Harvard’s Sarah Lewis wants us to create images as mirrors rather than windows

The photography critic and scholar resists shortcuts and oversimplification. True representational justice demands a shift in context—in other words: this is a job for everyone. She gets to work in Document's Fall/Winter 2019 issue.

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Sarah Lewis never planned to become a Harvard professor. Following her graduation from Harvard College in 2001, she received an M.Phil. in economic and social history at St. John’s College, Oxford, then held curatorial positions at the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern. After receiving a Ph.D. in the history of art from Yale, she had an offer in hand from a major museum—but then, in 2015, Harvard came calling.

The first course Lewis taught at the university, Vision and Justice: The Art of Citizenship, became an instant classic—the kind undergraduates refer to around campus in a sort of casual shorthand, alongside such enrollment heavyweights as Justice and Ec10. It also became the source material for another instant classic, Aperture 223, “Vision & Justice.” Lewis was the guest editor of the issue, which won the 2017 Infinity Award for critical writing and research given by the International Center of Photography.

Through Vision and Justice—both the course and the Aperture issue—Lewis has become a leading voice in the conversation about representation that is currently regrading the media landscape. But Lewis’s message is one that resists shortcuts and oversimplification: The objective shouldn’t be to insert members of underrepresented populations into the prevailing (largely white, largely male, largely straight) context. This isn’t a job for casting agents alone. True representational justice demands a shift in context, which will entail updating the composition of writers’ rooms and editorial boards and photo departments and film sets to reflect the world around us. In other words: this is a job for everyone. Let’s get to work.

Dan Gilmore: In your essay introducing Aperture 223, you wrote, ‘The endeavor to affirm the dignity of human life cannot be waged without pictures, without representational justice.’ Tell me about representational justice and what that means.

Sarah Lewis: It was such a privilege to edit the ‘Vision & Justice’ issue of Aperture. My research looks at the catalytic role of images for landmark moments of justice that combat racial inequity in this country. This is why I consider the work about what I’ve called ‘representational justice.’ It’s concerned with the relationship between the work of representation—images, films—in a representative democracy.

The Aperture issue was inspired by the first course I taught at Harvard, with the same title. It takes as a starting point that citizenship was defined initially in this country as being white, male, and able to hold property. It then asks the question, what is the journey from then to the current day? Is it simply a legal narrative that has enlarged that definition? Or is it also a cultural one? The course is structured around those inflection points on the journey.

Images create the narratives that give us a sense of both norms and possibilities. What happens when images of a group of people are warped in society? Or if there is a conspicuous absence of them? The results are harmful. Racial stereotypes were cemented and lodged on American soil with the aid of images. The counter-narratives needed to author a more just image of humanity in American life is why we thank our photographers, from Gordon Parks to Carrie Mae Weems. Images have a persuasive efficacy. Both a singular powerful image and a set seen over time can inspire and dislodge our beliefs about what can be.

Today, as we’re saturated by the image, the narratives we communicate about one another are being freighted onto pictures. Irrespective of what we do with our lives, we all are cultivating a kind of visual literacy.

“People have blind spots. Yet the insidious thing about stereotypes is that people get so comfortable with them.”

Dan: This summer, we witnessed a major cultural event when Beyonce was on the cover of the September issue of Vogue—and particularly when it was revealed that she selected the photographer, 23-year-old Tyler Mitchell, making him the first African American photographer to shoot a Vogue cover in the magazine’s 125-year history. Beyonce wrote in the issue, ‘Until there is a mosaic of perspectives coming from different ethnicities behind the lens, we will continue to have a narrow approach and view of what the world actually looks like.’ This is something that filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and Lena Waithe have also spoken about—and done something about. Are we witnessing a cultural tipping point in terms of visual representation?

Sarah: We’ll be at a tipping point when the world that we consume through media starts to look like the world around us.

Dan: On the other side of things, there is a portfolio in Aperture 223 of photographs of black women taken by Annie Leibovitz, who is white. When I was at Vanity Fair, some of my favorite photographs . we published were taken by Annie—Lupita Nyong’o with natural hair and minimal makeup; a pregnant and braided Serena Williams; Katherine Johnson, then 98, looking composed and regal beneath a stormy sky. What is required in order for us to see one another—really see each other—across experiential divides? And what do we need in order to entrust people of other races or ethnicities or nationalities or sexualities to depict us as we are?

