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On Gordon Parks: Can photography be a tool of empathy?


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Gordon Parks’s groundbreaking photo series “Segregation Story,” from 1956, is currently on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The series, which was originally published in LIFE magazine, documents the day-to-day life and struggles of the Thorton family from Mobile, Alabama, at a time when African Americans faced unspeakable racism and violence, especially in the American South. As Lilly Lampe writes in her review of the exhibition and corresponding catalogue for the LA Review of Books, “These moving images were an emotional appeal to a nation still grappling with ‘separate but equal’ — a visual argument against the oppressive nature of segregation.”

The catalogue contains, among other essays about Parks and his work, a piece by Maurice Berger, a curator and photography blogger for the New York Times. Berger celebrates “Segregation Story” for “neutralizing stereotypes” about African Americans, but also suggests that photography is a limited tool for arousing empathy. Lampe, however, strenuously disagrees:

Nothing could be less true. To see Gordon Parks’s images from “Segregation Story” today is to be left emotionally bereft, to gasp at the facts of an all-too-recent history, to shudder at how far we have not come. Almost 60 years later, Parks’s photographs are still undeniably powerful, but they’ve also taken on new roles as time has passed. No longer are they merely a window into the current lives of strangers, but in addition exist as a testament to multiple histories: those of the many blacks who experienced segregation, those of the family selected to represent that suffering, and that of the photographer who shared that experience for a few weeks. They’re a historical document, a continued advocate for civil rights in a still-uncertain era, a breaching of time and person to convey an emotional intimacy that feels no less relevant today. Perhaps where champions of this work stumble — myself included — is in the easy ascription of empathy as the apex of photography’s communicative worth, or by not making clear how expansive this empathy is because of all the other tools at photography’s disposal. Even if empathy is all they offer, it’s a powerful version, capable of extending across decades. If anything, the power of the original “Segregation Story” has only grown with time, illustrating the ability photographs have to evolve and expand in their meaning. The impact of Gordon Parks’s photographs is as vital today as ever, in some ways more so. Perhaps it’s time to stop thinking of photography as an alternative — media, art form, record — and consider it as a mutable, expansive expression in itself.

Read Lilly Lampe’s full review at the LA Review of Books. What do you think—can photography still be a tool of empathy today? How do images that solicit our empathy, that demand a moral response, stand out in a mediascape crowded with frivolous and sensational images?

Above image: Gordon Parks, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton, Mobile, Alabama, 1956.