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In 2000, Deborah Willis—author, professor, and chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts—published Reflections in Black, a groundbreaking history of the complicated relationship between photography and the African American experience over the past two centuries. Though the book—which featured more than 600 images of black life in America—was the first of its kind, Willis knew that it was only the beginning of a much larger conversation about the lineage of racism that’s been perpetrated through the art of photography. So three years later she approached photographer/filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris—whose own work was included in Willis’ book, along with the work of his brother, artist/photographer Lyle Ashton Harris—with the idea of adapting the concept into a documentary. Today the finished product, Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, is finally ready to hit theaters.
Why it took Harris, Willis (who produced the film), and their team 10 years to complete the film is evident after just a few seconds into the film. “We built off the work that Deb Willis did initially, and then, working with producer Ann Bennett, found images in many unlikely sources around the country with our research teams,” says the filmmaker of the project’s seven-year research period. “We collected over 15,000 images this way, and then with our community engagement project, Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow, we toured all over the Eastern Seaboard—from Atlanta up to Boston—encouraging people to rethink the educational value of their family photo albums through the act of sharing their photos (and their stories) with us and a live audience. Through the Roadshow we collected another database of 6,000 images of African American families going back to the 1840s and then came the hard part of selecting the images to tell our story.”
In the end, Harris culled nearly 1,000 images from a pool of more than 20,000 possibilities and featured more than 50 interviews with well-known artists (Lorna Simpson, Anthony Barboza) and scholars (Greg Tate, Cheryl Wall) that spoke to the heart of the film’s challenge: to “consider the difference between black photographers who use the camera to define themselves, their people, and their culture and some white photographers who, historically, have demeaned African-Americans through racist imagery,” according to Harris.
That the film ultimately took a turn for the personal is one of its most compelling aspects, though it was not Harris’ original intention. “Although I come from a family of photographers and I have made several personal films before, I didn’t initially want or think to include my story,” he says. “It was at the urging of a couple of my supporters—the Sundance Documentary Fund as well as Orlando Bagwell at the Ford Foundation—that I state my investment in this journey and ask critical questions, that I finally relented at the 11th hour and put myself in the film as a driver. It was difficult because I had to reveal a lot of personal and family secrets and ambivalences, but ultimately it allowed for the poetic investigation that makes the film so powerful and universal.”
Though it acts partially as a history lesson, there’s nothing preachy about Harris’ approach. Mimicking the epic nature of Willis’ tome, Through the Lens Darkly examines the power of imagery—and photography specifically—to enact social change and understanding. Ultimately, the film embraces that idea that a camera can be used as a weapon for change—a comparison first observed by Gordon Parks. “Images shape popular culture’s view of what ‘Blackness’ is and who ‘Black people’ are,” says Harris, “both in the images that are out there and also those that have been hidden from view. At every critical juncture in the evolution of Black Americans—from slave to hip-hop artist, from sharecropper to President of the United States, from the urban housing project to the Palm Beach—Black photographers have been there, showing the ordinary daily lives of a people who have been integral to making America what it is. As Deborah Willis notes, when you absent the images of Black photographers, you also absent the images of African American family. It is in this absence that stereotypical images proliferate.”
As for his goal for the audience, “I want people to take away the importance of history, of knowing who we are and where we’re from,” says Harris. “To experience a kind of truth and reconciliation through the act of filling in and experiencing the joy and the pain as seen in this artist’s vision of the American family album. I want people to shoot with the camera instead of the gun!”