George Floyd, Gordon Parks, and the Ominous Power of Photographs by Deborah Willis / APERTURE

Gordon Parks, Malcolm X Gives Speech at Rally, Harlem, New York, New York, 1963, 1963 © and courtesy The Gordon Parks Foundation // Aperture Foundation

Essays: June 4th, 2020

George Floyd, Gordon Parks, and the Ominous Power of Photographs

From the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter, can images help fight injustice?

By Deborah Willis

“I find it difficult to look at these photographs without flinching from the memories and from the anger they invoke. But I must look. I must remember, as you must. For this was history in the making. Like it or not, you cannot hide from the camera’s eye.”

—Myrlie Evers-Williams, foreword to The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954–68, 1996

As I reflect on photography and protest, I see it as my life in America from a lived experience to an act of memory. I am troubled by the images I’ve seen over the last two weeks, and I have been asked—by various people—what these images mean to me. Black death has been photographed, broadcasted, painted, recorded, tweeted, and exhibited for the past ninety days. It has been nine days since a teenager posted footage of George Floyd’s murder. It has been nine days of collectively watching George Floyd’s last moments of life, seeing a man struggling and crying, while a white police officer digs his knee deeper into Floyd’s neck, the officer’s left hand slipped casually into his pocket. I watched in horror as the other police officer stood guard, protecting his fellow officer, while the person behind the camera screamed and pleaded with the officers to stop. I heard others begging for his life as George Floyd pleaded “I can’t breathe” over and over again….”

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