Guilt, Empathy and Reason: How Photojournalism Supported the Civil Rights Movement

Term Paper, 2013

16 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Cristina Flores (Author)


Table of Contents








1. Introduction: The Civil Rights Movement

The African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s can be seen as one of the major events in America’s history that fundamentally changed its entire society. In one of the most liberal countries in the world that defeated fascism and fought against communism, people of different ethnicity were still treated differently. While white people enjoyed all the rights, black people were excluded from public places, did not have the right to vote and were punished more severely than their fellow citizens. But the African American population stood up against these kinds of suppression and segregation in the middle of the 20th century and fought for their rights, especially with the help of their leading figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. Even if they could eventually achieve some of their goals such as the abolition of segregated buses or the right to vote, their peaceful movement was most of the times violently stopped by policemen and white civilians.

Due to this unequal fight, the blacks’ demands and sufferings captured more and more the media’s attention and were documented especially through photography. This photography had a high impact on how the Civil Rights Movement was perceived all over the country and, as a consequence, indirectly helped the protestors in their plans. Interestingly enough, it is remarkable that nearly all these printed photographs show the Movement in a way that was unknown to people so that special emotions towards black people and the own behaviors were evoked: empathy and guilt. This then led to a new debate about racial discrimination and civil rights.

In this term paper I will therefore examine in more detail in which way photojournalism supported the African American Civil Rights Movement. I will start by giving a short overview of photojournalism and its effects on society. Then, I will continue by analyzing different types of photographs of the Civil Rights Movement that evoke feelings of empathy and guilt. For this purpose I will describe one exemplary photograph for each category and explain how influenced society. Finally, a conclusion with possibilities to expand the topic will follow.

2. Photojournalism and Its Effect on the Society of the 1950s and 1960s

Photojournalism can be described as “the work of giving news using mainly photographs” (“photojournalism”, Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary). Its success started in the middle of the 20th century thanks to the invention of smaller cameras which were easier to transport and to handle in comparison to cameras of earlier times. While in the beginning of the 20th century news were mainly transported by text in combination with some photographs all taken in the same style due to its difficult operation, newer cameras allowed the photographs to take more individual photographs. Journalists were now given the opportunity to not only take one picture for the sake of a specific article but to construct a whole report or study on a chosen topic or event which could then published, for example in a magazine. (Lemagny/Rouillé 166)

One of the first magazines showing pictorial journalism was Life Magazine, founded in 1936. According to its founder Henry Luce the magazine’s aim, which is still up-to-date, was [t]o see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things — machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work — his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed…(Smith 342)

The strongest motivation for photojournalists was and is therefore “the belief [that] their pictures can make life better for their fellow humans” (Cookman 139). Through photojournalism people are given the opportunity to gain knowledge about events and to re-experience them thanks to the subject who is shown in a significant moment of his life. The viewer is then sees what the subject is feeling and develops own feelings for the situation shown. Karen Slattery summarizes it by stating that only “excellent photographs convey [both], the emotion of the subject [and] and emotion in the viewer” (Slattery/Doremus). The photographs which are going to be analyzed in the next chapters belong to this category of “excellence” with reference to the Civil Rights Movement.

Due to these emotions transported through photography, photojournalism is able to change society. Emotional photographs in journals or magazines are able to provoke discussions and controversies, not only between private persons but in politics, especially if a country’s principles are affected by these photographs and if feelings of empathy and guilt are evoked. This was the case as far as the Civil Rights Movement was concerned: The population and home and abroad sympathized with these clear, persuasive and powerful photographs and, seeing the blacks’ struggle, demanded some sort of change. The United States then obviously feared of losing their wanted image as a country of democracy and had to react, for example by cooperating with demonstrators and changing laws. (cf. Kasher 8)

Meaningful photographs taken by photojournalists and telling the story of a specific important event therefore definitely generate publicity and can change society. During the 1950s and 1960s “scenes unthinkable to Americans as American were shown to American and the world [so that] public sympathy and financial support, as well as political backing, flowed to movement organizations.” (8)

3. Photographs Evoking Empathy

Empathy is a person’s “ability to understand the emotions that other feel in response to circumstances and situations. It involves putting ourselves in the place of ‘the other’.” (Slattery/Doremus) As already explained, this feeling is in particular important for photography since it makes the viewer sympathize with the subject and his or her personal situation. During the African American Civil Rights Movement this empathy towards the blacks was mainly evoked through portraits and photographs showing the everyday life. These two types of photography show the subject in very personal and authentic moments which make especially the ‘superior’ whites rethink their opinion about their black fellow citizens and finally realize that they actually are the same and have the right to be treated equally.

