CHECKING IN WITH BRUCE DAVIDSON

July 1, 2020

I first met John Lewis at a basement meeting to organize the second bus ride with the Freedom Riders. John had been badly beaten on the first ride that ended with the bus being bombed. They had no police escort or guarding soldiers the first time, so the outcome was horrible and there was no press about it.

Bruce Davidson,  Freedom Riders, Montgomery, Alabama,  1961

Bruce Davidson, Freedom Riders, Montgomery, Alabama, 1961

 

Because I had a body of work based on the lives of young people, the Brooklyn Gang series, I had applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue photographing youth in America. It was suggested by John G. Morris at Magnum to go down South to photograph the Freedom Rides. At the time I didn't know what that was, but I knew it involved youth so I innocently hopped on that second bus, not knowing what to expect. The riders were courageous young people, who risked their lives for freedom and were willing to take the blow. There was a lot of singing and a sense of solidarity.

 

Buses were bombed in Alabama, riders were arrested and attacked — all in the name of stopping the Freedom Riders, whom you photographed. Were there times when you were scared? How did you feel?
When I was on the bus with the Freedom Riders, the state brought in the National Guard. On either side of the federal highway there were a lot of woods —easy for a sniper to hide in — and we thought we might have heard shots coming from there. We also saw bands of rednecks with clenched fists along the route. I believe we were also afraid that the National Guard might have live ammunition in their belt, but we weren't sure. Everyone was a little apprehensive. 

 

Bruce Davidson,  Freedom Riders, Montgomery, Alabama,  1961

Bruce Davidson, Freedom Riders, Montgomery, Alabama, 1961

 

When you returned to New York after being in the South to photograph the Civil Rights Movement, how did the people around you receive your work? Were people in your circles supportive of the movement? Did you have many conversations at the time where people resisted the work of the Civil Rights leaders?
Many of my close friends supported the movement. John G. Morris, the executive editor at Magnum Agency, certainly understood the poverty and oppression that was prevalent in the South. The fact is, people in the North weren't as informed about what was going in the South, including myself. There weren't a lot of people clamoring to know what it was like to be out on the front line.

 

Bruce Davidson,  Birmingham, Alabama,  1963

Bruce Davidson, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963

 

In your book, Time of Change, you recall a moment when some white youths were harassing a marcher named Winston and you realized that you had to be cautious with your Leica in hand, as you didn't want the youths to “perform for the camera” and violence to precipitate. How did you navigate your subjects and their motives in relation to your presence as a photographer? Were there more instances where you have had to hide your identity as a photographer in order to not change other people’s actions? 

Bruce Davidson,  Mississippi , 1963

Bruce Davidson, Mississippi, 1963

Winston was very brave; he sat there and confronted the white mob, farm boys basically. I would be very quiet and seem not interested, which is how I got away with it. Usually the mob would come for the camera person who witnessed it, break the cameras, and then go after their target.

 

I had another close call when I stayed in Atlanta to photograph an NAACP function. There a Klans member, dressed in a sheet, was handing out pamphlets about a Klu Klux Klan rally in so-and-so’s field.

 

Bruce Davidson, Klu Klux Klan Meeting outside of Atlanta, GA, 1962

Bruce Davidson, Klu Klux Klan Meeting outside of Atlanta, GA, 1962

 

I drove there and tried to find a good photographic vantage point, so I moved very close to the bonfire.  All of the sudden, over the loudspeaker, they said, New York plates such and such, you're too close to the fire, and with that I jumped in my Volkswagen Beetle and got out of there. I didn't want to be discovered by the Klan as an agitator. It sounds boring now but it was very scary then. 

 

How did it feel to be present for the Freedom Riders — a smaller group of people — then go on to witness the March on Washington? What were your thoughts that day as you witnessed the enormous crowd?
It was obvious to me that things were moving towards freedom, seeing the masses of people following Dr. Martin Luther King at that point. Photographing during this time, I was being sensitized to the plight of the people. The day of the Washington March, I basically just stood for a long time bearing witness, instead of just taking a picture and running.

 

Bruce Davidson, James Baldwin and his three nieces, New York, 1964

Bruce Davidson, James Baldwin and his three nieces, New York, 1964

 

You met and photographed James Baldwin in 1964 for an assignment. You have previously written about how he encouraged you after he looked at your photographs of the Freedom Riders and of the streets of Harlem. Can you tell us more about what Baldwin told you that day?
I don’t know if I can elaborate much further. I remember that he was with his nieces in their home and he looked at my pictures from 1961 to the present moment and he thought they were honest and important pictures. He also encouraged me to continue.

 

When ROSEGALLERY held the first exhibition of Time of Change in the mid-1990s, many school kids arrived from all parts of Los Angeles County and beyond. When Rose relayed to you about how much your photographs affected these students, you expressed gratification that a new generation was becoming aware of the contents of your work, and we imagine your work continues to have an impact today. How do you feel as your photographs continue to educate and enact change? 
It was gratifying to hear that my photographs had such an impact on those school children. For me, it’s important that my work continues on and makes people aware.

 

When you see the Black Lives Matter protests today, do they remind you of what you saw as a young photographer capturing the Civil Rights Movement? How does it differ and how is it similar?
The Civil Rights Movement in the 60s was a very dangerous place. It was a difficult time and one had to be very careful.  Things were tense and unsettled. I remember when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was blown up and four young girls were killed. Also, Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights worker from Detroit and a mother of four, who was killed by the KKK for assisting a group of young black girls and boys who were out past curfew. When the Klan caught wind of that, they shot her in a drive-by.
I don’t know if I can compare one to the other. Today, it seems that there are a lot of people marching, which is a good sign. Now, I could relate to the 70 year old man who was stricken and almost died in Buffalo. This movement is a young movement, same as it was in the 60s, but back then an adult could be fired from their job if they were seen at a protest. The kids got away with it. These kids were fast; hoses would come after them and they would run back. They didn't have much to lose in terms of their jobs.

 

Bruce Davidson,  Selma, Alabama,  1965

Bruce Davidson, Selma, Alabama, 1965

 

What advice would you give photographers today who are capturing protests? 
Photographers should take their time in understanding the situation unfolding around them. When the event is over, it’s not over. I stayed and viewed unnerving things. In other words, I'm not a shoot and run photographer. I figure things out by observing everything while staying as true as I could.

 

Bruce Davidson,  Coney Island, NY,  1962

Bruce Davidson, Coney Island, NY, 1962

About the author

Sophi Winnikoff

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