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Arts & Life

In 'More Than A Picture' Exhibit, History Happens Now


First Day of Memphis Integration, Tenn., 1961, is among the historical images in the collection.
Dr. Ernest C. Withers, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
First Day of Memphis Integration, Tenn., 1961, is among the historical images in the collection.

Remembering our nation's history through photographs is the focus of the newest and first special exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

"More Than A Picture" features more than 150 images from 80 well-known and lesser-known photographers who documented the lives of African-Americans. Their works showcase subjects who, in ordinary and extraordinary moments, shaped history.

One of the oldest photos — of an enslaved family — is estimated to have been taken between 1861 and 1862 on a plantation in Virginia. There is a photograph of the abolitionist Sojourner Truth, a well-known image of Black Panther leader Kathleen Cleaver clutching a rifle and a candid shot of author-activist James Baldwin being admired by a group of sailors in Turkey.

And, alongside the now-familiar photos of civil rights marches in the 1960s, the exhibit includes digital prints from recent protests in 2015.

Curator Aaron Bryant says it was important to integrate the older, iconic civil rights photos with those taken in the past few years, in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.

"We wanted to help people to understand that history isn't just in these objects that you would buy in an antique store, or at an auction like Sotheby's or Christie's," Bryant says. "History is about everyday people and everyday lives. And you can find important significant cultural as well as historical objects right there in your home."

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Bryant says some of these photos could be hiding in a family album, stashed away in a drawer or nearly forgotten in an attic or basement. Historical photographs, he says, could even be on your cellphone.

"We wanted folks to understand that history is happening right before our eyes every single day," he says.

Photographer Jermaine Gibbs captured a bit of history when he headed out with his camera to document what was happening on the streets of Baltimore during the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died while in police custody.

One of his photographs now hangs in the museum's exhibit.

It is of a young boy seen from the back, standing before two towering police officers in full riot gear. The tension of the moment is evident. The image shows the boy looking up into the face of the officer standing in front of him and, with one hand outstretched, offering a bottle of water.

"It was probably about 10 o'clock in the morning and the police were actually just setting up, but it was extremely hot," Gibbs says. "And some adults had come out with cases of water, so the young man went over and asked could he have one of the waters, and they thought he was just going to take it and keep it for himself. But what he did was he actually walked over to the officer and handed the officer the water."

Gibbs says he took the photograph in order to show people who might one day see his images that life in Baltimore, especially during that tense time, was not just "chaos."

"I noticed that everything that you saw on TV and everything you saw in the newspaper was giving a more negative image of what was going on, but I actually saw so much positivity at the riots and that's what I wanted to capture," he says. "So when I saw this I said, this is something that, 20 years from now, I can look back and say, 'Yes, this is a powerful image.' "

Bryant says the photos from Ferguson and Baltimore were included in the exhibit to not only show the evolution of civil rights protest but also to explore a concept that is at the heart of the exhibit — the idea of historical perspective.

In selecting Gibbs' photo, Bryant says the aim was to offer another frame of reference in the moment of unrest.

"We get a very different sense about what people who are fighting for justice, or communities who are fighting for justice — what that protest looks like," he says. "This gesture of giving a bottle of water to the police officer is just a part of this boy's everyday life. ... That was very important to show that it really wasn't this community against the police. That there are different perspectives of what actually happened during that protest, particularly from people who were documenting it with their cameras."

Dustin DeSoto and Janaya Williams produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

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