A Look at Photographers Documenting the Modern Civil Rights Movement

On a day that we remember one of the most influential spokespersons of the civil rights movement, we take a look at some the more modern-day struggles photographers are documenting.

It’s almost 51 years since the death Martin Luther King Jr. He helped shape the world and was the face of the fight that would spark change in the oppression of the black community and the on-going racial divide. Photography played its part in history, documenting the rise of one of the world’s most influential figures and the movement that came with him. Now in 2019, the fight he would no doubt be at the front of if he could is still being fought. This goes beyond black and white; this is about any social group that is facing oppression and adversity. And as the modern civil right movement is in full force, we have a generation of photographers here to capture it.

Black Lives Matter

Adam Wold is a photojournalist with an interest in modern-day social movements. During the rise of Black Lives Matter, demonstrations from the black community (and those that supported them) began to take place closer to home. Adam says, “When there came to be an active arm of Black Lives Matter in my city and I had the means to capture it, I couldn’t miss the opportunity.”

Media on both the right and left have built their own narrative around the movement; the left, supportive and empathetic to the struggle the community face; the right, focused more on the angle of “all lives matter”.

Independent photojournalists are in a position where they can offer an unbiased approach to the reality of the situation. They are able to create their own brief and run with it. When asked what he wanted his photos to show, Adam said, “My goal was to humanize the demonstrators by communicating the very real emotions that had brought them out on the streets. I would often hear opponents of BLM complain about the roads being blocked, how their commute was ruined or that an ambulance might be trying to get through. My hope was that through seeing these individuals up close they might be able to imagine the circumstances that brought them to this place and perhaps feel a bit of empathy.”

“The biggest challenge was being away from my family.”

What to Consider When Documenting a Protest

Protests are emotionally fueled environments. Because of this, even with the best intentions of those who march, it’s important that everyone does all they can to keep safe. As a photojournalist, you have to consider so many things; your angles, which frames tell the best story, and, of course, how to keep safe. For the most part, Adam’s experience has been positive. Much of the time safety is not a concern. Most of the demonstrations I’ve been to have been very peaceful,” he continues. When photographing any fast-moving event your head must always be on a swivel, finding the next photo, anticipating where the action will occur. These skills are also useful to keep yourself away from any violence, and occasionally run toward it.”

“55 years since Martin Luther King Jr shared his dream, it seems the people are just as strong and determined today as they were back then. Thankfully, photography’s role is just as strong and influential as well.”

 

Being amongst a movement gives a photographer intimate insight into the feeling and motives of the people involved. Whilst you can go in with your own opinions, you can also learn. “Covering those demonstrations gave me a firsthand account of the pain and frustration the community is experiencing. More than anything, seeing everyone express themselves at the Black Lives Matter marches gave me an increased sense of empathy for their situation.”

Standing Strong

Meanwhile, 400 miles away there was another movement fighting for their right to be heard. Standing Strong is a documentary project by Josue Rivas. For seven months Josue lived with indigenous people at the Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock. With their community under the threat of being torn apart due to the installation of a pipeline, the people came together to protect the place they called home, and more accurately, their access to clean water.

We asked Josue what his experience was like documenting and living with the local people.

“Well, I’m still processing my experience. In one way, Standing Rock was an awakening of the spirit and that also opened the doors to something bigger than ourselves. Thousands of people lived in a camp for months not only to oppose a pipeline but to also come together and be with each other. I meet people from all over the planet and planted relations that have become crucial in my life as a human being and as a visual storyteller. Being part of the Oceti Sakowin Camp allowed me to see myself different and it inspired me to go inward and question the systems we are part of. The camp shaped me, but more importantly, it gave me a sense of belonging. For the first time in my life, I knew I wasn’t the minority or that I was the POC  in the room. Indigenous leadership was a big part of that.” On the topic of the biggest challenge he faced, he added, “The biggest challenge was being away from my family.”

Giving a Voice to the Voiceless

Unlike the more mainstream movements, media coverage has not always been generous to indigenous communities. Through continued photojournalism and the strength of the protest, Josue feels more recognition has come their way.

“I think after Standing Rock Indigenous people entered the consciousness of mainstream society and now we have the opportunity to challenge the systems in place and support the paradigm shift our planet is going through. For me, it’s important to not only document important stories but I also want to uplift the voices of other Indigenous storytellers, especially the youth. That’s why I co-founded Natives Photograph, we are a database of Indigenous photographer working in our communities and using storytelling to educate mainstream society about Indigenous people.”

The Role of Photography in the Fight for Change

Photography can be at its most powerful when it has the ability to teach, change perspective, and contribute to the direction of society. Every photographer has a motive, and every photographer hopes for a positive impact because of their work.

We asked both Adam and Josue how they hoped their work would be received.

AW: Many communities have begun to organize themselves more, taking an active role in in the leadership of their neighbourhoods, towns and cities. As long as the people continue to participate in our Democracy, I see a reason for hope and I hope my work will be received as an honest look at some of the demonstrations that occurred.

JS: I would like people to use the images as reflections and as a tool for healing and reconciliation. Also, last year I was blessed to win the first FotoEvidence Book Award with World Press Photo and that’s how my first book Standing Strong was born. I want people to use the book as an opportunity to look within and remember that Standing Rock was more than just a protest, it was the manifestation of our ancestors’ wildest dreams. 

55 years since Martin Luther King Jr shared his dream, it seems the people are just as strong and determined today as they were back then. Thankfully, photography’s role is just as strong and influential as well.

You can see more of the work by photographers by following the links – Adam Wold and Josue Rivas

All images used with permission of the photographers.