The snitch with the camera

by DRM

The photographer is hidden behind the lens. We see ourself through him, pass through his identity in pursuit of our vanity with hardly a thought.

What does the photographer think?

A few weeks ago I posted a sketch inspired by a iconic photo of the civil rights movement taken by an iconic photographer, Ernest Withers. I had imagined him stepping into the street to snap the photo. I’ve always admired Wither’s photos and imbued him with the characteristics of other freedom fighters of the era.

This week the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that Ernest Withers had been a paid informant to the FBI through the Civil Rights movement, providing background information and the whereabouts on figures as notable as Martin Luther King.

Each time the shutter clicked, the man behind it stored a piece of information, a face, a time, a name, a plan, that he passed to his handler in J. Edgar Hoover’s war against disorder, dissent and decency. The photos were iconic, but the deceit was deep. Because he was there, because he was black, they thought he was one of them.

We’ll never know what he was, what he thought, whether he was a small businessman who saw destruction in racial discord, whether he was greedy and soulless, or whether he was cash-strapped and needy.

We are reminded of the impartial truth of art: that the vision and skill to create beauty from the world around us isn’t an indicator of a pure spirit or higher purpose. It’s just a gift, a quirk in our wiring, that sets that the artist apart.