Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Effort Pending To Redeem Withers’ Tarnished Name

Effort Pending To Redeem Withers’ Tarnished Name

by George E. Hardin

Special to the Memphis Tri-State Defender

Streams of commentary are still gushing forth following the flood of opinions regarding Ernest C. Withers’ alleged role as an FBI informant. His memorable photographs of civil rights events and activists established him long ago as one of the preeminent photojournalists of the 20th century. Now, on the basis of these recent revelations, probing questions are being raised about if and whether he might have damaged the movement he made it his life’s work to document.

One of the recent assessments was printed in The New York Times, which questions the relationship between life and art and asks whether Withers’ images would “be seen differently if the captions noted that Mr. Withers was known in some circles not by his name but by an Orwellian cipher, ME 338-R,” his reported FBI code name.

The Times says further: “But beyond the issues of personal betrayal, the news raised much more difficult and fundamental questions—ones central to photography and documentary work but to the history of art and popular culture as well—about artistic intent, about the assumptions and expectations of the viewing public and about the relationship between artists and their work.”

“The camera doesn’t lie” is an expression frequently quoted at one time. But photographers have always known that, with retouching, the camera can not only lie, but it can tell a cockeyed lie. However, there is absolutely no evidence that Withers manipulated his images or otherwise distorted his photographs to depict something other than what actually happened. That would be the only reason to question the truth and reality of his work.

Many of those criticizing Withers most severely did not know him. I met Withers as a 19-year-old beginning photographer and knew him for over 50 years. Though working independently we often ended up on the same photo assignment—during the sit-ins, Tent City and the desegregation of Memphis State University. It would be ridiculous to claim I knew every aspect of Withers’ life. Likewise, it is ridiculous for those depending on secondhand or thirdhand information to defame him with the vile names that have appeared in print, on broadcast media and the Internet.

It is odd also that the journalist who broke the story reportedly said he had “only one chance” to ask Withers about his alleged role before Withers died but declined to do so because someone else was in the room. Surely there must have been numerous other opportunities to make a phone call or stop by Withers’ studio.

Among those who feel Withers has been judged too harshly is Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis, who has an unimpeachable reputation as a civil rights activist, college professor and as a person who has ensured that the pioneers are remembered, with such works as her comprehensive book “Notable Black Memphians.”

“I still have the greatest respect for Ernest and his many accomplishments,” DeCosta-Willis said, “ because I believe that he was basically a GOOD man—though imperfect as all of us are and even King was. He was just trying to survive and support his family in this racist world. I have defended him to the people who have asked me about him.”

Last week’s issue of The Nation listed “The Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century.” It said that many on the list committed acts or held positions that would be considered less than complimentary, yet their contributions are such that their names have remained unscathed.

The evaluation of others’ conduct has been a troublesome issue at least since the evolution of ethics. We look around, critique behaviors and analyze motives. Yet in many cases we reach conclusions based on incomplete information or assertions of dubious value. Withers’ family plans to use the same Freedom of Information Act that was relied upon to sully his reputation to determine what facts might be available to help restore the luster of a brilliant photographic career.

(George E. Hardin worked as a photographer, reporter and editor, and in public relations during a long career before he retired. His column appears every other week.)

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