Family photos of Maine’s Franco-American immigrants. Photographs documenting clandestine border crossings between Mexico and Arizona. Archival images of slaves and other migrants to British Guiana.
These were just a few of the subjects explored April 23-25 as scholars, students, artists, and area residents gathered at Colby for the Photography and Migration Conference.
The conference—which also included a student photo contest, a film screening, and exhibitions of historical photographs and artworks—was one of many events this academic year relating to the 2014-15 humanities theme, Migrations.
The theme was proposed by Associate Professor of Art Tanya Sheehan and Assistant Professor of Music Natasha Zelensky, who felt the subject would cut across disciplines and “get people thinking critically and creatively about where they come from, where they live, and where they are going,” Sheehan said.
One of the ways that was accomplished was through a screening and discussion of Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People (2014) with the film’s director, Thomas Allen Harris, a New York-based writer and documentarian. The film explores the history of black photography and representation, and it highlights the work of contemporary African-American photographers who have armed themselves with cameras and set out to reinvent the image of “blackness” and who “black people” are.
“How are blacks branded today?” Harris asked. “Who do you see?”
Harris and the photographers in the film consider the conflicting legacies of African-American humanity and self-worth. In the past, “negative images were the only images we saw,” one artist in the film said of racist cartoons and photos depicting African Americans as lazy or unintelligent. African Americans did not look directly at the camera when being photographed. And African-American photographers were not included in books of photography history.
The camera thus became a tool of empowerment—a way African Americans could reinvent themselves and change popular culture’s view of the their race. The film features 36 artists interacting with and discussing their work, focusing mainly on family photographs.
“If people could change the way they thought of the black subject … and think, ‘there’s a cultural group I can respect,’” an artist in the film said.
In the discussion following the film screening, Harris explained his reasons for including so many examples of negative images in the film. “If you don’t see the images and see the way it is, you risk having it happen again,” he said.
The work of contemporary black photographers is “the beautiful counter to it,” Harris said, encouraging African Americans of the next generation—younger photographers—to create a dialogue around where black identity is today.
Discussion at the conference centered on broader issues, like those raised in the film, as well as on groups close to Colby and its surrounding community.
“These are especially important things to reflect on as Colby aims to become a more diverse, international community,” Sheehan said. “We also live in a region whose history and present are deeply connected to immigration, but that is something that Colby students tend to know very little about.”
Sheehan’s students contributed to the discussion by curating and presenting an exhibition at Special Collections in Miller Library. The exhibition explored photographic representations of Franco-American immigrants to Waterville; the life of Samuel Osborne, a former slave who, after the Civil War, worked at Colby as a custodian for more than 30 years; and Irish immigrant and Olympian James Connolly, among others.
The effort to illuminate the stories of Waterville’s Franco-American immigrants included Sheehan buying photographs on eBay and connecting with families via Facebook.
On April 24 the effort culminated with John and Bunnie Picher, who are descendants of immigrants, joining students to describe and explain photos of events in the life of the large Franco-American family. “By learning about one man’s story, we can see what an immigrant’s life was like,” said Lydia Nicholson ’16 of photographer Gedeon Picher, John’s grandfather.
Osborne, students told scholars and residents at the exhibition, saw his daughter Marion become the first African-American woman to graduate from Colby. His self-representation in a dignified formal studio portrait is very different from the affable and agreeable janitor referenced in College archives, students said. His racial stereotype offers lessons for conversations on race that continue today, they said. “One person’s struggle on campus really needs to be everyone’s struggle,” said Angelica Crites ’16.
The exhibition and presentation were a resounding success, said Sheehan, whose own scholarship centers on ways photography tells migration stories like these. “What took place at Special Collections was the most meaningful part of the conference for me, and possibly the most rewarding moment of my teaching career,” she said.
As Sheehan told the audience at the conclusion of the presentations, “This is why I teach.”
Christina Dong ’17 contributed to this report.