Charles Moore’s 1963 shot of Birmingham, Alabama, is in Ryerson’s Black Star archive. Reproduction from the Black Star Collection at Ryerson University. Courtesy of the Ryerson Image Centre.
HUMAN RIGHTS, HUMAN WRONGS at the Ryerson Image Centre (33 Gould), to April 14. 416-979-5164. See listings. Rating: NNNNN
Whose eyes are we looking through when we look at a photograph? In this mind-expanding show, we examine photos through the eyes of UK curator Mark Sealy, director of photography org Autograph ABP, as well as through those of Black Star agency photojournalists who documented 20th-century conflicts and protests.
Walls in the gallery's first room are printed with the 30 articles of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and a vitrine holds books by Frantz Fanon, one of the soldiers from Europe's colonies whose experiences fighting in the Second World War fuelled subsequent national liberation struggles.
Sealy provides context for his selections from the American agency's photos of the U.S. civil rights movement by arranging them chronologically alongside Black Star images of international rebellions and uprisings.
Mining the collection with a critical eye toward what might be called "the white gaze," Sealy highlights codes of visual representation in which starving African children hold out begging hands, dead European soldiers become heroic sacrificial figures, while non-white casualties are depicted as faceless corpses and living militants as weapons-adorned tribal warriors.
In addition to the timeline of 20th-century struggles, he's pulled out two fascinating series from Ryerson's Black Star archives: The World's Biggest Jailbreak offers a tantalizingly incomplete narrative of a forgotten 1952 revolt at a Brazilian prison. Lennart Nilsson's 1949 Jungle Photographer (!) patronizingly documents an African portraitist at work snapping locals and developing prints on a dirt floor. We now know the African portrait tradition produced masters like Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe, but Nilsson never bothers to show his subject's work.
Despite some photojournalists' biases, many of their images can't help but pay tribute to the bravery and dignity of freedom fighters and their leaders and the unstoppable force of people trying to claim the rights the UN spelled out in 1948. Sealy, using both obscure and iconic material from Black Star, presents a visual history that brilliantly and irrevocably shakes up our preconceptions.