Black history from behind the lens

Barbara Brophy, Staff Writer

Last week, George Mason University’s Film and Media Studies department hosted a screening of Chimpanzee Productions’ 2014 documentary “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People.”

The event, which included a discussion with director Thomas Harris and producer Deborah Willis, was part of the Visiting Filmmakers Series. Since 2007, the Film and Media Studies department, under the direction of Professor Cynthia Fuchs, has invited numerous filmmakers to Mason to showcase and discuss their work.

“Through a Lens Darkly” explores the role of the photographic image in shaping African-American identity. Narrated primarily by historians and professional photographers, the film recounts the history of African Americans as both photographers and photographic subjects from the time of slavery to the present.

It examines both how visual media has misrepresented African Americans over time and how black photographers have utilized photography to reclaim and redefine themselves and their communities.

“The film presents a way African Americans see themselves,” Mika’il Petin, associate director of African and African American Studies, said. “It is a counter to how each of us is socialized to control our bodies and to allow others to police us.”

Since premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014, “Through a Lens Darkly” has received a number of awards including the Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Diaspora Documentary in 2014 and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Documentary in 2015.

“I like the film because I like that it’s flipping the narrative,” Caroline West, doctoral candidate in the Cultural Studies department, said. “It’s a really interesting way to think about how images create meanings based on who is the photographer and who is in the images.”

The documentary also explored such topics as gender and sexuality in African-American photography. Moreover, the film discussed the significance of the family photo album as an expression of identity.

“I think the family photograph is interesting because . . . you don’t often see the other side of the coin,” West said. “You [typically] see the dramatic images, the spectacle images that are taken from an outsider perspective rather than an internal [family] narrative.”

After the screening, viewers had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Deborah Willis, producer, and Mr. Thomas Harris, director, about the making of the documentary. Willis is currently the chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Harris is the founder and president of Chimpanzee Productions. The two have spent over ten years conceptualizing and producing the film.

“I hope the audience is able to explore new ways to read visual imagery,” Willis said of her hopes for the project’s impact.

The viewing of this film however is likely impacted by contemporary issues in photography and media, such as the coverage of the recent events in Ferguson, Mo.

“I think that with the recent slate of events starting in August right before the film was released changed the way people saw the film,” Harris said. “It had a certain resonance in terms of its truth to this current era.”