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Documenting the unseen side of the Black Panther Party

In 1968, the Black Panther Party (BPP) stood 2,000 strong; armed not just with firearms, but a knowledge of the Constitution, state, and local laws. Initially organised to fight police brutality, the group quickly organised to institute community social programs. Leadership understood the power of the press and began working with writers, artists, and photographers to get the word out.

That year, Kathleen Cleaver met husband and wife photographers Pirkle Jones (1914-2009) and Ruth-Marion Baruch (1922-1997), and gave them unprecedented access to the inner circle of the BPP.  Of the work they made, Baruch said: “We can only tell you: This is what we saw. This is what we felt. These are the people.”

The photographs – first printed in The Black Panther weekly newspaper – were immediately well-received, and an exhibition of the work, Black Panthers: A Photo Essay, opened at San Francisco’s de Young Museum shortly after. More than 100,000 people attended the show, despite City Hall’s best efforts to pressure the photographers to delay or cancel it.

This historic body of work is the inspiration for Vanguard Revisited: Poetic Politics & Black Futures, an exhibition that places Jones and Barruch’s archival photographs in dialogue with the work of four contemporary black artists and collectives: Kija Lucas, Tosha Stimage, Chris Martin, and 5/5 Collective. The exhibition is the culminating project for the students of the Collaborative Practices Course, which was taught by Jeff Gunderson, Librarian and Archivist at San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) during autumn 2018.

Pirkle Jones, Black Panthers drilling before Free Huey Rally, DeFremery Park, Oakland, CA, #23 from A Photographic Essay on The Black Panthers.

Pirkle Jones, Black Panthers discussing their reading material, Bobby Hutton Memorial Park, Oakland, CA, #101 from A Photographic Essay on The Black Panthers. Commissioned by Swedish magazine, Vi.

Gunderson met Jones when he began working at SFAI’s Anne Bremer Memorial Library. Over the years, they spoke frequently about photography and politics, as well as his time as a student at SFAI on the G.I. Bill, studying photography under Ansel Adams in 1946, where he first met Baruch.

“Ruth-Marion received the very first MA in photography in the US in 1946 from Ohio University, doing her thesis on Edward Weston,” Gunderson remembers. “Afterwards she enrolled at SFAI, where she met the luminaries on the faculty: Adams, Weston, and Dorothea Lange, as well as Minor White, Lisette Model, and Imogen Cunningham.”

“Both Pirkle and Ruth-Marion had become radicalised in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, being anti-war, pro-civil rights and members of the Peace and Freedom Party. Ruth-Marion approached Kathleen Cleaver about photographing, explaining how she wanted to debunk the demonisation of the Panthers and to show the side of the Panthers not being shown in the media.”

After receiving an invitation to photograph a Free Huey Rally in Oakland’s De Fremery Park, Jones and Baruch were introduced to Kathleen’s husband, Eldridge Cleaver.

Pirkle Jones, Three men carrying Free Huey banners on court house steps, #71 from A Photographic Essay on The Black Panthers.

“Pirkle and Ruth-Marion were eager to have their photos shown in The Black Panther newspaper. The Panthers had a great grasp on communication: whether it be in their rhetoric, artwork, their confident style, and most of all their message, which resonated with a wide group of radicals, not just left-leaning African-Americans.”

“When they showed their first images to the Cleavers, the couple responded enthusiastically. Eldridge asked, ‘Why do your photographs have a feeling that none of the work I’ve seen of us by other photographers has?’”

Jones and Baruch stood in solidarity with the BPP, openly using photography to support and amplify the message. “They would never have considered themselves photojournalists – not even documentary photographers. Their photographs took a stance,” Gunderson says.

“Even though they worked together and their intentions were ‘to tell it like it is,’ in the parlance of the times, they photographed individually and then edited the set of photos into a joint essay. As one of the Panther founders Elbert ‘Bigman’ Howard would later say, Pirkle and Ruth-Marion, ‘had a great eye for humanity; nobody was posing; we were all part of somebody’s family.”

Pirkle Jones, Free Huey rally, Bobby Hutton Memorial Park (formerly DeFremery Park).

