Benedict Fernandez

Benedict Fernandez, Memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., Central Park, New York, 1968. Courtesy Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum

UPDATE: I guess the essay was that good, Aperture had second thoughts about sharing it online? It was deleted from the web a couple of days after publication. You can read a cached version here.

Sarah Lewis, an Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture and African American Studies at Harvard University, has a lot of exhilarating thoughts about the roles images play and why they are so important to a justice-inclined society. More exciting for me is the argument she makes about we, as consuming citizens, having to educate ourselves, and to read images. In essence, we must leverage images to our democratic and just ends while rejecting the image-messaging of nefarious sources.

The essay “Vision & Justice” that Lewis penned as intro to the May 2016 Aperture magazine (of the same title) is a call to action, but one that demands buy-in and effort. It’s the opposite of abandoning media because we presume it’s controlled by corporate and state forces. It’s an essay that falls within the pedagogy of activism. Love it. Here’s a snippet:

“Understanding the relationship of race and the quest for full citizenship in this country requires an advanced state of visual literacy, particularly during periods of turmoil. Today, we’ve been able to witness injustices in a firsthand way on a massive scale that would have been unimaginable decades ago. We have had to ask ourselves questions that call upon powers of visual analysis to read, for example, the image of Eric Garner’s killing, virally disseminated through social media, or to understand the symbolism in Dylann Roof’s self-styled portraiture before his killing of the Emanuel 9 in Charleston. Being an engaged citizen requires grappling with pictures, and knowing their historical context with, at times, near art-historical precision. Yet it is the artist who knows what images need to be seen to affect change and alter history, to shine a spotlight in ways that will result in sustained attention. The enduring focus that comes from the power of the images presented in these pages—from artists such as Ava DuVernay and Bradford Young, Deborah Willis and Jamel Shabazz, to Lorna Simpson and LaToya Ruby Frazier—move us from merely seeing to holding a penetrating gaze long enough that we consider what is before us anew.”

And this:

“It was an abolitionist print, not logical argument, which dealt the final blow to the legalization of the slave trade—the broadside Description of a Slave Ship (1789). The London print of the British slave ship Brookes showed the dehumanizing statistical visualization with graphic precision—how the legally permitted 454 men, women, and children might be accommodated by treating humans as more base than commodities (though the ship Brookes carried many more, up to 740). The image it conjured in the mind was intolerable enough to help abolish the institution; the broadside served in parliamentary hearings as the evidentiary proof of slavery’s inhumanity.”

Sarah Lewis is the author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (2014).

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