3.1. Portraits

Especially in the 20th century portraits are of major importance as, thanks to technology, photographers can “capture the expression of the subject as it might appear in the flash of an instant, not just an ‘average’ or typical facial mask.” (Ovell 35) The subject therefore does not have to be prepared but also can be photographed in an accidental moment. These portraits are then more authentic than posed ones as they mainly have the aim to present the subject in a certain manner. That is why portraits by photojournalist more often show sudden moments with more significant facial expressions that, as a consequence, are able to evoke stronger emotions.

In the 1960s a powerful portrait was taken, for example, during the Selma- to-Montgomery march in March 1965 by Bruce Davidson (Fig. 1). About 3000 people joined this march which was led by Martin Luther King and aimed to dramatize the need for a federal voter registration law. (cf. Dierenfield 117) Davidson’s photograph shows a young black marcher with conspicuous suncream on his face in front of other marchers and the American flag. On his forehead he inscribed the word “vote” and also his mouth is formed as if he was saying this word while this snapshot was taken. Due to the fact that portraits concentrate on the subject’s face, this portrait is especially interesting as the marcher’s face is in some way manipulated in order to transport more meaning to the public than his natural face would do among all the other marchers. With the suncream on his face he wants to convey the message that skin color does not make a person an inferior one. If his skin was white he would have the right to vote but because he is black this wish is denied. His eyes clearly demonstrate his determination and will to achieve some progress in terms of rights for his generation living in the United States. Every portrait therefore tells a story. In this case it is the story of a young black who feels like an American, which can be seen in the holding of the flag, but is not treated like other, white Americans. The effort the young man puts into the march evokes empathy in the viewer. Due to the suncream the viewer realizes that if the young man had the choice he would prefer being white, only because they are allowed to vote. It is then very likely that the white viewer, in particular, detects the arbitrariness of racial segregation.

In the media, this peaceful and nonviolent march was followed very actively. After hearing about violent attempts by segregationists to stop the march “thousands of white and black Americans flooded into the White House with telegrams, signed petitions, and demonstrated […] to end the violence” (118). Owing to news report even “the president [Lyndon B. Johnson] considered the Selma protest a turning point in American history” (120) and supported it by signing the Voting Rights Act in August 1965.

The media therefore highly supported the Civil Rights Movement though the reporting about this topic. As far as photography is concerned, especially portraits made people look closer into what happened on the streets, as faces are able to transport emotions very powerfully. This power evoked empathy and made the population become committed in helping the blacks.

3.2. The Everyday Life

Apart from portraits it was also photography showing the everyday life which influenced the American people and thus, indirectly, supported the Civil Rights Movement. In general, “everyday life is considered to be what most characterizes ‘reality’” (Tormey 54) since the word ‘everyday’ implies the idea of continuity, authenticity and comfort. If people are photographed in every life activities they normally feel sure in what they are doing as it is a usual activity. This also means that these photographs are snapshots during an activity so that the subjects seem to be not aware of being photographed. What is presented apart from the subject such as the place or objects are as important as the subject itself. Due to the fact that white people did not often have the opportunity to photograph black in their daily life, a new group of black photographers developed with the aim to “represent black people as other than a social problem for a white audience” (Roberts 120). Feelings of empathy are then evoked since white people gain an authentic insight in the life of black people and are then able to compare it to their own way of life. The aim of this type of photography is therefore to make the white population realize that whites share a lot of similarities in every part of the daily life with their black fellow citizens and, therefore, should enjoy the same rights.

This everyday life was, above others, photographed by the black photographer Gordon Parks who illustrated a reporting about black families in Life Magazine. What makes these everyday photographs evoke empathy is that “most of the images are optimistic and affirmative. […] They focus on the family’s everyday activities, and their resolve to get on with their lives as normally as possible, in spite of an environment that restricts and intimidates.” (Berger) One photograph shows, for example, black children in front of the fence of a playground (Fig. 2). The article’s author Robert Wallace additionally explains that

“[the Tanner family] must tell their children, for example, that they cannot play in a nearby playground for whites but must use a ‘separate but equal’ one for Negroes. The children do not grasp the logic of this and view the white playground as a special, wonderful place from which they are deliberately excluded” (106)

This image is especially powerful because children are involved. The viewer automatically feels pity for them as their wish to play with other children is not fulfilled. Finally, also this photograph indirectly supported the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Right Act of 1964 “banned discrimination in such places of public accommodations. […] It authorized the attorney general to bring an end to segregation in public schools, hospitals, libraries, and playgrounds”. (166)


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Guilt, Empathy and Reason: How Photojournalism Supported the Civil Rights Movement
University of Paderborn
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
2140 KB
Civil Rights, Photography, Photojournalism, civil rights movement
Quote paper
Cristina Flores (Author), 2013, Guilt, Empathy and Reason: How Photojournalism Supported the Civil Rights Movement, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Guilt, Empathy and Reason: How Photojournalism Supported the Civil Rights Movement

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free