'Through a Lens Darkly' documents the immense power that images have in the African-American community

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

After the shooting of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, news media briefly circulated a photo of the 18-year-old flashing a “gang sign,” transforming him into a menace to society. Twitter users, many of them also young, black males, responded by posting side-by-side photos of themselves — one “flattering,” one “thuggish” — with the ironic hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, questioning which portrayal would be used by news media if they happened to be shot. It was a reminder of the importance that images play in shaping perceptions of the African-American community, for better and for worse.

That dichotomy is at the heart of Thomas Allen Harris’ 2014 documentary “Through a Lens Darkly,” a wide-ranging and deeply personal account of the neglected history of black photography. Speaking at the film’s Japan premiere at Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University on June 23, Harris described “a war of images within the American family album.”

The documentary juxtaposes photographs of slavery, lynchings and blackface minstrels with pictures that serve as visual antidotes, from mid-19th century images of prosperous, free African-Americans, to intimate shots taken from the director’s family albums.”

More than 50 photographers, artists and historians were interviewed for the 90-minute film, leaving Harris with enough material for an entire TV series. Yet he recalled some of his funders worrying that there wouldn’t be enough to fill even half an hour: “They said, ‘We don’t know any black photographers.'” Well, exactly.

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