Development Studies, University of Nottingham
My thesis recovers the role of African American women photographers in both American photographic history and the long Civil Rights Movement. From the time of the camera’s invention in 1839 to the present day, African American women have utilised various networks in order to create careers rooted in American visual culture. I frame the project through the lens of the communal networks and power dynamics that women negotiated to access a persistently closed world in order to protest segregation. I structure the thesis around the various modes of photography which were adopted by African American women: activist photography; photojournalism; portraiture; government photography; and anthropological photography. This raises the vital research question of what ‘protest photography’ actually is, and to what extent private images can function as public protest.
By recovering these women’s experiences and images, I theorise a new scholarship on African American women’s camerawork. Central to this thesis are notions of the professional and the amateur within photography, the role of protest in imagery, and changing notions of respectability. From private support networks in the late 19th and early 20th century, to new professional contexts of World War II and the Civil Rights Movement, women photographers moved from the private to the public sphere. I evoke primary resources to give long denied scholarly attention to photographers such as Doris Derby, Eslanda Goode Robeson, and Elizabeth “Tex” Williams. In so doing, I challenge the dominant American canon of photography.