“Look at me and know that to destroy me is to destroy yourself”
– Gordon Parks, “A Harlem Family,” 1968
I Am You. Only after seeing, thinking, reflecting, Gordon Parks’ exhibition at the FOAM, I can kind of figure out what the title entails. But I cannot fully grasp it. Pictures, looking, voyeurism, me, you, the unnecessary (and still existing) difference. The exhibition made it abundantly clear that these topical things are completely intertwined. In no way, I could identify with the family of deceased gang members, a gang member, people of color during segregation, or Civil Rights Moment leaders. Not because these are pictures from the past. It’s because, in order to identify yourself with someone else, it demands sameness, necessitates similarity and disallows difference. And as a white privileged Dutch Art History student, I will never be able to fully grasp the struggle. But the title seems to imply something else.
Gordon Parks was not only a photographer although he saw the camera as a “weapon of choice for social change.” He was a poet, made films and music composer and worked as a journalist for LIFE magazine from the 1940s to the 1970s. The pictures of the exhibition ranged from fashion photography to documentary photo’ issues relating to poverty and social injustice; including pictures of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.
The fashion pictures were beautiful and it was actually funny and very refreshing that a picture of Marilyn Monroe has remained “Untitled”. I saw it as a kind of statement but I am not sure if that was the case.
A Man Becomes Invisible was a series based on Invisible Man by acclaimed novelist Ralph Ellison. The book is about of an unnamed protagonist who lives and studies in the South and moves to the North during the Jim Crow Apartheid era. The book is about a search for his own identity and visibility in white dominated America. The pictures depict the parts of the book that took place in Harlem. The series, made for LIFE magazine, is a mix of the poetic or the surreal with a documentary quality.
For me, the most penetrating part of the exhibition was A Harlem Family. It was photo series for a LIFE magazine spread in 1967. Parks depicted the very poor Fontenelles family members. The family included 9 children and lived in Harlem. One of the pictures captured the family surrounding an oven during Thanksgiving. Not because they were preparing a Turkey. The oven was empty. They needed the oven against the cold. The pictures and text were so heartbreaking that LIFE readers collected money for the family for a new house. Only, three months after the move, the father Norman Senior, (who apparently was a drunk) dropped a burning cigarette onto the sofa. It burned down the house and killed the father and one of the sons Kenneth. Seeing these pictures broke my heart and made me angry at the same time. Looking at these pictures creates a distance between me and the tragic family. I have never known any form of poverty and I will probably never have to. It also makes clear that even though the LIFE magazine readers (and I think it’s safe to say that they were mainly white) were able to collect enough money for them to buy a house, it did not end their problems. Because the bigger picture is the struggle within institutional racism which is reinforced by prevailing power structures of white supremacy, over and over again.
Another significant picture is Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-shopping. It was part of series of images of everyday American life under segregation in the ’50s. It shows an apt illustration of how many parts of society are pretending to be “neutral” and are seemingly always white (which is often still the case).
The title of the exhibition I Am You are probably derived from his statement: “For I am you, staring back from a mirror of poverty and despair, of revolt and freedom.” His pictures have the piercing quality to provide an insight into the lives of people of color and the things they have to face. Things white people never have to. It offers another perspective on society instead of the perpetual white lens. And that is the great thing about art. It has the ability to broaden people’s view on life. It is very sad that to see that even though these pictures are so striking, and could potentially be so effective, just as many other great artists (be it music, visual arts, movies, or any other art form) could potentially be very effective. But the battle against ending white supremacy has not been able to make huge strides at all since the ’50s.
This is, of course, a personal experience of the exhibition. I do hope it doesn’t come across that his pictures only serve for Dutchies to understand certain problems, they should have understood already. But I think he did endeavor to make people understand the struggle against racism as he said: “Try to understand my struggle against your racism. There is yet a chance for us to live in peace beneath these restless skies.” And to get back to the first quote, I think an important message is, that even though no one would ever admit (to themselves) that someone is a racist, it is very much part of everyday life. I think the white community has to look critically look in the mirror to see that we enforce social injustice and that a lot of things still have to change.
This review has come a little too late because today is the last day of the exhibition and I bought the last available exhibition catalogue. Sorry!