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Civil rights photographer: I was looking at fear, oppression, and change

Bruce Davidson is a Magnum photographer and a revered master of social documentary photography. The images he took both reflected the civil rights movement and
March on Washington
Crowds pack the National Mall during the March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

Bruce Davidson is a Magnum photographer and a revered master of social documentary photography. The images he took both reflected the civil rights movement and also fueled it, showing the public the realities of race in America and the work of those who were challenging the status quo.

He photographed the 1963 March on Washington and returns to Washington on Wednesday to document the 50th anniversary march for MSNBC. Some of his most indelible images from a half-century ago are included here. His photos from this year's march will be posted on Wednesday evening.

March on Washington
March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

Melissa Harris-Perry spoke to Davidson about the role of images in shaping our perceptions of the civil rights movement, and what he learned in the process of taking the photographs.

BD: The Washington march was only a beginning. Just a couple of weeks later, four children were killed by a dynamite blast in the 16th Street Baptist Church. Things were pretty dangerous at that time. I have been on virtually every march from 1961 Freedom Rides to Black Power movement in 1965, so I knew that something was coming, but I didn’t know what.

MHP: I would like to begin by going back to 1961 when you boarded the bus with a group of Freedom Riders. What was the reason for going on that trip?

In 1959, for a year, I documented aspects of a notorious Brooklyn street gang. I was with them for about a year, and then I decided to do a project called ‘Youth in America.’ Someone told me about a group of college students who were boarding buses in the south. So I jumped on the bus; it was a simple as that.

March on Washington
Young men sing during the March on Washington.

I remember they had a meeting--some riders and some leaders--in a basement in a pharmacist’s house that was secure. It was a very strong mood there. John Lewis was there; I photographed John Lewis and got to know him a little bit. That first ride from Montgomery, Al. to Jackson, Miss. changed my life because it was the first time I encountered oppression and pain.

I began to become sensitized to something that, as a white young photographer, was somewhat invisible to me.

Tell me about that first trip, about the photography itself, what you were hoping to capture artistically.

I was trying to observe and to see the underpinning of the civil rights movement and the oppression that was surrounding the south. I was from the north; I grew up in a white community, and it wasn’t until I got to college that I was able meet African-American students on my level.

March on Washington
Crowds in front of the Washington Monument at the March on Washington for jobs and racial equality.

I remember distinctly playing ping pong with one of the students like myself, but he happened to be black. He also happened to be a much better ping pong player.

Were you afraid when you got on the bus the first time?

I was so frightened. Those National Guard troops, they had fixed bayonets and possibly live ammunition in their holsters. Remember the bus before mine, in Anniston, Alabama, was burnt to the ground and all the Freedom Riders were arrested and beaten. I photographed John Lewis’ bandages. I wasn’t on that march; I was on the next one. The first march in Anniston, there was no press, no police, all of those people turned their back and let the mob in.

That wasn’t going to happen because we had National Guardsmen… I found there was no safety. The topography was such that anybody with a rifle and a scope could shoot into that bus while it was going by the highway. There was enough forest there to hide and apparently there were some shots fired.

March on Washington
Crowds surrounding the reflecting pool, reaching back to the Washington Monument.

Do you think that being young is part of how you overcame that fear and got on that bus anyway?

It was kind of like my upbringing. In the Second World War, my mother worked in a torpedo factory. She had two sons that she was raising by herself. We were never taught prejudice or hatred. We were kind of an open family...I learned a lot through my eyes.

Talk to me about your eyes because your photographs are profoundly human. The sense of the humanity of your subjects, even of the rabid segregationists who you encountered. It's stunning. I’ve read that’s in part this is because you made the decision not to use a telephoto lens. Talk about your eye as a photographer and what you were trying to give us as people learning about the marches and the movement through your photography.

March on Washington
March on Washington Participants sit in front of the Washington Monument.

