Narrative and Vision:

SNCC Photography

Since its founding in April of 1960, SNCC’s (The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) mission has been to embolden and coordinate student activism in the South. Its participants and leaders have been responsible for much of the activism known as the Freedom Rides and the Freedom Summer, fighting for Black political, social, and economic empowerment. Throughout the decades of political organization, SNCC has used photography to bolster their activism and mobilize public opinion. SNCC’s bringing of photography to the center of the Civil Rights movement aided in the redefinition of the relationship between media, narrative, and resistance from one centering repeated subjugations to one which works to mobilize and humanize peoples globally. Through following the history of protest and photography of SNCC, the activisms within the creative process and the life of a photo can be showcased.

Beginning with solo photographer and University of Chicago student Danny Lyon, “SNCC Photo” became an institutionalized project which included key actors such as Tamio Wakayama, Clifford Vaughs, Geoffrey Clark, Herbert Randall, Doug Harris, Bob Fletcher, Maria Varela, and Julius Lester. The group-centered leadership of SNCC employed photography as a way to relay information through accessible formats in newspapers and posters. The planning and crafting of the photos done by the minds of SNCC is a show of agency, where Black protest is not simply a reaction to white action or violence, and rather is the embodiment of the demands for justice within the “racial and sexual caste system” of the U.S. (Raiford 87). As its own media service, the photos coming out of SNCC centered the daily sacrifices and actions taken by Black protesters in the South; documenting the convictions and demands of the American youth.

These intentionally designed works echo the centrality of women and youth in the Civil Rights movement, further emphasizing that the struggle for justice is not limited to one between Black and white men, and is instead a holistic movement which mobilizes women, youth, and the entire world. This work entered the homes of thousands of Black families in the form of posters, which built connections, as well as raised awareness and funds for SNCC. Not produced for mainstream white media consumption, these posters did the work that was mostly absent in media at large by bringing attention to the grassroots of Black activism.

SNCC’s political history began with a focus on Black enfranchisement and integrating the South (1961-1964). SNCC was a key player in guiding the freedom summer of 1964-1965 which was a period of massive voter registration and education in Mississippi. For SNCC this was a period of self-representation and the offering of alternative and corrective narratives through the documentation of protest. By 1965 the SNCC Photo Agency was formed and allowed the group to focus on introspection, following the national drive towards a rhetoric of collective and individual freedom. In the period of 1966-1967, SNCC embraces ideas of Black nationalism and soon “the camera became a weapon of black power,” for which they received backlash (Raiford 74). This period further alienated SNCC from a palatable image that could be presented in the press.

In the capturing of these moments and the retelling of the stories, it is critical to profess a present and forward moving narrative. These photos--specifically those depicting violence being perpetrated upon Black bodies--cannot be dealt with as a frozen moment in time and rather should be recognized as “ongoing and dynamic” (Raiford 86). These photographs present depictions of transformative truths and in turn must be analyzed and viewed as not only tales of the past, but as amplifying and focusing activism today.

  1. Leigh Raiford: Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle

  2. “SNCC Digital Gateway.” SNCC Digital Gateway, SNCC, snccdigital.org/.