Pirkle Jones, Black Panthers in formation during drill, DeFremery Park, Oakland, CA, #57 from A Photographic Essay on The Black Panthers.

Pirkle Jones, Black Panthers from Sacramento, Free Huey Rally, Bobby Hutton Memorial Park, Oakland, CA, #62 from A Photographic Essay on The Black Panthers

Pirkle Jones, Free Huey rally, DeFremery Park, Oakland.

Pirkle Jones, Bullet Hole in plate glass window of Black Panther Party National Headquarters, Oakland, CA, #1 from A Photographic Essay on The Black Panthers.

 

Vanguard Revisited: Poetic Politics & Black Futures, co-organised with the University of California, Santa Cruz, is on view at San Francisco Art Institute through April 7, 2019.

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Categories
culture

A portrait of life in South Africa’s ‘white-only’ squats

Plakkerskamp is a photo series that documents both the white squatter camps and white-only communities that have developed in South Africa. These images, taken around Pretoria and Johannesburg, represent a fraction of the estimated 450+ squatter camps in the country.

I grew up, and still live, on the Isle of Man. I’m based and work out of Peel, a small fishing town on the west coast of the Island.

In 2015, I spent a couple of weeks over Christmas living with and documenting migrants in the Jungle – the enormous makeshift camp that grew to a population of 7000, situated on the outskirts of Calais, France. After publication, I noticed a few comparisons made to the townships and white squatter camps in South Africa. I was aware of the former, but not the latter.

I went to South Africa to document people in a situation that has gone broadly unreported throughout the rest of world.  I like to approach any project – whether it’s an individual portrait or a long-term photo-essay – without any preconceived ideas or rigid outlines. So the only real preparation was booking flights, arranging accommodation in Pretoria and organising a fixer.

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My fixer, BJ, would approach anyone who I wanted to photograph and introduce himself and then introduce me. Afrikaans is the first language of most of these people – although a few did speak English – so most of the explaining was done by BJ. The majority of people we approached agreed to be photographed, although some less enthusiastically than others. Anyone who didn’t want to be involved would calmly say, “Nee dankie” (no thank you). On a few occasions, after someone had refused, I’d shake their hand, smile and say thank you, and then the next minute I’d be inside their home, photographing them and whatever else I liked.

By far, the most prominent misconception was that, on entering the squatter camps, I’d be greeted with hostility and suspicion. It’s understandable given some of the local news coverage these people have received. As a result, the prominent concern that the residents had was that they didn’t want images used on social media to depict them in a negative or derogatory light, so openness and honesty about why I was making the images were important from the outset.

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I didn’t address racism with anyone that I photographed. However, it did enter conversations I had with white South Africans who I met during my stay. The general opinion didn’t vary a great deal: Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) is a programme launched by the South African government to redress the inequalities of Apartheid. It aims to give previously disadvantaged groups employment, but it appears to have caused more divisions. Many of the people I photographed believed that white, blue-collar workers were being replaced by black workers, regardless of experience or qualification.

An opinion which resonates throughout the world is that the white South Africans – predominantly Afrikaners – in some way ‘deserve everything they get’ for their treatment of black South Africans over 50 years of Apartheid. But what’s undeniable is that wherever you look around Pretoria and Johannesburg, the situation could not be any further away from Nelson Mandela’s vision of a ‘Rainbow Nation.’

I class myself as a documentary photographer, and I went to South Africa to document people in a situation that has gone broadly unreported throughout the rest of world. I only want to ‘show’, regardless of any political or historical bias. Viewers can, and will, come to their own conclusions.

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Morse Code Mine Dancing: A Language Born in the Darkness

Morse Code Mine Dancing: A Language Born in the Darkness

Born in the darkness of South African gold mines during Apartheid, “gumboot dancing” sprung from the basic need for exploited miners to communicate in what was a harrowing environment, where they were forbidden to even speak to one another. Workers decided to let their boots do the talking for them, and developed a kind of “morse code” from the noises made by the stomping of their rubber “Gumboots” or “Wellingtons.”  What became their form of communication in the underground took “body language” to whole new level and inspired an entirely new form of dance…