- Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle by Leigh Raiford
Over the past several years the world has witnessed an onslaught of protests, riots, and uprisings. But while the Internet and social media may have helped to fuel and even organize these recent rebellions, photography has remained, and still remains closely bound to the production and dissemination of collective discontent. That role, and more specifically its complex position within the history of African American social movements, is the subject of Leigh Raiford’s significant book, Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle. In the pages of this impressive and deftly argued work, Raiford carefully examines the critical, yet at times contradictory role that photography played in three twentieth-century African American social movements: antilynching, civil rights, and Black Power. For each of these movements, Raiford carefully constructs a detailed narrative not only about the various ways in which the medium has been used as a site of political and social resistance, but more important, how it has been employed, using Raiford’s own terminology, as a form of “critical black memory.” In making this distinction, Raiford articulates a fundamental concern of her book, namely to illuminate how activists within these movements have used photography “to engage history through a critical practice of memory” (25). It is this intricate, contentious, and at times even failed relationship between race, memory, and photography, then, that is the driving force of her book.
Raiford begins her book by turning to the harrowing images of lynching which were taken at once in the service of racial oppression, and as tools for the antilynching campaigns of Ida B. Wells and the NAACP. In taking up this seemingly contradictory function of the medium, Raiford illuminates a central paradox in the use of photography within the African American freedom struggle: How can the medium, which has traditionally been used as a form of subjugation against African Americans, also function as an instrument of liberation? According to Raiford, it is precisely this struggle over meaning that has defined the use of photography within these antilynching campaigns. In their effort to reframe the meanings of these horrific images, Wells and the NAACP sought to transform the function and place of these photographs within black memory. Even if this effort is one that ultimately fails, the struggle to do so is what activates their influence within the African American freedom movement.
The contentious role of photography within the civil rights movement is the subject of Raiford’s second chapter. Here she details the fascinating history of the SNCC Photo Agency and the ever-evolving role that the medium played within this organization. While it is unfortunate that more images are not reproduced in this chapter, Raiford nonetheless offers a groundbreaking analysis of the “heteroscopic” function of photography within SNCC. By this term, Raiford highlights the ways in which photography itself becomes a source of “anxiety” for SNCC as the organization begins to shift its focus as well as its audience while its photographers also begin to question the medium’s place and artistic function within the movement. In calling attention to this fraught relationship between SNCC and the medium of photography, Raiford articulates “a shift from black visual modernity to a black visual postmodernity” (20). In short, through SNCC, we see how photography’s seemingly unitary ability to bear witness to African American social movements becomes increasingly more complicated and heterogeneous. [End Page 479]
The ways photography functioned as a site of struggle and negotiation within these African American social movements is further detailed in Raiford’s third chapter, which examines how the image of the Black Panther Party (BPP) was both articulated and contested in and through the medium of photography. In this chapter, Raiford interrogates the performative nature of the BPP’s visualization of the black body and more specifically how they used photography, in the words of Jean Genet, to “[attack] first by sight” (149). While Raiford looks...