Installation view of “Songs of My People: 25 Years Later,” at George Washington University. | Photo courtesy Gallery 102
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, before social media existed and online news outlets were few, there were scant alternatives to combat negative portrayals in mainstream media.
“The African American community was not being covered fairly in the mainstream media and the question is, ‘Well then, what are you going to do about it?’” D. Michael Cheers told CBS News, in the video below. “We have a responsibility to argue our case for black people and the best way to argue that case for us, as black people, is through our art and our cameras.”
Weighing his options, Cheers, a photojournalist, decided to publish a book and mount an exhibition, with Eric Easter and Dudley M. Brooks. They gathered 50 of their colleagues; the best black photographers in the country who contributed 200 photographs.
“Songs of My People: African Americans, a Self Portrait” featured a wide-range of powerful images documenting triumphant strides and unrelenting strife, and everything in between. Gordon Parks, Roland Freeman, Howard Bingham, Chester Higgins Jr., and Ron Caesar, are among the contributors.
Like Father, Like Daughter
The 1992 portfolio had a profound influence on Cheers’s daughter. Now 37, Imani M. Cheers, was 12 when “Songs of My People” was published. She followed in her father’s footsteps, choosing a career in journalism. A photographer and multimedia journalist, the younger Cheers is a professor in the School of Media & Public Affairs at George Washington University. (Her father teaches photojournalism at San Jose State University.)
In tribute to her father and the groundbreaking project, Imani curated “Songs of My People: 25 Years Later.” The new exhibition revisits the original concept with contemporary photographers considering what the African American experience looks like today, after the historic presidency of Barack Obama and in the age of Black Lives Matter, alternative facts and supposed “fake” news.
Imani told CBS News: “In current times our field is under a lot of scrutiny. But for me, the core elements of journalism is truth telling. You are there to document truth and for me it’s been something I watched my father do as a child, and it definitely inspired me to do that now.” CT
“Songs of My People: 25 Years Later” is on view at Gallery 102 in the Smith Hall of Art at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., through March 3.
Through the lens of 50 black photographers, “Songs of My People: African Americans, A Self Portrait” presents an unvarnished vision of African American life. More recent photography volumes documenting black America include Deborah Willis’s “Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present” and “Through the African American Lens: Double Exposure,” published by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History.
D. Michael Cheers and Imani M. Cheers discuss “Songs of My People,” then and now. | Video by CBS News
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