It was important to be no further than a meter away from anything that was happening. I was stealth in those days; I was skinny; I was athletic, and I was quick. I could get in there; I could be right next to a cop and take a picture of him arresting someone without them really getting on to me. There was always the risk; it was just the way I was taught to live. Day by day, time by time, I learned what I was really looking at.

What were you really looking at?

I was looking at the fear and the oppression. Also, the change… If the Washington march didn’t work, then they would go back to Birmingham and march. There were smaller marches, and I was on one of them where there were only 10 of us and then a mob started to come and we had to jump into a truck and drive into the boondocks and stay overnight in a church. I was close to it; I was there. I wouldn’t say I was an activist, but I was certainly a humanist.

Do you remember the first time that you photographed Dr. King?

March on Washington
Coretta Scott King and Lena Horne during the March on Washington.

The first time, and almost the only time, I photographed Dr. King was when he was having a press conference, and he seemed to be weighted down by all the microphones and reporters and photographers. And I saw something in his eyes that surprised me. It was the eyes of someone who knew that they were going to die soon. I’ve seen it in cancer patients, the final resignation. I felt that that was what King was feeling. Obviously, it was just a moment in time before he was going to be shot by somebody.

Do you have any sense of how the imminence of his death impacted who he was as a person and not just as an activist?

I didn’t get to know him. In fact, I didn’t think it was a good idea for me to be his buddy. I would support him through my photography, through the way I see things, through the way I encounter life. I wasn’t going to be his best friend. I wanted to observe him. I saw him as a great man. I needed to photograph what he was seeing through his eyes also.

Talk to me a bit about the time you spent photographing the construction of the Verrazano Bridge in New York. That is a very different kind of image you were creating there. What were your goals there? What was that experience like?

March on Washington
Thousands gather at the Washington Monument at the March on Washington for jobs and racial equality.

I must have been suicidal.

More so you think that on the Freedom Riders’ bus?

I felt safer on the Freedom Riders’ bus than I did 400 feet above The Narrows. It was something that I needed to do at the time. I was coming out of a nasty divorce, and I just wanted to get up on the high steel where I could really be alone with my own thoughts. And that worked. I made some important pictures of the building of that bridge, and I became a builder of my own bridge.

Tell me about that.

March on Washington
Scene from the March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

It taught me that you really need to be close to be honest with yourself. You can’t make propagandist pictures. You have to be up on high steel and photograph men working, risking their lives basically. You have to be there with them; you can’t be on the ground with a long telephoto lens.

In fact, all during the 1962 driving through the south, I didn’t even own [a telephoto lens]. I didn’t own two things: I didn’t own a flash, and I didn’t own a long, telephoto lens because I thought I needed to be close and that I needed to be using natural light. The Civil Rights Movement photographs over that period of years enabled me to then look at my own town of New York and documenting one block in Spanish Harlem, called East 100th Street. I spent two years. I wouldn’t have been able to spend those two years if I hadn’t spent five years photographing various demonstrations and marches during the Civil Rights Movement.

As you’ve been talking, I keep thinking about how physical your stories are. As you talk about how you’ve done these photographs…there’s such a physical aspect to it. As you said, you’re approaching 80, will you continue to be so physical in your photography?

I’ll probably end up doing nudes. I’ll probably end up doing nudes safely.

Well, that has its own kind of danger.

It does, it does.

The one thing that is true about my work is I'm often going back... Life goes on, and that's one thing photographers don't do so much is go back to their subjects and see where they are. 

March on Washington
Crowds surrounding the reflecting pool, reaching back to the Washington Monument at the March on Washington for jobs and racial equality.

I guess the Washington march [this year] will teach me something. My first impression [of the ’63 march] was there were too many guys with hats on and too many signs. What is this, I thought? I couldn’t find a focus on that.

But finally I found the focus when I photographed the masses of people surrounding the reflecting pool. That meant a lot to me because Dr. King’s voice was over the loud speakers. So I could hear his voice, which inspired me to photograph those masses of people that came calling. There it is, you keep learning and you keep growing.

Drew Katchen contributed research and reporting to this interview.

Watch an interview with Davidson on MSNBC below.