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The camera's role in documenting a critical social movement


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: And finally tonight: a lens on America, millions of lenses, and the whole world is watching in this Race Matters report

Jeffrey Brown looks at the power of the camera to shape and shift perceptions, now and in the past.

And a warning: This story contains disturbing images.

This report is also part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: It begins with a brutal act, at once explosively public and painfully private, all caught on camera.

In the days since the killing of George Floyd, in a world awash with cameras, images of all kinds have galvanized millions, protesters and police, the Lincoln Memorial under armed guard, a president, knowing the power of a photo, creating his own, but also creating a different image that many Americans will never forget of peaceful demonstrators being forcibly removed.

Indelible images, urgent and immediate, but also part of a long history.

Deborah Willis: The camera has been central, central in terms of focusing on the issues of the storytelling of the moment.

Jeffrey Brown: NYU photography historian and curator Deborah Willis.

Deborah Willis: I see the camera as a visual diary. It is recording the voices and the images of people who want to make a change. How do we make a change? We have to show the evidence of what's going on in the community.

Jeffrey Brown: Evidence through different kinds of images, those of lynchings used by whites to further terrify the black community, and the brutally beaten body of 14 year old Emmett Till in his casket in 1955, photos his mother insisted the world should see.

Deborah Willis was one of the millions who did.

Deborah Willis: I was 7 years old when I first saw the image of Emmett Till in "Jet" magazine. I will never forget that moment.

To see that moment, to see it also revisited today as a conversation with the unfortunate death of George Floyd last week -- I'm just getting a little emotional -- but just to see that connection, it really helped us to remember that we need to make a difference.

Jeffrey Brown: In the 1960s, the nightly news showed police using water cannon and dogs against civil rights marchers in Alabama, images direct to the nation's living rooms.

In his art and documentary work, renowned photographer Gordon Parks captured a life that much of white America wasn't seeing, and images that could have been taken in recent days.

This is the camera as a kind of tool, as a kind of an advocacy tool?

Deborah Willis: Gordon Parks said he used the camera as a weapon to show the stories of injustices.

I see that photographers today are doing the same, that they're using their lenses to capture moments, to say, we need to make a change, we need to make a difference, because we can't live like this anymore.

Jeffrey Brown: Ever since the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police, the camera having an impact has often been held by an everyday citizen.

More recently, in 2014, a video of the death of Eric Garner in New York gave a further push to the Black Lives Matter movement. In February, Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed while running on a Georgia street. Two months later, after the release of video capturing the scene, arrests were made.

In May, a black bird-watcher named Christian Cooper taped this Central Park encounter, in a sense directing his own film.

Woman: I'm going to tell them there's an African-American man threatening my life.

Christian Cooper: Please tell them whatever you like.

Jeffrey Brown: He'd asked a white woman to leash her dog, as the law calls for. In this case, the camera was his protection.

And, of course, social media allows instant dissemination of images to the world.

Mark Clennon: It's a beautiful thing. For the first time in the history of mankind, the power of the image has been democratized, right? You don't need an expensive camera to tell a story, right?

George Floyd, his story was catapulted into the global consciousness from an iPhone.

Jeffrey Brown: Thirty-two-year-old Mark Clennon is a professional photographer who first gained a following on Instagram. In recent days, he's been taking part in and photographing protests in New York.

Mark Clennon: The camera's a mirror, right?

You go, you break down, you open up a camera, it's a series of lenses and mirrors. It's my job to just show a mirror to America, what it looks like right now, and, really, as the holder of that mirror, be as accurate as I can, and really show that this is more than just a protester. These are real people. These are real humans, real stories.

Jeffrey Brown: Clennon says he feels a responsibility in all his work, and especially now, to present a portrait of what it means to be African-American today.

Mark Clennon: I think it's a responsibility that all black artists have to carry. When I first go to a protest, you know, my camera is to my side, and I'm just taking in the gravity of this moment.

I have a three-month-old daughter. And when she's an adult, she's going to say, I was born in New York City, you know, the epicenter of a global pandemic, and now a loud microphone for this new movement for justice.

I have broken down crying at multiple protests. I think why some of the images are so strong and people are looking in my eyes, because they can see tears in my eyes and the top of my mask is wet, because it feels like, you know, I'm attending a funeral daily.

Jeffrey Brown: So much of American history was photographed, documented, written about by white people.

So, how important is it to you to be doing that, documenting what happens now, as a black man?

Mark Clennon: I just want to make sure that we have a first-person account.

I want to make sure that the black voice is not left out of this conversation, especially since we are the center of this conversation. We black Americans are taking ownership of our stories, right?

We can now educate our peers and educate ourselves as a community. And that is unique. That is the number one differentiator between now and the original civil rights movement, is our ability to tell our stories.

Jeffrey Brown: A still unfolding moment in American history being captured one image at a time.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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