Sarah: Well, I’d like to speak primarily to the fact that you’re highlighting perhaps one of the most surprising parts of the ‘Vision & Justice’ issue of Aperture, the fact that I would include white photographers—Annie Leibovitz and Sally Mann. I did it for two reasons. First, the history of representation of African Americans requires engaging with the work that white photographers have created of black life. Period. But the second reason is personal. In 2010, Annie Leibovitz shot me for the ‘Great American Women’ issue of Vogue magazine, with a profile by Dodie Kazanjian. It was the first time I had a profile done on me, and I did my research. I realized that I was one of the few black women that Annie had shot. The other black women in front of her lens at the time were Serena Williams, Michelle Obama, and so on. It gave me a sense of the high bar that is set for black women to be deemed worthy enough to be in front of the lens for a Vogue or a Vanity Fair. There are wonderful conversations that came about because of my shoot with Annie, and the subsequent one I did with her for my author portrait, that have inspired me. So, what I can say is that we must honor all of those who have had a role to play in both challenging and being challenged by their presentation of the black experience. It was a beautiful and revelatory experience. Both Dodie and Annie were extraordinary.

Dan: Earlier this summer, I started following you on Instagram, and I’ve noticed that you regularly post images of your family. In what ways have they influenced your career and your research?

Sarah: Oh, thanks! The New Yorker had me do a takeover of their Instagram feed at the beginning of this year for a few days, and I have so many new kinds of followers now, whereas it used to just be my childhood friends, so I never really know what to post. That’s fascinating that you were struck by the images of my family, because I just counted the family photos on my feed, and there are only about 15 photos of my family from when I first started posting in 2014! That’s a small percentage of the total, maybe 5 percent or so? But clearly they stand out to you. That fact makes the point about the power of images, particularly images that challenge perhaps our expectations of black family life. I think that’s why people are always so surprised to see pictures of my great-grandparents. You look at those photos and you can see their dignity, their pride. They didn’t have money, but they figured out how to make their own clothes and wore them with something more than style, but a defiant confidence. My family is just that way in general—confident and happy—so I think it created a good foundation for my work.

“We’ll be at a tipping point when the world that we consume through media starts to look like the world around us.”

Dan: What sort of images were you taking as a young person?

Sarah: The images I was taking as a young person had nothing to do with what you’re asking me about now. I was just taking pictures of the mysteries of life. I was fascinated with seeing if I could capture the different shades of a flame, for example. I have tons of rolls of film of those funny attempts. But I love those photos. I’m a spiritual seeker. That’s really what’s behind my interest in justice. I just want everyone to be able to live out their most authentic version of themselves.

Dan: During that period, was there any incipient awareness of an imbalance in the images that you were consuming—that you’d need to seek out other images as a ‘corrective,’ as you’ve put it?

Sarah: I don’t think I was really consuming an imbalance of images. I am a black woman who grew up with parents who didn’t center one race over another, and the images in my house reflected that, the media that I consumed in my home reflected that. Now, the school I went to didn’t reflect that, but my parents compensated for it. Learning to love blackness and brownness was never my problem. Figuring out why other people didn’t love blackness and brownness was.

Dan: One of the things that astounded me when I started working in magazines was exactly how many people touch the photos we see and the images we consume prior to publication. The set designers. The lighting crew. The prop stylists. The fashion stylists. The photographer. The photo editors. The retouchers. The design department. Dozens of people can be involved in the production of a single image. And at each step along the way, there is the potential to transform how the photo is read—a slight repositioning of a prop, a change in skin tone, a particular cropping. How do you think about managing collaboration in the pursuit of representational justice?

Sarah: Well, yes, the cast of those who aid in the creation of a photograph need to be as diverse as possible. Period. And they are often not. The odds of my being on a photo set and any of those present being of color is extremely low.

