“When you look at a black person, what do you see?” An Interview with Thomas Allen Harris

Thomas Allen Harris. Photo by Russell Frederick for Chimpanzee Productions, Inc.
Thomas Allen Harris. Photo by Russell Frederick for Chimpanzee Productions, Inc.

The latest work by Bronx-born filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris, Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, is a moving and enlightening essay film-cum-documentary inspired by Deborah Willis’s landmark book, Reflections in Black (2000). In exploring the way images of “blackness” have impacted upon his own family life and sense of self-worth as an African-American, Harris liberally intersperses pictures from his own family albums, and provides a lyrical, reflective structuring voiceover. Yet the film’s concerns run broader than the life of its director. Tapping into a vast, thoroughly researched archive, Harris interweaves a fount of historical material (African-Americans who were slaves, who fought in the Civil War, were victims of lynchings, or were pivotal in the ongoing Civil Rights Movement) with images by—and interviews with—a host of esteemed contemporary photographers like Anthony Barboza, Coco Fusco, and Carrie Mae Weems. Harris began work on this long-gestating film back in 2005, and it finally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January this year. Ahead of the film’s current engagement at Film Forum, I sat down with Harris near his Manhattan home base, to discuss the project’s genesis, aims, and contemporary relevance.

How did you come to the project in the first place?

I’m actually in the book, with my brother.

I’ve known Deborah Willis for 20-odd years, and she approached me about doing a film interpretation. We struggled with it initially because the book is encyclopaedic and the question was: how do we tell a story? I realized that I needed instead to do a film that talked about the issue of representation, and situated the book within the context of American photography—in particular the family photograph album. That intersection is something I’ve been working on for a while.

Much of your prior work has been very personal, and Through A Lens Darkly is no exception. Can you talk about why you weaved your own story into the film?

In the case of this film, it was the only way for me to feature so many different photographers and scholars, and to have the cohesion. I would have loved not to have had to put myself in the film! When you do that, you really have to give up some truth, some blood. There are issues around shame, my identity, the legacy of different narratives within my own family, collective pain. It’s like a sacrifice offering. I didn’t really put myself into the film until I got feedback from the Sundance documentary fund, and from Orlando Bagwell at the Ford Foundation. They said: we want you to really go in there and do it! It had a lot of this larger analysis but it needed the heart.

How many different iterations did the film go through?

Maybe 50. We grappled with it five or six times a year: reshoots, new material, we got new money from certain sources, and we had to be open to feedback from them. But every time we built from the prior cut, it wasn’t like we scrapped everything; we just refined it. There’s a lot of base stuff that survived from the first edit, like my opening narrative (“When you look at a black person, what do you see?”) We had a hiatus in 2008 when we started editing, and some significant things happened. There was the election of Obama, but the more important thing was the financial crisis. There was money that was supposed to be forthcoming but never came. So in 2010 and 2011 we were working exclusively on the Digital Diaspora Roadshow, which is the transmedia companion project. Working on that led to the film changing its shape.

Can you expand on the Digital Diaspora Roadshow?

It’s an ongoing, large-scale photography project in communities. We started in 2009 in Atlanta, then we went to Maryland, Boston, New York, and so on. We’ve worked with a variety of different partners (historical societies, cultural institutions, youth groups, churches) and encouraged people to bring in their family photographs. Sometimes we’d do a week-long engagement where we’d bring scanners, have workshops, and help people creative a narrative out of their images. It can be quite overwhelming: how to digitize all of these images? We often do a grand finale—an event which we curate and have people come up and weave a story on a cinema screen with their images, which are usually tiny. You’d normally see these images in the privacy of your own home and you mightn’t think they have any value; but that changes when you see it through other people’s eyes. We want communities to show themselves to themselves. It’s to see the value of family pictures: things that you normally take for granted.

In the film, you talk about your grandfather—whose house you grew up in—being a particular influence on you when it came to photography…

He gave me my first camera. He was very interested in taking pictures. I grew up posing for him since I was a baby—days old! I recently found a cache of 10,000 images of my brother and I, plus slides of every aspect of the family, and his church, which he considered a part of the family. Back then was a time was there was so few black people on TV. When there were black people on TV, everyone would call each other, and there would be an analysis of representation in the house. My grandfather also patronized a number of significant black photographers, so we knew about them from that perspective. I was very much aware when I was thinking about this film, of the whole issue of looking at the black photographers through the patrons. Also central to my thinking was the issue of black photographers being marginalized in this country. Accordingly, black families are marginalized, because black photographers have these images, and they’re not seen. You can wind up with the replication of negative stereotypes because there’s a vacuum; there’s no counter force to this representation, this language, this vocabulary that’s constructed black representation over time.

The idea of the representation of black people in art and the media continues to be a pressing issue. I’m thinking of someone like Mike Brown in Ferguson, or, say, Trayvon Martin, who in death are subject to this kind of image-criminalization by virtue of what photograph news organizations choose to use. Or, to go back to film, it was the central thread of Amma Asante’s recent film Belle, where the central character is a black girl who is terrified of having her portrait painted because of how she might come across. All the black people in paintings were subservient, slaves. And that’s set in the 18th century!

It’s really important. So often as people of color in the West, we have to reinvent the wheel for each generation. I’m making this film for an audience—well, it’s for everyone—but particularly younger people of color, to say to them: “this is what we’ve learned.” My grandfather gave me this inheritance in terms of authoring his image, and this is how I see things.

With the rise of digital photography, do you think have things improved, in terms of controlling representation?

We’re in a place now where so many images are taken digitally. But I’m grateful to see these physical photographs. Over the ten years, we put together an archive of over 20,000 images, very few of which had ever been seen before. When I tell most people that I’m making a film about black photographers they say, “Oh, Gordon Parks!”, but that hides all of these other amazing photographers—living, coming-up, past, dead, people who taught other people going back to the invention of photography. African-American photographers have traditionally been hidden in the shadow of black essentialism. You know, “Gordon Parks. I don’t need to know anything else.”

Yes, a lot of the time when we think of “black” photography, we think of times of trauma and protest—like the Civil Rights movement…

Yes, but the Civil Rights Movement started before the 50s and 60s. When Booker T. Washington petitioned friends in Congress to allocate money to take the photography show of African-Americans to Paris in 1900, that was a form of civil rights. That set the standard, the tone. That seeded the ground for what was to come later on in terms of the embrace of jazz, Josephine Baker, James Baldwin. That was also a form of saying, “This is who we are,” we want to be seen as respectable, as having value. In some ways that goes back to the title of the film which comes from Corinthians [“For now we see through a glass, darkly”]: how do you see divinity? You see divinity through a glass darkly, basically a kind of shadowy reflection of the self. To be able to say in a country and a culture that constantly devalues us, how can you actually claim some sense of something that keeps you able to transmit it to the next generation.

And there’s also the ongoing context of the “burden of representation” when it comes to minority artists…

Yes… it says “Spike Lee is the black filmmaker.” It’s not as intense as it used to be. But when I would go to fundraisers for my film, people would say “What does Spike Lee think about it?”, and I’d say, “Why don’t you go and ask him?!” [laughs]

It seems your film aims explicitly to remove that burden. It says, “this is an artform that’s democratic,” family-oriented…

Yes. My films tend to be autobiographical, but not in terms of a single voice—rather a community articulating its collective voice. It’s complex, it’s not monolithic, but it’s a call to action in some ways. As I was making the film, on the one hand I was thinking about sci-fi stuff: like going back and forth in terms of time travel; on the other I was thinking of the idea of a choral voice coming to create a song.

For more details on The Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow, go to www.1World1Family.me.


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