Sarah Elizabeth Lewis and Kimberly Drew on the Vision & Justice Project

Tracing the evolution of the Vision & Justice project from its origin as a Harvard course, to a landmark issue of Aperture, all the way to this year's tribute at Frieze New York

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BY Kimberly Drew AND Sarah Elizabeth Lewis in Frieze Week Magazine | 27 APR 21

KIMBERLY DREW Sarah, the Vision & Justice Project wrestles with questions of representation and recognition. How did you find yourself thinking about the ties between visual representation and democracy?

SARAH ELIZABETH LEWIS I’ve been thinking of these questions for the last 20 years, since I learned about a pivotal moment in the life of my grandfather, Shadrach Emmanuel Lee. He was in a public high school in New York City in 1926 and had a simple question in his 11th grade history class: why did the textbooks not reflect the multiracial world around them? The teacher had told him that African Americans, in particular, had done nothing to merit inclusion. My grandfather did not believe that, so he continued to ask. He was expelled from high school for his so-called impertinence. He never went back, but became a musician and an artist, crafting scenes that he had hoped to find in those books. I only learned about this at his funeral. He died when I was a student in my sophomore year at Harvard as I was being drawn to studying art history. The initials of my name, Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, are meant to honor my grandfather, Shadrach Emmanuel Lee, and I see my work as an extension of his life and the question he dared to ask that day.

Aperture #223, Summer 2016. Courtesy: Aperture and Jamel Shabazz
Aperture #223, Summer 2016. Courtesy of Aperture and Jamel Shabazz

So: ‘Vision & Justice’. I believe that the quest for a legacy of representation of African Americans, the centuries-long effort to craft an image to pay honor to the full humanity of Black life, has been about these two things. When I was asked to guest edit a special issue of Aperture devoted to photography of the Black experience – I could think of no other theme.

KD In your essay for Black Futures on the Vision and Justice Project, you write ‘teaching is a way of speaking faith over the future’. What does this mean – more specifically, what should this mean for students of all kinds?

SEL When I first started to teach Vision & Justice, I was just wondering how many students might show up. The class was assigned to a large auditorium, one that holds nearly 300. When I walked in, the classroom was full. The sea of Harvard students seemed to have no racial majority. I mentioned in my piece for Black Futures that it felt as if the future had rushed in the room.

At one point, Douglass says that he hopes for a time in the future when his ideas about the function of pictures for progress would be better articulated: I’d like to think that many of those in these pages are who he hoped would come. Extraordinary image makers like Carrie Mae Weems, Ava DuVernay, and Deborah Willis as well as leaders such as James Baldwin, Anna Deavere Smith, Bryan Stevenson, Darren Walker, and more. People who have so urgently understood the importance of the cultural narratives that images have created for justice in this country. Douglass’s vision was large enough to not just include him. This, too, is the work of teaching – investing in the journey of someone else and a society that you might not live to see.

KD As mentioned earlier, the Vision & Justice Project takes conceptual inspiration from Frederick Douglass’s Civil War-era speech, ‘Pictures and Progress’. Do you ever wonder, if you were able to revisit this speech, what key edits would you make? How does this text inform our understanding of the relationship between image making and justice?

Aperture #223, Summer 2016. Courtesy: Aperture and Deborah Willis
Aperture #223, Summer 2016. Courtesy of Aperture and Deborah Willis

SEL A great question. I have to say that even if I could travel back in time, I would not dream of trying to edit Frederick Douglass. His was a spirit that emerges once an epoch through the force of an unthinkable set of crucibles. I want to leave every word as it is. What made Douglass’s ‘Pictures and Progress’ speech so compelling is that his thesis is embedded in your great second question. Douglass was making the case that images and pictures do change our perceptions of what we today call social and political justice. Photographs interested Douglass for three reasons: it was the beginning of the photographic age, and they were a recent technological innovation. Pictures were in this respect a democratic medium, a way to show oneself as one would like to be. Finally, Douglass saw pictures were becoming naturalized as a way to legitimate racial hierarchies.

That same structure of racial hierarchies created, solidified and naturalized by aesthetics in Douglass’s time is one we still live with today; images continue to alter our perceptions about social and political justice for the same three reasons that fascinated Douglass. What compounds the urgency of the question – how pictures change our perceptions of social and political justice – today, is the speed, density, and conditioned visual literacy of our image saturated environment.

Aperture #223, Summer 2016. Courtesy: Aperture and Jamel Shabazz
Aperture #223, Summer 2016. Courtesy: Aperture and Jamel Shabazz

KD You’ve made most of the ongoing work of the Vision & Justice Project available for the public. Why was it important to make your curriculum, writing, and public symposium available online?

SEL It didn’t begin as a public-facing project, but I decided to open it to other audiences after reflecting on the surprise of teaching members of the public alongside students in the Harvard classroom, as there were always visitors, adults from Cambridge or out of town who just wanted to sit in and listen to the class. I started giving talks at public libraries and other universities in my (nominal, but non-existent) free time, condensing the material from the classroom into a three-part series. The pilot program began at the Brooklyn Public Library on Friday nights. I traveled to speak about this material, from Brooklyn to Jackson, Mississippi to Los Angeles for a talk for Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Creative Campus. 

I would argue that if we don’t fully appreciate the function of visual literacy for a society’s self-comprehension and for global citizenship, it is because we are only forced to do so during periods of collective failure: when we can’t see past ourselves. We are currently in an urgent – and I would argue perilous – moment, which offers near daily reminders that the fragility of American rights have not only been secured by norms and laws but, by how we judge, quite literally see each other, and how we refuse to see each other.

Aperture #223, Summer 2016. Courtesy: Aperture and Lyle Ashton Harris
Aperture #223, Summer 2016. Courtesy: Aperture and Lyle Ashton Harris

KD For the upcoming Frieze New York, Frieze has invited artists, galleries and museums to respond to the mission of the Vision and Justice Project, and to explore how the arts are responsible for disrupting, complicating, or shifting narratives of visual representation in the public realm. What do you hope might come of this invitation?

SEL When Loring Randolph from Frieze approached me about a tribute to the Vision & Justice Project, I was surprised and moved. First, I’m mindful of how much more I want to do with this initiative. We’re just getting started. The second reason is that I have always wanted the Vision & Justice Project to be a platform for highlighting the work that others do. So what I hope comes of this invitation is an increased chance to do precisely that: to showcase what is coming next for the project as well as the mission-aligned work of other organizations in the art world and beyond.

This article appeared in Frieze Week, New York 2021

Main image: Jamel Shabazz, In the Zone, East Rutherford, New Jersey, 2009, in Aperture #223, Summer 2016. Courtesy of Aperture and Jamel Shabazz

Kimberly Drew is a writer, curator and advocate based in New York, USA. She is the co-editor, with Jenna Wortham, of Black Futures (2020).

Sarah Elizabeth Lewis is Associate Professor of History of Art & Architecture and African and African American Studies. Her guest edited Vision & Justice issue of Aperture received the 2017 Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography, and launched the larger Vision and Justice Project. She is based in New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

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