Vision & Justice

Aperture Magazine recently released a special issue titled “Vision & Justice”—which is specifically dedicated to photography of the black experience. Though Aperture has been successful in creating a platform for good photography, there has notably been a lack of photographers of color in its publications, and this will be the first issue in the history of the magazine that focuses on black America.  

This special issue was guest edited by Sarah Lewis, a bestselling author, curator, and Assistant Professor at Harvard University. Various journals and publications such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Artforum and Art in America, as well as ones through the Smithsonian, The Museum of Modern Art, and Rizzoli have featured Lewis’ essays on race, culture and contemporary art. The intersection of race and art—specifically photography—is not new to her, but rather an integral part of her life and studies. In an interview with the New York Times, she explains that she first became interested in the relationship between the two as a child who had access to Deborah Willis’s book, Black Photographers 1840-1940: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography. From there, her interest shifted into something she thought could aid in conversation about social conflicts.

Other influences have guided Lewis to where she is today, such as her grandfather’s memory. She notes that as a young boy, he refused to accept that African Americans hadn’t contributed to American history, despite their absence from history books. Later on, as an artist, he decided to create imagery of black people in scenes he knew they were most likely present in.

Lewis’ grandfather understood the importance of visual representation as Fredrick Douglass did, who Visions & Justice was ultimately inspired by. In his 1863 speech titled, “Pictures and Progress,” Douglass claims:

A very pleasing feature of our pictorial relations is the very easy terms upon which all may enjoy them. The servant girl can now see a likeness of herself, such as noble ladies and even royalty itself could not purchase fifty years ago. Formerly the luxury of a likeness was the exclusive privilege of the rich and great. But now, like education and a thousand other blessings brought to us by the advancing march of civilization, such pictures, are placed within easy reach of the humblest members of society.

In the editor’s note for the issue, she further touches on the importance of visual representation of black life in America. “Understanding the relationship of race and the quest for full citizenship in this country requires an advanced state of visual literacy, particularly during periods of turmoil,” she writes. “Today, we’ve been able to witness injustices in a first hand way on a massive scale that would have been unimaginable decades ago.” Visibility gained through images and media has been key in efforts to mobilize by movements such as Black Lives Matter, and has helped shine a light on the overall unrest in black America.

Lewis’ intent to capture a broad range of black imagery is evident when you look at the two separate covers for the issue—one which features a black and white photo of Martin Luther King Jr., his father and son, and the other which depicts Awol Eriku from the 2014 Afropunk festival—focusing on black life through more of a contemporary lens. This contrast was also meant to reinforce both the historical and modern-day importance of the relationship between vision and justice.

Vision & Justice not only shows an array of powerful images but essays from various different scholars, artists and writers in an attempt to further amplify black voices. Lewis points out that she intentionally titled the issue “Visions & Justice,” and not “Photographs & Justice” or “Images & Justice.” These voices include that of Teju Cole, Margo Jefferson, Claudia Rankine, Robin Kelsey, Cheryl Finley, and Leigh Raiford among others. All of these additions contribute to the vision that extends beyond just photography.