At MLK50, we aim for the images we publish to tell as much story as the words we write. In fact, it’s often a writer’s goal to create images with words, for language to contain the layers an image can hold when it captures a moment.
Last week, we were talking about image-making and harm. One conversation was sparked by Twitter; famed white photographer Annie Leibovitz was being flamed by some for the lighting in her Vogue portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Some folks pointed out the number of times Leibovitz’s approach hasn’t flattered Black skin; others noted that maybe the issue was more systemic, pointing to the lack of Black photographers who get this kind of opportunity.
It’s the kind of discussion that could seem superficial; in the Vogue images, the justice looks regal and is posing in designer coats at the Lincoln Memorial. I know I’m conflicted about whether it should matter whether the first Black Supreme Court justice needs to be “honored” with a fancy Vogue portrait because Vogue wasn’t created for her or Black readership. But I do understand the desire to be seen as beautiful or glamorous or frivolous because those are simple human ways of being and we should all have the chance to be and do them.
On Friday, our image-making conversation was more local and easier to embrace. Visuals director Andrea Morales hosted our first (hour-long) Instagram live — “Reflecting Memphis’ Light” — in honor of World Photography Day. Andrea had a conversation with three of our contributing photographers: Brandon Dill, Johnathan Martin and Lucy Garrett. Each talked about a photo they made and what it meant to them. And they talked about how they approach the work.
The four photographers revealed the care it takes to be present in the writing of history during the times it’s volatile or powerful or meaningful or all those things at the same time. When it came to building trust, for instance, Martin talked about asking the people he comes to photograph to explain the situation to him or simply asking them how they’re doing. Dill said he learned that sometimes his role is to not take a picture. He’s learned, too, he said, to turn the camera not toward those protesting but toward those representing the state. It’s a way to change the narrative that law enforcement is always heroic or protestors are always the agitators. It also keeps police from using his images to identify protestors for arrest. Garrett talked about claiming space as a form of activism and how she looks for personal, quiet moments to capture.
What the four shared showed their love of Memphis, for Memphians and for the work they do. It also highlighted that their images don’t just accompany the words our reporters write. Instead, the images and these photographers are partners in telling the stories, in codifying new truths or upending old narratives.
That’s the connection between an Annie Leibovitz glamor shot and, say, the lovely portrait Garrett showcased, of a local trans woman sitting on a couch, which was also for Vogue. Whether the person is famous or not, both photographers were aiming to show us a bit of that person’s humanity. Both ended up making an image that captured and extended that moment.
The goal was the same: to end up with something true. That, I think, is how you find the best light.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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