You’re asking these good questions about representation, but my answers to them are quite blunt because it is very simple. Something is wrong if the media industry forces people to constantly look at windows instead of mirrors. Something is wrong if one race is the default position for universality and the rest are made to just imagine ourselves through them.

Arthur Jafa said it best in a conversation in Interview magazine: ‘The question is, how come we can’t be as black as we are and still be universal? How come we have to refuse who we are in order for someone to be able to identify with us? How come the audience can’t see themselves in that thing, whether or not it looks just like them? It’s what black people do, because most of what we see are white people. It’s what women have developed the muscle to do, because mostly what they see are men. It’s what gay people are able to do, because mostly what they see is heteronormative stuff. It’s a muscle that everybody needs to develop: the ability to see themselves in someone else’s circumstances without having to paint that person white, make that person straight, or a man. How can you see yourself in the other?’ I think the growing pains of representation for some people occur because they have not been forced to develop this muscle.

“Today, as we’re saturated by the image, the narratives we communicate about one another are being freighted onto pictures. Irrespective of what we do with our lives, we are all cultivating a kind of visual literacy.”

Dan: Often, in this era of self-publication on social media, it only takes one person with a camera phone to create an image. Much of your work concerns visual analysis. Do we have a responsibility to analyze the images we are creating and publishing? How do we begin to think about that?

Sarah: People are developing a visual language with the images they’re publishing whether they know it or not. The fact that you’re asking how we begin to think about that is interesting to me. Yes, I think it’s more a matter of being conscious of the visual language we have already developed to document our lives, perhaps without knowing it.

For example, a few years ago, I was teaching in my class and showed an image of Trayvon Martin. My students looked at the widely circulated black and white frontal portrait of him and knew immediately where he was—in an Apple store. They could tell by the type of light in the background of the image, and the way that the laptop on those low tables makes you crane your back and neck.

Visual literacy is another kind of reading. We develop it gradually, as we do language. There are also conventions you’re mindful of when you write a book versus when you write on Twitter and may deliberately break all kinds of rules with punctuation and grammar—for emphasis, to show personality, et cetera. There are visual conventions studio execs are mindful of when they green-light films. There are templates photographers are considering when they construct a portrait. In every case, there is a mindfulness that there is a language that images communicate.

Dan: What’s your position on pointing out to people of presumably good intentions when their images perpetuate stereotypes or bad narratives? This is maybe something of an analogous case, but I remember reading in The New York Times a few years ago an account of the murder of a gay man, and the quote the reporter chose to include about this murdered man, from a female neighbor, was something like, ‘He was just so fabulous.’ I forwarded the article to the public editor and said something along the lines of, ‘I think we can do better.’ How should we approach these conversations, be they with individuals or with organizations?

Sarah: I think the most interesting thing about this is the implicit question behind your question. Is it okay to spot a mistake or a stereotype-driven piece and argue that someone’s intentions are good? Well, yes. People have blind spots. Yet the insidious thing about stereotypes is that people get so comfortable with them. Alexandra Bell’s work is extraordinary on this score, analyzing the front page of newspapers to see what biases are found in the use of image and text when it comes to racial narratives. Her work is the call-out you’re asking about here.

Dan: In only a few years, Vision & Justice has become one of the most popular courses at Harvard. How do you think about reaching people? I’m speaking both in terms of the echo chamber—the idea that the people who would presumably already be most receptive to your teachings are the ones most likely to seek out your course—but also in terms of going beyond Harvard. Any plans in the offing that you’re able to share?

Sarah: I decided to teach my course at public libraries across the country—the first was at the Brooklyn Public Library—and I condense the Harvard course down to three units. I love it. The next stage is a media-based project that could give it further reach. I wish I could say more!

This article originally appeared in Document’s Fall/Winter 2018 issue.

Hair Jimmy Paul at Susan Price Agency. Make Up Francelle Daly at Art+Commerce. Lighting Technician Romain Dubus. Digital Technician Henri Coutant. Photo Assistant Gaspar Dietrich. Make Up Assistant Jessica Lundgren. Production One Thirty-Eight Productions. Set Design Piers Hanmer at Art+Commerce.