At the beginning of the year, the American director Thomas Allen Harris presented his first full length documentary movie "Through a lens darkly: Black Photographers and the emergence of a people. It is a great insight into the history of Afro-American photography. I talked with Thomas Allen Harris about his motivation to do this film.
FK: What interested you in working on the history of Afro-American photography?
TH: Deborah Willis approached me and asked me if I would be interested in making a film about her book „Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers”. This is when the project officially started. But before I had been making films that deal with photography and Afro-American image making. This topic has been very important to me because I come from a family of photographers and I was always involved in that space of photographers.
FK: Photography is a static medium and film works with moving images. How do you see the connection between these two mediums and how was it for you to make a film about photography?
TH: Well I think it worked because I am a photographer and because I trusted that I will be taken in the right direction. As an artist you don’t necessarily know what is on your canvas when you start, you only have an idea. I knew that the relationship of the photographer to the object was really important to me. I wanted to talk about that, because so much is moving to the digital space right now and the photograph as object is becoming increasingly more rare. So in a way it was a meditation on photography as object. The only place that you see it in 50 years is probably in museums. Even the images in archives disappear because collections and people with money are buying them up and store them without access for the public. It doesn’t get anymore to the place where people can have access to and can interact with them. So for me it is not only a film, it is a larger project. It is something that I have been interested in terms of how we talk about representation, how we talk about the object, how we talk about this transitional space that we are in right now. So the film is also about visual literacy, that a thousand people can see the same exact image and see a thousand different things in that image. When I was editing with the images I was very much aware that I wanted to call a certain attention to certain aspects and to have this dynamic kind of space but that was not super hooky, that was really about my eye.
FK: You mentioned the term visual literacy. What does this term mean for you?
TH: Visual literacy is how do you read the image, how the image can be text. Traditionally in documentaries images are usually used almost like a wallpaper to illustrate. And I didn't want to use it to illustrate. I wanted the image to speak as opposed to just illustrate. Let's take the example of the lynching. I wanted to talk about what the event was in that space. Most people just see this black bodies hanging. I wanted to talk about the inhumanity and what happened to these people who were part of this spectacle and how they had to deny something in themselves with the brutality as a person that is victim as well. You know there are two victims. There is the victim but there are although the victims who participate, because it kills something in their humanity.
FK: In your film you show very well how photography can be used for evil purposes on the one side and social change on the other side. What role do you give in that sense to the photographic medium? Is the medium itself good or evil?
TH: Any medium can be used for evil or for good. One person in the film says that photography is not only seeing from here, it is as well seeing from there. So I think that people can take photographs and it could be about fear and about trying to objectify or trying to destroy the humanity of somebody else. Or it could be about uplifting and affirming the humanity. It is really a humanity issue. This is the reason why I choose the title "Through a lens darkly". It refers to a biblical quote from the Corinthians and it is about the three really important things: love, charity and faith. But the most important thing is compassion. How can you have compassion for somebody else, someone who might look or be different or be a different species? Because to a certain extent the ways in which the white Americans where mistreating the Africans, the indigenous people or the Chinese in early America even until today is about saying we are human and they are not human. But what if you have to be compassion to the mouse? It is like Buddhism. And so it doesn't give you the excuse to say I can kill this person and I can roast them alive because they are black or they are rich or there are something else. So it is not unique to America, it happens all across the world: Our inhumanity and our inability to be compassion and to see things in this kind of way.
FK: So in this way you try to convey a political message with your film in order to use photography as a tool for social change and humanity?
TH: Yes, it is a political message; it is although an artistic message. It's about how we construct our world, the importance, the power, a vision. I am not talking about the vision of the eyes, but a vision of a future. Or how we read the past. So it has to do with all these different types of intersecting possibilities.
FK: In the film you show two different kinds of photography: the amateur photography for the family album and the professional photography. Do you see a difference in how these two groups use photography?
TH: I think there is a lot of overlap. I think all these different kind of photography are important. I was seeing the connection between these areas, as opposed to seeing it as vernacular photography as one thing and studio and art photography and documentary photography as another thing. This film talks about the spaces that intersect all of this. So in some ways the film has a democratic kind of ethos around photography.
FK: In the film you talk as well about the official history of photography in the US. Is it the history of the white photographer or is there today a place for Afro-American photography in official visual history?
TH: Me and the people I work with, like Deborah Willis and other photographers, historians, culture critics and authors are all still filling in the gaps in the dominant narrative. My film is not part of the dominant narrative. Some people resist it, some people have a difficult time with it, because they are so vetted to that identity. So this narrative, this legacy that we are living, is the dominant narrative. Even today there are books that don't include Afro-Americans or other people as diverse voices. Often women photographers are not included and gay and lesbian photographers are out. It even happens in books that are being created today. Someone told me that there is a book with Texan Photographers they didn't include even one single black photographer there. Even though black people have been in Texas since the beginning and participating as photographers back since the 1840`s. So I think that's why it is also important that we created the project digital Diaspora. It has to be a movement for me in order to be able to make a change.