Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

St. Louis Art Museum’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Freedom Celebration’s 7th year—Raises voice for youth through performances and distinguished African American photojournalism panel

"We need to tell our stories; argue our case."--D. Michael Cheers (Assistant Professor, Photojournalism, San Jose State University)

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From the opening presentation of "Crowns of Glory" (Victor Little--actor--Sheila Forrest--vocalist--and David A. N. Jackson--vocalist & percussionist), through the panel of three distinguished photojournalists (D. Michael Cheers, Jason Miccolo Johnson, and Wiley Price) moderated by Alisa Swindell (Romare Bearden Fellow 2007-2008), to the closing notes of the Golden Voices of Youth from the Bethesda Temple Church (Bishop James A. Johnson, Pastor) and the last "amen" of the Bethesda Elder Ronald Stephens' benediction...100s gathered in the St. Louis Art Museum's auditorium renewed inspiration to be bearers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream of a world in which justice, truth, and human unity can prevail.

Korliss Young, entreprenuer and a talented writer I met this week at the St. Louis Writers Guild Loud Mouth Open Mic (she had performed a poem accompanied by her husband, Don) enjoyed the evening with me, with its theme of education and the future of African American youth.

Every segment of the evening infused with community spirit lifted us higher and higher. The panel of D. Michael Cheers (Assistant Professor, Photojournalism, San Jose State University), Jason Miccolo Johnson (Washington, D. C.-based photographer and author), and Wiley Price (photograper, St. Louis American Newspaper) generously shared insights, experience, and their inbred dignity. The discussion centered around Moneta (Mon-ee-ta) Sleet, Jr. and Gordon Parks before moving on to a presentation of each panelist of his own work...and how Sleet and Parks and other panel members had influenced that work.

DISCLAIMER: Below are my notes, merging comments by all panelists, without quotations, because I'm unsure of accurate attribution. I simply want to share the gatherings of the evening with you.

Moneta Sleet, Jr. had a truth to tell with the camera. Gordon Parks is quoted, "The camera is my choice of weapons." Both used black and white and available light, covering stories taht the majority press of the time didn't want to cover. Sleet had an agility to work the angles of a shot. He was a ballet dancer moving on his toes; he thought fast and made great decisions. It's difficult to capture what is truly there...but one tries to always be in the right spot. The still, frozen image is more powerful than the moving image...it remains embedded in your mind. Several panelists said that as boys reading periodicals inspired them to do the work they went on to do...to seek more of THAT.

Movement is brought forward in a photo by getting closer to a subject ("working the subject"). Neither Sleet nor Parks were detached. They were part of what they were shooting. In these close-up moments, they ran the risk of getting hurt, of getting hit when the segregationists attacked the demonstrators. They put themselves into harm's way in getting these images.

Perspective: Where you sit determines how you perceive life. The choice in a photo is how to show content and context in a photo...and how much of each. In some illuminating visual education moments, we were taken through how to analyze a photo see how the message within the image is constructed and how the viewer comes to understand the message. The more you look, the more you see.

In looking at the work of Gordon Parks, we learned about his choice to work inside the system by photographing for LIFE MAGAZINE. They gave him lots of latitude, and he was able to get into situations that other photographers (mainstream white) couldn't have gotten, such as the Poverty Board series and the Black Panthers. Without the distraction of the flash, people dropped their guards. Parks sacrificed quality [of a crisper image] for the emotion of the moment.

D. Michael Cheers (Assistant Professor, Photojournalism, San Jose State University) said that he learned photography by being immersed in the university of Gordon Parks and Moneta Sleet, Jr. "We need to tell our stories; argue our case." Photography allows us to enter a frozen instant of time and make it our own. He recommended two books: "The Sweet Flypaper of Life," by Roy Decarava and Langston Hughes, and "The House of Bondage," by Ernest Cole, a South African photojournalist "who picked up the camera and documented apartheid in South Africa in the early 1960s. He left the country, one step a head of the South African authorities, for New York in 1966. With the help of Joseph Lelyveld, a reporter for the New York Times and Thomas Flaherty, an associate editor of LIFE magazine, House of Bondage, was published," said Cheers

Jason Miccolo Johnson (Washington, D. C.-based photographer and author) pointed out that all three men were born in Missouri. Jason was born and raised in the Bootheel section. He quoted Parks on the importance of "shooting with insight, not just eyesight."

Wiley Price (photograper, St. Louis American Newspaper) showed us a photo-essay of the Jena (Jeena) Six. Wiley said, "Sometimes you see the picture with your ears," and have to wheel around to get it. "You have to step into the story." He showed us how signage could tell complete volume's, like the white woman carrying a sign saying, "Not all white folks are crazy."

The Golden Voices of Youth chose "We Shall Overcome" as their last song of the evening. They invited the audience to stand and we rejoiced in Dr. King's dream, holding hands, singing together, and swaying slightly through layers of memories from the past and those stretching out towards to future. On my left I clasped hands with a tall man clad in spackle-spattered work boots with working man's hands (familiar to me from the working men in my family) and a deep baritone voice. On my right I clasped hands with Korliss, a stranger just a few nights before.

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3 Responses »

  1. Excellent and accurate review of the evening's activities and highlights. Thanks for coming, but equally as important, thanks for sharing the experience with your readers. - Jason Miccolo Johnson, author of SOUL SANCTUARY: Images of the African American Worship Experience (foreword by Gordon Parks).

  2. House of Bondage is by Ernest Cole, a South African photojournalist who picked up the camera and documented apartheid in South Africa in the early 1960s. He left the country, one step a head of the South African authorities, for New York in 1966. With the help of Joseph Lelyveld, a reporter for the New York Times and Thomas Flaherty, an associate editor of LIFE magazine, House of Bondage, was published.

  3. Thank you Ms. Riehl for your insight on what we do as messengers for the African American community, and the community at large. It is so often overlooked.

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