The Fire Next Time

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The Fire Next Time

 

Zhenghao(Steve) Wang

 

What role does art play in the tracks of history? For a long time in my perspective, an

artwork shall either be impressive or documentary. There’s hardly something in-between or can

do both. But this time in the High Museum of Atlanta, I saw some documentary pictures that are

so impressive that lead me think far beyond the superficial story of the picture. That was my first

time having such deep thoughts on some simple documentary pictures.

Those pictures were both taken during the Civil Rights Movement period, which is around

1950s to 1960s. The first picture is called Arrest of a Demonstrator by Bruce Davidson. In the

frame, there’re three main subjects, a black woman and two white police officers. The title is

very straightforward, the black woman is arrested by those two police officers. Her arms were

spread and each held by a police officer. Her dress and cardigan sweater and the pearl earring

indicate that she lives a well life, but now, she is controlled by two strong male police officers.

She stares at one of them on her left with anger, dissatisfaction and sadness. The police officers,

however, are quite the contrary. They’re talking and sweeping the surrounding, seems to be very

familiar with such a business.

This picture was taken in 1963 in Birmingham, and I think it was captured in the downtown

area since there’s a building with big shop signs and a busy pedestrian shopping street in the

background. This black-and-white social documentary picture is 11 inches by 7 inches. Though

it’s not a very big picture, but the size of it won’t change my impression of it or the seriousness

of the issue it shows: the contrast between different races during that special period of time. And

I think black-and-white helps emphasize the issue. When there’s no dispute from other colors, we

only thing I can read from the frame is the issue of races. This picture not only clearly

emphasizes the serious conflict between African Americans and white people, but also shows

persistent efforts those fighters did to acquire equality. And I think besides the conflict of races, Wang 2

there’s another conflict in this picture: the conflict of gender. Two strong and tall male police

officers are arresting a weak black woman; that’s really an interesting conflict.

The second picture was also taken by Bruce Davidson and also has a very straightforward

name: Man Dragged Away by His Feet During a CORE Demonstration. In the picture, a young

black man is lying on the ground while two police officers each holding one of his legs and

dragging him towards the direction of the camera. I can’t tell the race of the police officers, but

since this young man was being dragged away, I would naturally assume that he was treated

violently and was knocked down by some people, probably that two police officers. Those two

policemen occupy most area in that frame, so there’s only a small gap which is about a sixth of

the width of the frame. In that gap, I can see the face of the young man. He doesn’t look at the

police officers; rather, he is looking to his left. I can’t see what he’s looking at since the

policeman blocks nearly all the frame, but I guess probably he’s looking at journalists. Behind

the police officers and that young man stand several spectators. One of them in the front wears a

white coat and puts his hands in the pockets. This pose gives me a feeling of indifferent and

careless.

This picture is relatively the biggest in the exhibition; it’s 20 inches by 14 inches. Though

it’s bigger than the previous picture, it doesn’t impressive me more. The reason probably is the

main subject is quite small in the picture compared to the police officers in the foreground, and

only his face was captured within that frame. This picture was taken in 1964 in New York City. I

was shocked by this piece of dark history of this city, this one of the most inclusive city in the

world. This black-and-white social documentary is surely about the racial conflict, but I see

something beyond.

The conflict between the demonstrator and police officers is inevitable. It’s not only the

conflict between races but also between normal people and the ruling class. Police officers

represent the government, and that black young man is an example of normal people. I believe

those police officers were not deliberately dragging the young man away; that’s their work.

Police officers are also workers. They should follow the directions and orders of the leadership

because they have to support the family. Maybe they didn’t want to do this in such an

undignified manner, but sometimes they could not choose. What really makes me thinking Wang 3

deeply are those surrounding people. They simply step several feet away from the ongoing drama

to be total outsiders and spectators. None of them were trying to help the young black man.

I don’t want to say that those spectators were wrong; human beings should avoid any risk

and this is our natural instinct. But this scene still makes me feel disappointed. I remembered a

poem called First They Came… by pastor Martin Niemoller.

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialist

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak out for me (Niemoller)

The indifferent attitude of the outsiders is as desperate as the action of police officers, but on the

other hand, it shows the fearless fighting spirit of the demonstrators.

The third picture was also taken by Bruce Davidson, and as the previous two, it also has an

explicit name: Arresting Demonstrators. The picture is showing the back of a van on which the

back doors are opened. The inner space of the van was split into half by a vertical partition. In

the left part of the van, there’s a row of seats and a black man is sitting near the front of the van,

facing that vertical partition. He spreads his legs and puts his elbows on his knees with hands

holding together. This pose gives me a feeling of anxious and unsettled, with a bit of remorseful, Wang 4

just like those people in the hospital waiting for their friends and relatives to get out of the

operating room.

In the right half of the van sits a black woman. She is sitting on a single chair facing

outside, and the rest of the carriage is blocked by clapboards so she only has a 1 meter by 1

meter space. She just sits there, looks down and holds her hands. The inside of the van has strong

shadows so I can’t see her face clearly. But her pose indicates regretfulness and painfulness.

Railings are attached on every single window of the van, which indicates that this is a police car.

Next to the left back door of the van in the left part of the frame stands two police officers. One

of them is writing something on his notebook while holding a plate writes “Khrushchev can eat

here Why Can’t We”. This short sentence is the crying out of the black community, the seeking

of equality. It was during the Cold War period, and why Khrushchev, the Soviet Union leader, the

leader of the enemy country can be well-treated while our own people couldn’t receive equal

treatment?

