‘Jayliani Cruz, Pyne Point, Camden, New Jersey’ by Hannah Yoon/New York Times
American society was shaken to its core in 1968 by a series of cataclysmic events. Senator Robert Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King were assassinated, there was rioting in major cities and peace protests across college campuses, and the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War was reaching a bloody peak.
That same year, a Magnum Photos project was conceived that tried to make sense of these tumultuous months, which culminated in the inauguration of Richard Nixon as US president. Led by American photographer Charles Harbutt and Lee Jones, Magnum’s New York bureau chief, America in Crisis was an attempt to assess the state of a nation riven by poverty, racism and inequality.
More than five decades on an exhibition at Saatchi Gallery, London, involving 120 works by 40 leading US photographers, explores social change in the US from the 1960s to today. America in Crisis, inspired by the original Magnum project, is co-curated by three influential figures from the world of photography. Consultant Sophie Wright, Gregory Harris from Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, and photographer and academic Tara Pixley have selected the work of contemporary image-makers such as Hannah Yoon alongside classic imagery from Bruce Davidson HonFRPS and others.
Pixley explains why, in the wake of the Trump presidency and the Black Lives Matter movement, the time was right to consider America in crisis once again.
‘Grant Park, Chicago, 1968’ by Charles Harbutt
What inspired you and your co-curators to revisit the Magnum project America in Crisis?
The idea for an update to the 1968 America in Crisis project came from Sophie Wright as she mentions in this article published during the lead-up to the 2020 elections.
It has been a little over half a century since the original project noted the myriad crises faced by so many Americans who daily experience poverty, inequality, racism, violence and the many other issues that the project broaches. For me, the timing is connected to both the global crisis that the pandemic has represented and the racial justice movement led by BLM in the US.
These two things happening during the Trump presidency, which normalised white supremacy in America again and incited an insurrection, making clear how dire these co-mingled American crises are. We must bring every form of communication and public engagement to bear in recognising this: art, literature, journalism, activism and more. This exhibition is one of many forms of cultural production trying to speak to these ongoing political, social and economic problems.
‘The Capitol, Washington DC, 6 January 2021’ by Leah Millis/Reuters
Which photographers did you select for the exhibition?
Each of the three curators brought our individual aesthetics and perspectives to the selection of the contemporary photographers. With my background in photojournalism, I prize images that document moments and concepts using single frames to tell complex, compelling stories. I also find stirring portraits and photographs that reimagine tropified topics to be particularly engaging.
There are several photographers in this exhibition whose work resonated with me along those lines and that I also selected as exemplary of the cultural shift in documentary and news photography since the original America in Crisis project (which featured primarily white and male photographers). It is an honour to show the work of Josue Rivas, who co-founded Indigenous Photograph and documented the fight for justice at Standing Rock through powerful black and white imagery. I am so happy to have Kennedi Carter’s gorgeous portraits of Black life in the American South as part of the project. Hannah Yoon is incredible at capturing moments as poignant as they are beautifully photographed and one of her images in the exhibit just evokes the American Dream so incredibly. Those are just a few of the excellent photographers in the show. It has been a privilege to bring together so much lovely new work in conversation with brilliant historical images.
‘Bungalow family with last ash tree, Midway, Chicago, USA, 2018’ by Paul D’Amato
What difference has the Black Lives Matter movement made to how US society is portrayed in photography?
One major difference between historical photographs of the civil rights movement and contemporary images of justice movements like BLM and Standing Rock is the photographers. There were so few Black people telling stories about their own communities experiencing racial injustice and fighting for equity in the 1960s, but today we are seeing a radical shift toward recognising and highlighting the work of Indigenous, Black, Asian, LGBTQ+ photographers and many other image-makers from historically marginalised groups.
Having so many different perspectives telling visual stories has opened up the way we view the world and ourselves. That work to diversify and decolonise photography pre-dates the BLM protests, but the editorial world really started paying attention in the wake of America’s 2020 racial reckoning. I think it’s making a huge impact and I can see the difference in how varied and unique contemporary photography is today. The work featured in this exhibit to me feels so expansive and wide-ranging in its approaches, and that in itself is a testament to what happens when you open up the field to a multitude of storytellers and move away from homogeneity behind the camera.
‘#FXCK July 4: Rally cultivating change from injustice and police brutality toward women and LGBTQ+, Atlanta, Georgia, 2020’ by Sheila Pree Bright
Describe your own role in the world of photography.
I have been a photojournalist and photo editor for 20 years, as both a staff photographer and freelancer for the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN, Wall Street Journal, NPR and many other editorial organisations. While working toward my PhD in communication, I began advocating for critical approaches to visual media production while studying and writing about inequity in photojournalism. In 2017, I co-founded Authority Collective, an organisation that resources, elevates and builds community for women and non-binary photographers of colour.
Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many incredible photographers curating exhibitions of work by QTPOC and BIPOC photographers, disrupting inequitable and exclusionary practices that limit photographers of colour and women’s success in visual media industries, and organising projects that shift conversations around photography practices and ethics. Some examples of that advocacy and educational work – always produced in collaboration with others – is the Photographer’s Guide to Inclusive Photography, Authority Collective’s Do No Harm Statement, and the Photo Bill of Rights.
I am currently a professor of visual journalism at Loyola Marymount University, a freelance photographer, and am writing a book chronicling the move to decolonise photojournalism.