Black Resistance: The Power of the Image

Black Resistance
May 12, 2023

Black Resistance: The Power of the Image

"I chose my camera as a weapon against all the things I dislike about America — poverty, racism, discrimination."
– Gordon Parks (1912-2006)

Through the lens of the camera, communities have been able to document their experience, preserve their history and challenge misconceptions since the evolution of photography. As this technology became publicly available, many people were able to sit for a photograph or even become a photographer themselves. Black photographers were not only dealing with the emergence of a new industry but also with the racial discrimination. Nevertheless, a few prominent African Americans were able to make names for themselves as respected photographers.

Frederick Douglass was already a respected orator and established author by the time these new photographic methods were becoming popular. While it was a new technology, he recognized the importance of how photography could be a catalyst for social change. Douglass believed “Negros can never have impartial portraits at the hands of white artists” because he knew the importance of having Black photographers in the field – especially when photographing Black subjects.

When Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth sat for photographs, they did so in hopes that white people would see that Black people weren’t the caricatures they were portrayed to be. Posing for a photograph became an act of empowerment for Black people and served to counteract the stereotypes that distorted facial features and mocked Black society and culture. The development of Black photography allowed communities greater control to style images that authentically represented Black life during that time.

James Presley “J.P.” Ball

J.P. Ball was an African American photographer, abolitionist and businessman in the mid-1800s. He established a photographic business in Cincinnati in 1849 which became one of the most popular portrait studios in mid-nineteenth century America.

J.P. Ball was born free in Virginia in 1825. As a young man, Ball learned the process of daguerreotypes from the Black Boston photographer John B. Bailey. His first attempt at opening a photographic studio in Cincinnati in 1845 failed and Ball spent the next four years traveling through Pittsburgh, Richmond and Ohio working as an itinerant photographer before resettling in Cincinnati in 1849.

Cincinnati was home to rising racial tensions in the 19th century. It had just seen the race riots of 1829, 1836 and 1841 where African Americans were being run out of Cincinnati, attacked, killed or had their homes destroyed. As a prominent abolitionist and Black business owner, J.P. Ball had to carefully navigate a city filled with racial tensions. Nevertheless, he was dedicated and, in 1853, Ball moved his gallery to a downtown Cincinnati location and “Ball’s Great Daguerrean Gallery of the West” became one of the most celebrated galleries in the United States.

Ball traveled to Europe in 1856 where he photographed Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens. His growing reputation drew many well-known figures to his Cincinnati studio, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass, P.T. Barnum and the family of Ulysses S. Grant.  By 1857, Ball and his brother-in-law had opened a business that became known as “the finest photographic gallery west of the Allegheny Mountains.”

His work serves as documentation that despite the common imagery presented from this time period, these real photographs of Black people exist, too.


In the rise of the Jim Crow era, photography was still being used to give a voice to the often-misrepresented communities. There was also an increase in photos taken to disparage the Black community and support white supremacy. Images of dehumanized bodies and lynchings were not uncommon and were used to demoralize those trying to advance their rights.

Many photographers emerged to document the beauty and resilience of their communities despite the struggles they faced with Gordon Parks, P.H. Polk and James Van Der Zee among the most notable photographers giving voice to their communities at this time. With their documentation of the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement and portraits that dignified their subjects we can get a fuller representation of Black life during this time.


Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama, 1956 | Gordon Parks


Gordon Parks

Some of Gordon Parks' most famous photos are of regular life portraying family and friends gathering, going shopping, attending church and getting ice cream with kids – things that most people can relate to on some level. But he was also showing what life was like for African Americans. Using his camera, he was creating a social commentary about the basis of our humanity.

These images provide evidence that these people existed—they are noteworthy because they aren’t of noteworthy images. They are empowering because they counteracted the distorted images portrayed by the media.

Gordon Parks' photo essay “Harlem Gang Leader” in 1948 documented the life of 17-year-old Leonard “Red” Jackson in hopes of humanizing the individuals in the Harlem Gang Wars and encouraging support for social programs. This landed him a job with Life Magazine where he was hired as the first Black photographer on staff. His photographs of the civil rights movement became some of the most important documentation of racial divide in the United States.

His work took him around the world and had him photographing icons of the time including Muhammad Ali, Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. His extensive collection of work from the 1940s to the 2000s include credits as photographer, author, composer and filmmaker. His film “The Learning Tree” was the first studio film by an African American director. Set in rural Kansas in the 1920s, the film was a coming-of-age story against the backdrop of segregation and Jim Crow Laws.

Later, his iconic film “Shaft” (1971) featured a Black detective working against white criminals. He was brought in to direct the film and, apart from the script, gave all the pieces of the filmmaking process — from acting to marketing — to African American creatives.

The rise in digital photography and social media has increased the power of photography for pushing social change and creating a global collaborative community. Social media platforms have allowed its users to connect and share their experiences with a wide audience. It has allowed people to tell their own stories with their own voice. The #BlackLivesMatter movement gained traction in 2012 after the murder of Trayvon Martin and as users began sharing powerful images online.

The role of photography cannot be understated when pushing for social change. It has long been an important tool for creating awareness by provoking an emotional response. Photographs capture the injustices and inequalities of society, and by presenting these images to a wider audience, they can (and have) inspired change.

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