I chose this picture to represent the second day in Montgomery because of the way it affected me.
I took it in the Southern Poverty Law Center. I was just kind of randomly shooting – shooting in museums is kind of hit or miss really but this one had such good interactivity. I was impressed and inspired by the information architecture and the relationship that designers chose between pictures and words that made for such a powerful display and a good learning experience that I was actually using my camera to take notes.
This shot was actually taken in a lecture room, and though I normally shoot back to front, the backdrop was so nondescript that my naked eye didn’t really notice it. I had been shooting this trip in vivid, high contrast settings trying to honor the style of the civil rights photographers – darkly joking that their style helped the movement by making blacks look blacker and whites look whiter. The first shot with this backdrop was actually a group shot, and my classmates and teacher were actually smiling, laughing. As I saw the shot take place in my view-panel on the camera, both the sight of it and the metaphor made my knees buckle and took the wind out of me. So of course I kept shooting.
The metaphor is this – Professor Arsenault is brave, sticking his neck out by essentially unearthing a lot of the details of the Civil Rights Movement in the deepest of the deep south and traveling to the sites, students in tow, to pay honor to places that the region would likely rather forget (more on that when we get to Anniston). Essentially behind the veneer of the soft-spoken articulate intellectual is a tough guy standing strong and recognizing heroes that could have disappeared in history. And Dee sitting next to him teaches teenagers about the holocaust, I can’t begin to think about what her day is like and the questions she has to answer, attitudes she has to help kids confront. Both of them, people I like very much, potential targets.
The second layer of this metaphor for me, once the photo revealed the backdrop it was hard to see anything else, and yet the group was oblivious to the giant image of the hooded man behind them. This was how the KKK operated, at night, in the shadows until it was time to strike. Prototypical boogiemen. I didn’t like this looming behind the people I had grown to know and in some instances love during this week. The knee-buckling came from this visual which made me feel the same way I feel during this reoccurring nightmare that I have had regularly since I was a kid. The gist of it is, I see something awful in the distance and I am with people I love. I am always calm, and the only one who sees it, and I am the only one who escapes. I try really hard to warn and rescue folks to no avail.
My nightmare, it turns out, was surely a reality for people who lived in this period and had to deal with the KKK. I am reminded of a quote I heard from Rosa Parks the day before this was taken,“It was just a matter of survival, of existing from one day to the next. I remember going to sleep as a girl and hearing the Ku Klux Klan ride at night and hearing a lynching and being afraid the house would burn down.” How are could someone be anything but powerless when they are captured at night? The reality of lynching is hard for me to take, yet through the study of civil rights I feel like I now have the strength to look it in the eye, and to make sure I am never ever in a circumstance where I am sticking my head in the sand.
This picture will remind me to always look in the shadows and be watching the backs of the people I believe in.