This post originally appeared in KQED Arts.
It’s February, and all across the U.S., events celebrate Black History Month to honor African-American contributions to society. In Oakland, the country’s most diverse city, celebrations come with an added importance of remembering history and the importance of the visual image.
Photographs are powerful. They are also personal. For Thomas Allen Harris, the family photo album has been a source of inspiration, as well as a point of collaboration and conversation. In his most recent film, Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, Harris interweaves his own story into the history of African-American photographers in the United States. An award-winning filmmaker, Harris has made films for the past 20 years using his family narrative as a point of departure.
Harris, who grew up in the Bronx and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, is deeply interested in family histories and how they intersect with the public record. At a young age, Harris sat on the knees of his grandfather, enjoying the stories of his family. Many of his previous films, in fact, have been tied to familial themes: Families of Value (1995) takes a deeper look at black families through the lens of queer siblings; É Minha Cara/That’s My Face (2001) is a queer “mythopoetic” journey through the African diaspora; and Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela (2004) was inspired by the passing of his South African stepfather, whose “weapon of choice was the camera,” Harris says.
With Through a Lens Darkly, Harris’ aim was to create a film based on Deborah Willis’ book, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present. The film is not just about black photography; on the phone from the East Coast, Harris describes it as “a war of images in the American family album.” As the end product of over seven years of extensive research and sifting through more than 15,000 photographs from institutional archives and professional photographers, in addition to 6,000 images from personal archives, the film uses about 950 images. Six months before the film was finished, Harris decided to put his own story into the film. “In many ways, it explodes notions of documentary,” he says.
Understanding the legacy of black photographers has important ramifications for what goes on today. Harris hopes the film will prompt viewers to think about race in a different way, and sees it ultimately as a call to action. “The goal is to understand the power of our family photographs and how they connect our family stories to the historical record, understanding our commonality despite our differences.”
For Harris, it’s about “how we see one another and ourselves,” a theme that’s echoed in an accompanying art exhibit at theOMI gallery at Impact Hub in Oakland.
“BLACK<3MATTERS,” curated by Ashara Ekundayo, co-founder of Impact Hub Oakland, represents the second time Oakland-based artists Karen Seneferu and her husband Malik Seneferu have shown their artwork together. As Karen Seneferu sees it, “The concerns that people have for the community can’t happen without love.” Ultimately, she believes one can’t declare that “black lives matter” unless one also recognizes “black love matters.”
For Impact Hub Oakland and Ekundayo, it’s all about love. “Love is our bottom line,” she says. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s seminal album A Love Supreme and Impact Hub Oakland’s first anniversary, Ekundayo sees the events as a three-prong conversation with the film, the space and the art.