Exploring Racism through Photography

By Fey, Cass; Shin, Ryan et al. | Art Education, September 2010 | Go to article overview
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Exploring Racism through Photography

Fey, Cass, Shin, Ryan, Cinquemani, Shana, Marino, Catherine, Art Education

This Instructional Resource presents a selection of photographs from the collection of the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona. The photographs of Marion Palfi, Ansel Adams, and David Levinthal are included as examples of documentary, found, and staged imagery that reflect historical and social practices of individual, societal, and institutional racism in the United States. These photographs were originally presented as educational programming at CCP, where they were discussed with classes studying racism, writing, and art and visual culture education. Areas of study across the curriculum, including art, photography, language arts, history, sociology and literature can be enhanced as students examine these images for insights into racism, social justice, documentation, and creative expression.

Recommended for Grades 9-12

Race, Representation, Social Justice, and che Classroom

According to Apple ( 1 993) race is not a stable category. It intersects with culture, ethnicity gender, and sexuality and is enacted in society in different ways. Representations such as photographs shape how we view people and the world and can also be used to enable students to think about race and race relations. Since the political struggles of the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the gay and lesbian rights movement, many educators have changed their notions about curriculum to include discussion of representations and their ability to shape understandings. They fee/ that education can be used to remake society and challenge power structures to foster social and political equity. This Instructional Resource for high school teachers was forged as part of this larger discussion through a collaboration with a museum educator, a university professor and graduate students.


Students who are involved in these instructional activities will be able to:

* Understand that photography is a medium through which to expose and encourage discussion about racism, social justice. and inequality.

* Discuss and investigate societal and institutional racism in the US through photographs by Marion PaITi, Ansel Adams, and David Levinthal.

* Develop an awareness of social justice by discussing issues seen within the photographs such as discrimination, stereotyping, disrespect, and oppression of racial and ethnic minority groups.

* Create expressive artworks concerning diversity and social justice in historical and contemporary contexts.

Marion Palfi.

Born in Germany to a Jewish family, photographer Marion PaIfI ( 1 907- 1 978) fled Hitler's army in Europe and settled in New York City just prior to the outbreak of World War II. As she traveled through many parts of the United States, she was troubled by situations she encountered such as racial intolerance and poverty in urban centers. She also was disturbed by the unwillingness or inability of Americans to recognize and address these problems. Using her camera as a tool to record and address her concerns, she brought a fresh perspective to the topic of racism and injustice in America. Palfi described herself as a "social research photographer" and believed that art could and should effect social change. However, she had difficulty getting her work exhibited and published, largely because many Americans were not interested in seeing and hearing about their country's social inequities. Palfi produced several large documentary studies that included subjects such as discrimination against African Americans, poverty in urban areas, and racist treatment of Native Americans.

Palfi 's photographs document aspects of U.S. government-sanctioned practices that organized, invited, and sometimes· forced the relocation of Native American children from reservations to boarding schools sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or to Anglo schools and homes.This treatment was spearheaded by a movement at the end of the 1 9th century to assimilate Native Americans to AngloCaucasian culture in the name of Americanization, which ultimately led to the loss of Native language, identity, rituals, and traditional values (Moore, 2005).

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