She mentioned on the video that Sojourner Truth, the abolitionist and suffragist, (whose biography she’s written) had used photography. Of course, that immediately registered with me and I had to find out more.
Sojourner Truth was perhaps the most famous African-American woman in 19th century America. For over forty years she traveled the country as a forceful and passionate advocate for the dispossessed, using her quick wit and fearless tongue to fight for human rights.
Nell Painter says: No other woman who had gone through the ordeal of slavery managed to survive with sufficient strength, poise and self-confidence to become a public presence over the long term.
One of the ways Truth supported herself was by selling portraits.
… Many former slaves depicted themselves in these photos with whip-scarred backs and clad in the rags of slavery. But Sojourner Truth — who sold the cartes-de-visite to support herself — chose to represent herself as a respectable middle- class matron, sometimes wearing glasses, knitting, or holding a book. “I think we can see Truth becoming strong enough to refuse to define herself as a slave,” (Quotes are from a The Chronicle of Higher Education review of the book)
Looking at the contemporary photos of Truth on the web there is a clear self presentation. Syreeta, in a review of the movie Lincoln on Feministing discusses this brilliantly.
Sojourner Truth, according to the Willis/Krauthamer book Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans And the End of Slavery, understood the power of photography, and actively distributed photographs of herself:
“Those pictures were meant to affirm her status as a sophisticated and respectable “free woman and as a woman in control of her image.” The public’s fascination with small and collectible card-mounted photographs, allowed her to advance her abolitionist cause to a huge audience and earn a living through their sale. “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance,” proclaimed the famous slogan for these pictures.
Truth was not alone in her understanding of the power of photography. A host of other African-Americans, both eminent and ordinary, employed the medium as an instrument of political engagement and inspiration. “Envisioning Emancipation” argues that photography was not incidental but central to the war against slavery, racism and segregation in the antebellum period of the 1850s through the New Deal era of the 1930s.”
… Truth understood the power of images was just as powerful a weapon as any. Even the composition of the photograph of Truth (noted above) has a subliminal power, appropriating classic European portraiture in her seated posture, her resolute gaze, showing a black body as American. Human.
The truth-telling photography and empathy that photography conjures isn’t new but understanding it as a mode of cultural and social activism during the Civil War era is and certainly worthy of a look back.
Truth-telling photography and empathy are what my work always aspires to. I need to learn a lot more about this history.
(Photo from Syreeta’s post on Feministing)