It’s been a long time coming: Photography and the Civil Rights movement

America’s civil rights advances have been intrinsically tied to the visual image. The first widely available photographic process, the daguerreotype, soared in popularity just 15 years prior to the Civil War, making it the first war documented extensively with photographs. Matthew Brady is credited as the father of photojournalism, as he extensively covered the war. 

In March of 1863, in what is today the northeastern corner of Acadiana, a slave named Gordon escaped the Lyons Plantation and made his way to a Union encampment. There his brutal whipping scars were photographed by William D. McPherson and his partner, Mr. Oliver. This shocking image was reproduced and widely circulated — published in Harper’s Weekly — and offered visible proof of the brutality of chattel slavery in the American South. 

Demonstrators gather around the statue of Confederate Gen. Alfred Mouton in mid-June, demanding he be moved Photo by Travis Gauthier

Almost 100 years later, less than 300 miles from the plantation Gordon escaped from, a 14-year-old from Chicago named Emmett Till was lynched. Till’s mother insisted on an open casket. Photographs of his badly mutilated body were published all over the country, rallying black support and white sympathy across the U.S. It was a spark for the Civil Rights movement that would follow. 

Throughout the 1960s the world got to see the struggles for civil rights in America on full display: Ruby Bridges escorted into her school in New Orleans by U.S. marshals, The Freedom Riders, George Wallace standing in a doorway at University of Alabama blocking black students, and a quarter of a million marchers at the Lincoln Memorial. Photographers became frequent targets of white mobs and law enforcement suppression. 

Masked-up protestors march at Girard Park in late May demanding justice for George Floyd Photo by Travis Gauthier

From the 1970s to the 1990s, news collection and distribution exponentially accelerated. The switch from film to video and the implementation of satellite transmissions meant that we could see news as it happened. The late 1980s brought about affordable consumer video camcorders and with it came citizen journalism. On March 3, 1991, George Holliday videotaped four LAPD officers beating Rodney King — with his Sony Handycam.  

In the 29 years since the Rodney King tape, the era of citizen journalism has exploded. Today, the ubiquitous and conveniently powerful cameras we carry around in our pockets for work and play have come to be used to record, and stream, the injustices of the world, and sometimes the last moments of someone’s life.

They have had tremendous power. 

Images let us see through other people’s eyes. Images let us share someone else’s experience of the world.  Shared experiences can lead to understanding and, ultimately, change. 

Last year, I was inspired to get back to my roots and shoot and hand process black and white film again. Shooting this year’s protests got me thinking about what today’s protests would look like captured with the tools of the past.

These images were captured on Kodak Tri-X, which was introduced on rolls in 1955, shot with a Nikon FM2 from 1983, and a Nikkor 105mm lens from 1973, developed in D-76 formulated in 1927.

Demonstrators at a rally against police brutality in Girard Park Photo by Travis Gauthier
About the Author

Travis Gauthier is an award-winning photojournalist and a Lafayette native.

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