By Srijan Sen
The festival celebrated a plethora of African- American filmmakers via a segment titled Black Lens that ended with a final screening of ‘Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of People.’
Written and directed by Thomas Allen Harris, ‘Through a Lens Darkly’ tells the story of African- American families as far back as photographic records could stretch.
Inspired by the book, “Reflections in Black” (2000), author Debra Willis’s groundbreaking book on a similar theme missed the photographic aspect, but Mr. Harris’s film embodies the fine essence of reciting history through a series of visual stimulations.
The film is a personal memoir of the director with anecdotes about his father, most specifically his father’s lack of interest in documenting life through pictures.
Although we never learn too much about him, we get to travel back-and-forth through family albums filled with candid and formal pictures taken by Harris’ maternal grandmother.
The family portraits serve as photographic record of African-American’s carving their own experience and also by the way the larger society depicted them. The contrast is stark.
Pictures of graduation, weddings, thanksgiving dinners, and newborns are juxtaposed with horrid and heartbreaking images of hate; violence and repression towards an entire community of people.
The photographs captured the separation between whites and blacks in the south during the precivil rights movement.
While chronicling the crusades of anti-slavery pioneers, such as Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, the primary focus is to showcase the legacy of black photographers. Harris aimed to examine how black photographers, and their subjects used the camera as a tool for social change from the birth of photography till present day.
Mr. Harris provides a lot of knowledge about slavery, abolitionism, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement through pictures.
However, we don’t always think about the sources and meanings of those pictures.
He discusses an impressive collection of artists and photojournalists such as: Deborah Willis, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Anthony Barboza, Hank Willis Thomas, Lyle Ashton Harris, and Glenn Ligon ; who challenged popular definitions of “blackness” and “black people.”
Mr. Harris’ film is a tribute to unsung artists, and his family memoir; juggling an overview of African- American history through photographic representation, that is absorbing to watch, and heartbreaking at times.
‘Through a Lens Darkly’ carries a powerful burden of representation testifying to the extenuating force of creativity.