Hope is The Song
‘We are not so far apart as it might seem. There is something about both of us that goes deeper than blood or black and white. It is our common search for a better life, a better world. I march now over the same ground you once marched. I fight for the same things you still fight for. My children’s needs are the same as your children’s. […] Look at me. Listen to me. Try to understand my struggle against your racism. There is yet a chance for us to live in peace beneath these restless skies.’
Gordon Parks was one of the most important photographers of the twentieth-century. Self-taught, Parks used his camera, or as he describes it, ‘his weapon of choice’, to expose the poverty and injustice that plagued America at that time.
Parks captured the civil rights movement and took photos of the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, but his true skill and artistry was in his ability to oscillate between photojournalism and fashion photography. In one of his memoirs he explains, ‘I had been given assignments I had never expected to earn. Some proved to be as different as silk and iron. Once, crime and fashion was served to me on the same day. The colour of a Dior gown I photographed one afternoon turned out to be the same colour as the blood of a murdered gang member I had photographed earlier that morning up in Harlem.’
As the late Bell Hooks notes, ‘All colonized and subjugated people, who, by way of resistance, create an oppositional subculture with the framework of domination, recognize that the field of representation (how we see ourselves, how others see us) is a site of ongoing struggle.
The history of black liberation movements in the United States could be characterized as a struggle over images as much as it has also been a struggle for rights, for equal access.’
Once a weapon to oppress the black body through colonial documentation and surveillance, the camera has been reclaimed by the likes of Parks and other black photographers. Parks' photography dismantles stereotypes; through his work we see the black experience through a more nuanced and multidimensional lens.
Many of the issues that Parks’ photography captured - prejudice, poverty and racism, continue to thrive today in their complex and brutal forms. But also permeating through his work is a sense of hope.
‘The pictures that have most persistently confronted my camera have been those of crime, racism and poverty. I was cut through by the jagged edges of all three. Yet I remain aware of imagery that lends itself to serenity and beauty, and here my camera has searched for nature’s evanescent splendors.’
Gordon Parks features in Vashti Harrison's children's book Little Leaders: Exceptional Men in Black History. 100% of profits from this book and others in the series will be donated to Show Racism The Red Card and Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust
Photographs courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation