the work of critical resistance, and Angela Davis and Are Prisons Obsolete?

But more than that it is almost a 100 years old, going back to Du Bois in Black Reconstruction and the need for what he called an abolition democracy that we cannot have a true democracy without abolishing all of the vestiges and institutions of slavery. And then, of course, just further back than that from the beginning of slavery in the Western, in the Americas. So part of also what I hold on to is that the work is always– people are always doing work to visualize something more.

And that there can be– our colleague Eric Stanley said this in a meeting the other day, that sort of abundance that we can imagine that’s attached in a world of a vision of abolition and of possibility. And that’s also, I think, what I would like to hold on to. And so I guess, in the sense that we don’t have to hold on to the things that don’t serve us anymore. We don’t have to be doctrinaire or precious about them.

That’s terrific. And two wonderful things to hold on to as we pass through the next few weeks in the run up to November. Thank you so much. We could go on for hours. It’s been absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much for generating some time and walking us through your views on photography and Black liberation. It’s been an absolute treat. Thank you so much.

Thank you so much, Michael, really appreciate it. Appreciate you.

Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit matrix.berkeley.edu.

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