Alex Constantine - May 18, 2008
The official photographer of the Black Panthers has his work on display at the University of Washington. KUOW's Phyllis Fletcher spoke to Stephen Shames about how his work was part of a change in the African American media image.
STEPHEN SHAMES SAYS HIS EARLY MEMORIES OF BLACKS IN THE MEDIA ARE EMBARRASSING NOW.
SHAMES: "Amos and Andy. It's a radio show. It was a great show, but it's really a caricature. You know, if you look at it today, you're going, 'My god. How could those images of black people be even permitted?'"
SHAMES WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL DURING THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. IMAGES OF BLACKS AS PROTESTORS DOMINATED THE MEDIA AND INFLUENCED HIS POLITICS.
SO WHEN HE WENT TO COLLEGE AT BERKELEY IN THE LATE 60s, HE WAS A PRIME CANDIDATE FOR MENTORSHIP FROM THE BLACK PANTHER LEADER BOBBY SEALE.
SEALE ASKED SHAMES TO BE HIS PHOTOGRAPHER. SHAMES SAYS THERE'S NO DOUBT THE PANTHERS CULTIVATED A MEDIA IMAGE THAT WAS DESIGNED TO CONVEY POWER AND RESISTANCE. BUT THE PANTHERS GAVE HIM THE KIND OF ACCESS THAT LET HIM CREATE ANOTHER IMAGE OF BLACKS THAT HADN'T BEEN PREVALENT IN MAINSTREAM MEDIA. BLACKS AS NORMAL PEOPLE. LIKE ONE PICTURE ON DISPLAY AT THE U.W.
SHAMES: "You know, a young guy, maybe he's in his early 20s, kind of wrestling with some kids. And he was, like, the caretaker. He was looking after these kids in the, uh, Panther school. But you don't see images like that. That black men can be tender with children. The news media was just looking at that really militant image and didn't want to see another side."
SOMETIMES THEY WEREN'T INVITED TO SEE ANOTHER SIDE, BECAUSE UNLIKE SHAMES, THEY WEREN'T OPENLY SYMPATHETIC TO THE BLACK PANTHER CAUSE.
SHAMES SAYS PEOPLE ARE OFTEN SURPRISED TO MEET THE MAN BEHIND THE LENS.
SHAMES: "You're not black?"
THAT'S WHAT THEY SAY. ALL THE TIME.
ONE PHOTOGRAPH OF A BLACK PANTHER FUNERAL HIGHLIGHTS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HIS SHOTS, AND THOSE OF MAINSTREAM MEDIA. A T.V. CAMERAMAN IS UP CLOSE TO THE ACTION, FOCUSED ON THE CASKET. BUT SHAMES' PICTURE IS A BIRDS' EYE VIEW OF ALL THE MOURNERS. FROM INSIDE THE CHURCH. A PLACE THAT OTHER PHOTOGRAPHERS WERE NOT ALLOWED.
THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF STEPHEN SHAMES IS ON A NATIONAL TOUR. IT'S ON DISPLAY AT THE U-W ODEGAARD LIBRARY THROUGH THE END OF MAY. THE HISTORY DEPARTMENT AT THE U ALSO HAS A PERMANENT COLLECTION OF PHOTOGRAPHS, NEWS ARTICLES, AND ORAL HISTORIES OF LOCAL BLACK PANTHERS ONLINE. PHYLLIS FLETCHER, KUOW NEWS.