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'Through a Lens Darkly' Focuses On Black Photographers

Via Cinema St. Louis

Flipping through the nation’s family album, what’s missing? That question led director Thomas Allen Harris to create “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People,” a film that examines how photography shaped the identity and perceptions of blacks in America.

“In some ways, it is a history lesson, although it’s kind of a different take on history because we have a lot of contemporary artists in the film,” Harris told “Cityscape” host Steve Potter on Friday. “In many ways, as they do this, they reshape the way in which we view history.”

Harris said his film is based on a book by Deborah Willis, “Reflections in Black,” who noticed that photo history fails to include black photographers.

“If we’re not looking at African-American photographers, then we’re also not looking and seeing the evolution of African-American families and how they’ve evolved over the course of the last 170 years,” Harris said. “Photography started 20 years before slavery ended, so you have this huge free community that was photographing itself or getting itself photographed. But also photography was used at that time by both abolitionists to combat this institution of slavery and by the planters to affirm a certain stereotype of the African-Americans that would legitimize their servitude.”


Harris said photos help shape popular culture and perceptions of time, events and people.

“If you’re represented as being human, then if you’re treated inhumanely then that’s a crime,” he said. “If you’re represented as being something other than human, even subtly like what happened with the Jews in the midst of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany or what happened with the Tutsis ... in Rwanda, that genocide — to allow for a second-class citizenship to happen, you have to, in some ways, denigrate their representation with popular culture. The war of images is something that’s very real.”

“Through the Lens Darkly” includes family photos as well as darker themes, like lynching and black-face images. The film will be shown as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival.

“It gives hope in the sense that you do see in the film representation that is as the African-American photographers would like you to see the blacks represented, as opposed to what white culture had sort of imposed,” said Cliff Froehlich, executive director of Cinema St. Louis, which sponsors the festival. “From that point of view, it’s hopeful, obviously. But by the same token, it’s appalling what did take place and what circulated widely and was embraced by white culture and, of necessity because they didn’t see themselves represented in any positive way, by blacks as well.”

The film is part of a series within the festival, “Race in America: The Black Experience.” Froehlich said Cinema St. Louis had been working with Harris for more than a year to bring his film to St. Louis, but recent regional events prompted a deeper look at race.

“Because of the Ferguson situation, we thought it was really important to focus on the experience that blacks had both here in St.Louis but more widely in the U.S. and even beyond, so we have about a dozen films that are part of that series.”

“Through the Lens Darkly” also has created a spin-off project, “Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow.” Harris said he created the project after he was approached several times by people who said they wanted to do something creative with their family photos.'

People are invited to share family photos via social media using the hashtag #1World1Family and #DDFRtv. On Sunday, there will be a show-and-tell session at the Nine Network.

“It’s not only African-Americans. We have Jewish diasporas who are participating in the film. We have the Asian and Latino diasporas,” Harris said. “It really gives us a way of understanding ourselves by looking at the family photographs. We want to see St. Louis show itself to itself.”

Related Event

"Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People"

  • When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014
  • Where: Brown Hall's Auditorium at Washington University, Forsyth Boulevard and Chaplin Drive, St. Louis
  • More information

Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow

  • When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014
  • Where: The Nine Network, 3655 Olive St., St. Louis
  • More information

“Cityscape” is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.

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