The Need To Take A Stand – A Review Of ‘The Long Road: From Selma To Ferguson’
“There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
Brothers on the instant replay.”
From The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron, 1970.
Sometimes a gallery show comes along that is both timely, and unfortunately quite necessary. The current exhibition at the Monroe Gallery of Photography in Santa Fe is exactly that. Entitled The Long Road: From Selma To Ferguson, it was first conceived as a show to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. But as a result of the recent events taking place in Ferguson, Baltimore and New York, as well as in many other places, the gallery decided to change tack and incorporate both historical and contemporary images of the ongoing struggle for equal rights.
The result is a powerful presentation, full of moving and poignant pictures. There is one by Whitney Curtis of a young boy with tears streaming down his face whilst attending a vigil. The child’s grief is palpable and heart-breaking. There is another one by the same photographer of a young man raising his hands and slowly backing away from at least three police men decked out in full riot gear. The sense of imminent danger and the man’s unbridled fear are practically jumping of the print. There is a shot by Nina Berman of a teenager leaning out of the door frame, with a piece of paper tacked to the adjacent wall stating: “Will I be next?” This searingly brutal question and blunt reference to the death of Eric Garner hits the viewer square in the gut.
As it turns out, Gil Scott-Heron was wrong. These days there seem to be nothing but pictures of people being gunned down by coppers on repeat. The revolution is live and ongoing.
Interspersed with these contemporary colour images are black and white ones from the early days of the civil rights struggle. For obvious reasons, quite a few photographs revolve around the turning points in history as well as the key players. Portraits of Martin Luther King naturally take pride of place. The strongest pictures, however, are those of ordinary and unidentified demonstrators fighting for their rights. There is for example Bob Adelman’s jarring image of a group of students huddling close whilst being hosed down by the police in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. It is a beautifully composed picture. The way the light hits the water is almost magical. But then the viewer realises that the students have to embrace each other to stand up to the power of the water and, by extension, to the power of the police. Suddenly the photograph is not so beautiful anymore.
Finally, there is a plain but painful picture by Steve Schapiro of an elderly lady warmly dressed and ready to brace the cold, carrying a placard stating “Stop Police Killings”. That particular photograph was taken in Selma in 1965. Considering that The Guardian keeps a running tally of police killings in the US in 2015, which as I write this piece is standing at the unbelievable number of 731, the image remains all too relevant. As it turns out, Gil Scott-Heron was wrong. These days there seem to be nothing but pictures of people being gunned down by coppers on repeat. The revolution is live and ongoing.
But then the viewer realises that the students have to embrace each other to stand up to the power of the water and, by extension, to the power of the police. Suddenly the photograph is not so beautiful anymore.
It is therefore all the more poignant that almost a year to the day that Ferguson erupted in riots upon the shooting dead of Michael Brown by the police, I accidentally wandered into this show. Visiting it is a jarring experience, set as the gallery is in a sunny, genteel and picturesque tourist destination visited primarily by the better-heeled part of the population. Viewers for whom racial, sexual or gender inequality and police brutality has never been a first hand experience. Visitors who must have seen these photographs splashed out in the media as these events unfolded.
Apparently, not only do we as viewers not know how to look at these pictures as they continue to appear in the press, we do not know how to act upon them, how to change this situation, how to stop these tragedies from ever happening again. And perhaps that realisation is the most painful message of the exhibition.
The Long Road: From Selma to Ferguson is still on view until September 27, 2015.