Over 150 years ago, during the Civil War, the great American abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave a speech titled “Pictures and Progress,” which spoke to the ways in which images shaped our understanding of life. Douglass was speaking at a time when photography had just arrived, creating a type of immediacy comparable to the revolution of the Digital Age. With the advent of photography, the ability to capture moments from life and reproduce them en masse imbued this brand new medium with a superpower: the ability to become agents of justice.
Whereas art had been used as a tool of the upper class, photography leveled the playing field by becoming the first democratic art to find itself in the hands of the people. Anything and anyone could become a subject in its own right, including facts that had been hidden from plain sight. Images have the ability to convey meaning and understanding in ways that words never could, for “seeing is believing,” as the old saying goes. As it turns out, this applies to both first and secondhand experiences. Images have the ability to bear witness and speak truth to power, to right the wrongs of injustice and become a vehicle for change.
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Photo: Benedict Fernandez, Memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., Central Park, New York, 1968. Gelatin silver print. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Beinecke Fund, 2.2002.745. Photo: Harvard Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College.