Analysis of the American Negro Exhibit’s Photography at the Paris Exposition of 1900
Do images capture what we truly are, who others say we are or who we aspire to be? It is often those who create, control and disseminate those images that determine the answer. Since the turn of the 20th century, photography has emerged as a tool to document the human existence and has become a powerful lens of a perceived truth. However, as a machine, the camera alone does not create our reality; those behind the camera determine the visual content and context of photographs and influence how the audience perceives a photographic subject.
W.E.B. Du Bois understood the power of photography and like his contemporaries, who used photography to document scientific evidence, adopted the photographic image to combat racist imagery and negative perceptions of African-Americans at the turn of the 20th century. For the Paris World’s Fair of 1900, Du Bois showcased images of the “New Negro” within the exhibit by featuring middle-class, educated African-Americans carving out a place for themselves in American society. Du Bois presented, to an American and international audience, a community that did not fit into prevailing perceptions and representations of Blacks in the United States.
This paper explores the ideological drive behind Du Bois’s use of photography in the American Negro Exhibit. The essay revolves around the historical context of certain cultural aspects of American society during the early 20th century: the conditions of African-Americans, the Progressive Movement, the shift to a philosophy of Naturalism and Realism and the debate between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Finally, the paper will analyze photographic works from the American Negro Exhibit, in order to understand the “New Negro” and how he fit into Du Bois’s vision for African-American civil rights and equality within American society.