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  • Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography by Martin A. Berger
  • Jack Taylor
Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography Martin A. Berger Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011; 264 pages. $29.95, ISBN 978-0-520-26864-7

Martin A. Berger's Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography challenges dominant narratives concerning civil rights photography. Berger argues that violent images can function as constructive political forces, albeit forces that often operate in a fashion to not pacify the individual, but to pacify the entire collective body of the United States regarding what they thought was possible in terms of winning civil rights for African Americans. Berger's claim, then, is novel as it rebuts all-too-commonly held opinions concerning the emancipatory nature of the civil rights image: civil rights photography functioned in a way that absolved Northern whites of their [End Page 152] guilt and placed the blame solely on their white Southern counterparts in addition to conditioning the public to believe that only slight reform is possible in the face of such violence. David J. Garrow, author of Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 (1978), highlights this point in his foreword to the text:

the photographs provided an emotionally compelling portrayal of white racism that not only mobilized conscience-stricken viewers against southern violence but simultaneously offered them a powerful definition of racism that absolved them from complicity . . . picturing "racists" as the most violent southern thugs, the photographs enabled northern whites to conclude reassuringly that they of course were not racist in any way.


It is precisely at this juncture that we are introduced to a fresh interpretation not only of civil rights photography but also of photography more generally. By revealing that the meaning that one extracts from civil rights photography is not determined solely by the spectator, Berger moves away from radically formal approaches to photography and begins to advance the idea that the meaning one took from the civil rights image was already determined by major white media outlets that needed to articulate an easily understood narrative: Southern whites are racist and violent; Northern whites are liberators who want to protect passive and victimized African Americans (8). To my knowledge, Berger is the first to break-up the simple black/white binary, inserting spatial dynamics (north and south) into an analysis of civil rights photography, which, thereby, provides a fresh hermeneutic for interrogation.

More than this, Berger details and criticizes not only the image itself but also how and why images get selected. As such, we can note another gesture by Berger that creates an intervention into civil rights photo criticism: it is not only the image that needs to be interrogated but also the institutions (major media outlets) that need interrogation. Images, then, cannot be understood in isolation from their curator. Berger articulates it this way: "While the white media could have selected any number of stories to tell they consistently framed the story as a narrative of spectacular violence" (3). "In trying to depict black protestors [End Page 153] sympathetically, progressive whites described them as inactive, which in the racial logic of the day equaled normal and safe" (23).

The selection of the photographs makes the story what it is, not the photograph itself. For example, Berger asserts that the primary narrative conveyed by dominant news outlets focused on "the drama of the clash" by circulating, for example, state troopers violently engaging civil rights activists struggling for voting rights at the famous confrontation in Selma in March 7, 1965, or images of the freedom riders' recently bombed bus in Anniston, Alabama, on May 14, 1961, or images of fire hoses and dogs being turned on civil rights activists in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 3, 1963 (3). The problem with these images for Berger is that they frame the narrative in terms of whites being in charge and African Americans as victims of insurmountable oppression. Berger, then, implicitly works against the claim that photographs are objective representations of the past exactly because photographs must always be placed in a larger narrative or discursive field that...


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pp. 152-154
Launched on MUSE
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