Yesterday would have been the 98th birthday of the late artist, journalist, and activist Gordon Parks. I was reminded of him earlier this year when Wyclef Jean was on The Oprah Winfrey Show following the earthquake in Haiti. Jean made a powerful statement that touched a nerve in me. “The people of Haiti don’t need no more photo ops,” he said, adding that “the people of Haiti” had asked him to make the announcement on Oprah, presumably so the whole world would get the message.
It is a delicate and interesting exercise—the journalistic balancing act between informing and exploiting. Parks, a gifted, self-taught photojournalist, did it well. The renaissance man shot actors, models, and athletes like Muhammad Ali. But arguably his most prolific work—and my favorite Parks’ photos—are the ones he shot as a photographer for Life magazine. These photos captured the socioeconomic condition of working-poor Americans living in ghettos and shack-towns across the United States, with a type of raw honesty that pen and paper could never render. However, Parks manged to do it with a level of humanity and dignity that I don’t often see today.
Perhaps it is because we have lost something collectively as a society, or perhaps something is automatically lost in translation with a change in medium. Either way, I have to agree with Jean and pray that when we see images of devastation and suffering we all choose to do something about it besides just watch.
Parks not only won acclaim for his work as a social commentator/photographer, he went on to become a mainstream filmmaker (he directed the popular blaxploitation pic Shaft), he authored the novel The Learning Tree, composed classical music, and he created other art.
On a more personal note, Parks is my photography idol and I just love the above photo of him because he’s sporting my favorite travel accessory (my version is the Nikon D90). And this is a strange observation (I know), but Parks even died at the ripe old age I’d like to: 93.
Share your bliss: What’s your favorite Gordon Parks work?