This black-and-white social documentary is 9 inches by 6 inches. It’s quite small compared

to the previous one, but the size didn’t affect the deep impression it gave me. It was also captured

in 1963 in Birmingham, so I assume it’s the same time and within same series as the Arrest of a

Demonstrator. And same as Arrest of a Demonstrator, it also shows the conflict of races and

conflicts between authorities and normal people.

The forth picture I would like to share is also captured by Bruce Davidson called National

Guard Soldiers Escort the Freedom Riders Along Their Ride from Montgomery to Jackson. I

noticed that Davidson always names his pictures in a truly straightforward manner. Just by

looking at the name I can basically picture the whole frame in my mind. This picture was taken

on a bus. In the middle of the picture is a black woman sitting in the seat next to the window.

Sunlight comes through the window and makes her bright. She is looking out of the window with

mouth half opens. I assume she’s singing because a white man sitting behind her is also half

opening his mouth. Through the bus window, I see a fleet of cars is making a right turn following

the bus, and those cars are surrounded by the crowd. A soldier is standing next to a car looking at

the bus. Unlike previous pictures, this picture gives me a feeling of hope and delightfulness. It’s Wang 5

like that bright beam of sun light going through the bus window and illuminates the dark

carriage.

This black-and-white picture is the same size as Arresting Demonstrators: 9 inches by 6

inches, and also the same genre. But unlike the previous three, it doesn’t indicate any conflict;

rather, it’s more about peace and equality. A black woman and a white man are in the same bus

fighting for the same goal. That’s the ultimate melody of the society of different races.

There’s another interesting piece of artwork in the same exhibition. It’s a bunch of metal

light boxes with black-and-white transparencies, on which show enlarged and fractured

documentary photographs of 1960s civil rights demonstrations. It’s called ‘The Fire Next Time’, and was created by Alfredo Jaar. That’s my first time see such a way showing pictures. Looking

through those pictures is like walking through the history, the history of a group of fearless great

people seeking for their rights and equality.

This whole exhibition makes me remember the work of Eugene Richards exhibited in the

ICP museum last year. His pictures also depict racial conflict and record chaos. As I wrote

before, the history of human beings is a history of contrast, conflicts and distinction. Those brave

fighters during the Civil Rights Movement are pioneers of seeking for equality and thanks to

them and their great achievements, we’re now enjoying a society without discrimination and

inequality.

Are we?

For a long period of time, I’ve been thinking about what role does photography play in the

modern society. As the cost of technology continues to decrease, photography becomes

increasingly accessible for the public. Everyone can capture images which impressed them.

However, such a popularity might also be a great tragedy of the field. Most people simply seek to

take beautiful portraits of themselves, snapshot a specific scene or use the black white

documentary style that’s been outdated for decades. The photography they indulge in has neither

depth nor the reflection of emotional value. In such a world, does photography still have

advantages?

Let’s think in another way. Film has a vivid, well-rounded imaging expression that can

never be surpassed by photography; and sounds in film can undoubtedly provide the audience Wang 6

with a sense of rhythm that photography can never have. If Bruce Davidson used film to record

the conflict and chaos during the Civil Rights Movement, wouldn’t it be more vivid and

straightforward?

Actually, in some sense the static quality of photography that is precisely its greatest

advantage. Perhaps another way of looking at it is that one can find in photography a sense of

comfort that expels noice. Photography is simultaneously the thinking of a static image, a

snapshot expression of an emotion on display, the understanding of the author and moreover, the

examination of himself or herself. Henri Cartier-Bresson had a theory of “capturing the decisive

moment”, and I think all Bruce Davidson’s pictures in this exhibition are the best example of that

theory. But when I was looking at those pictures, I was not only thinking about what those

equality fighters brought to this modern society, but also something deeper.

With the great effort of multiple generations of people, the discrimination and racial

conflicts between African Americans and white people are basically eliminated. Probably some

may think that it’s time to celebrate the victory. But wait, racial conflict and discrimination are

not vanished at all; the target now is Asians.

Discrimination against Asians can be traced back to the 19th century. When China was

ruling by the broken Qing Dynasty, the country was no more lively or strong. The Eight-Nation

Alliance could enter the capital city of China easily and crazily robbed treasures from China. At

that time, the image of China and Chinese people is no more strong or invincible for foreign

invaders; it became a symbol of weakness and punk. In the 20th century, a lot of Chinese people

traveled far to the States and stayed in big cities such as New York to make a living. To rule

those Chinese workers, the New York government built Chinatown and forced them to live

inside. The unfriendly attitude against Asians was probably formed at that time and still exists

now. Once I was walking on fifth avenue near Washington Square Park, an old white man

shouted “Chink, go back to your f*cking country, you f*cking chink.” I was shocked. My brain

went totally empty that I couldn’t even fight back. That’s the first time I realized that

discrimination always exists, even in the most inclusive city on earth. This is just the tip of the

iceberg; at least it’s straightforward that we can fight back. There’s some hidden discrimination

that can be much more severe. Take college application for example, even though the number of Wang 7

total Asian applicants is continuously increasing in recent years, the ration of Asian students is

always the same, even falls a little bit. The average SAT score of Asian students in Harvard is

about 200 points higher than the white student. Such indirect discrimination hurt even more than

those superficial ones.

The history of human beings is the history of conflicts, and the development of the society

is change of form of conflicts. Though we can never eliminate conflicts and chaos totally, but we

shall at least try. I wish one day, Asians can be united together and start a new Civil Rights

Movements to fight against discrimination and racial conflicts. A single spark now can be the fire

next time.

 

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