"This Light of Ours" at the Brooks Museum is a timely and necessary exhibition. It is unique among documents of the civil rights movement because it showcases exclusively activist photography. The included images were all tactically made and smartly deployed by artists whose mission was not only to document what was happening, but to influence events in real time. "Our job," writes exhibition curator and featured photographer Matt Herron "was to get the pictures and get them out into the wider world, not to collect glory or jail time as some civil rights hero." In order to get their work out into the world, activist photographers developed guerrilla methods — improvising darkrooms, lying to officials, and hiding out when circumstances were dangerous.
The nine photographers whose work is featured hail from vastly different backgrounds. All uprooted their lives to travel through the South as the movement picked up speed in the early 1960s. Bob Fitch's personal photography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s family is featured alongside Maria Varela's densely atmospheric photographs of black Southern life. Tamio Wakayama, a Canadian photographer who spent his early years in an internment camp, photographed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at the height of its influence. He later wrote, "There was a pervading sense that not only were we a part of history, but we were history itself." Work by George Ballis, Herbert Randall, Bob Fletcher, David Prince, and Bob Adelman is also included, organized chronologically by event, rather than by photographer.
The exhibition is divided into four distinct sections: "Black Life," "Organizing for Freedom," "State and Local Terror," and "Meredith March Against Fear and Black Power." The featured works are both formally visually striking and saturated with important narrative, more than is possible to take in on one viewing. I found myself circling the exhibition, returning to certain photographs again and again with the feeling that there was still more to absorb. It is hard to overstate how moving these images are.
Subtle details within some of the photographs reveal parts of the civil rights story often looked over, such as the pervasive presence of weapons amongst both activists and Southern segregationists. A particularly striking photograph by Herron shows a young organizer and an older man sitting in a small library, facing a curtainless window, their backs turned to the camera. The older man holds a rifle. Herron writes in the exhibition materials, "The movement was nonviolent; the community was not."
Some of the best photographs in the exhibit are also, on first glance, the quietest. Wakayama's sparse shot of a memorial service held for slain activists James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner is devastating. Organizer Bob Moses stands amidst the ashes of Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Neshoba County, Mississippi. Flowers are situated in rubble and charred wood.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from "This Light of Ours" is that the formal beauty of these photographs — their importance as works of art — is inseparable from their strategic importance as catalysts of social change. In one of Wakamaya's photographs, a young man stands on the porch of an organizing center in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. A wooden cross bisects the foreground of the photo, visually separating the young man's head from his body. The cross is emblazoned with a hand-painted logo that reads simply, "Freedom."
In "This Light of Ours," we have a potentially important curriculum for today's protests, where, as Herron put it, "everyone is a photographer and everyone carries a camera." We need thorough references like exhibitions like this to understand how we got where we are and where we are going next. Herron put it simply: "The job isn't done. We made a lot of progress in the civil rights movement, but it is far from over."