On a photograph

A snapshot taken in the late 40s or early 50s. I thought of it while attending the Callaloo Literary conference last week and listening to the words of British filmmaker John Akomfrah. “Images,” Akomfrah said, “speak to the future.”photo-with-cane

I know the young man in the photo. I know that the picture was taken at Tuskegee University. I know that the young man is now dead. Akomfrah adds that images for people of color are typically set in the context of pathology. But there’s no pathologizing here. The man in the picture is dapper. He leans on a cane. He draws attention to himself and offers a smile that is large, unrestrained.

Akomfrah describes himself as a bricoleur: “I love the way that things that are otherwise discrete and self-contained start to suggest things once they are forced into a dialogue with something else.”

Let’s say Gordon Parks’ photo of Muhammad Ali on Staircase, then. Consider the casual drape of Ali’s body against the rail, his ease. His head lifted slightly, as if avoiding an unseen upper cut. Or take any televised episode where a black man leans against a brick wall or the side of a patrol car. Assume the position that any of these images suggests. Assume the position of the young man in the photo: cantilevered, balanced, an inclined plane.

The posing young man performs. He is an aerialist defying gravity, his body shaped into Hayden’s needful thing, wearing his unfettered confidence like a good suit. He doesn’t seem to care about falling or injury, only about his image, the image he is making. For? He can’t know. The future is a question he leans into. The question holds him up, supports him.

Akomfrah says, in another interview, “the distinction between what is ‘archival’—or elsewhere—and what constitutes an original image becomes blurred, in the sense that every time I bring a camera out I’m always aware of the unseen guests that are there, whether it’s other filmmakers, artists, or narratives. You’re aware that there’s a historical bleed into what you’re constructing.” I think about context: Alabama.

Montgomery . . . Selma . . . Anniston . . . Birmingham fire hoses. Young men and women leaning their bodies away from battering rams of water. It tore the bark from trees, they said. The snapshot of the young man shows nothing of this. Only his smile says it hasn’t yet happened. He hasn’t yet seen it.

JNH