Race, Environmental Justice, and DOCUMERICA at 50

Coalition to March on the DNC where Black Lives Matter and climate change activists protested through the streets to the Wisconsin center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Milwaukee, August 20th, 2020 (Shutterstock)

In April of this year at a press conference staged in front of the National Mall, Democratic Party politicians Ed Markey, the junior United States Senator from Massachusetts, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the US Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district, reintroduced the Green New Deal Resolution. Surrounded by leaders from the climate, environmental justice, and labor movements, Markey contended that “the Green New Deal provides the framework we need to confront the intersecting crises our country faces – climate change, a public health pandemic, racial injustice, and economic inequality.” Ocasio-Cortez echoed these remarks, placing communities of color “disproportionately affected by climate change” at the heart of the Green New Deal’s remit and mission. Acknowledging the intimate links between racial, economic, and environmental inequality, Markey and Ocasio-Cortez challenged the nation’s politicians to acknowledge their “moral obligation” in addressing these interconnected threats.

For further inspiration in meeting this challenge and a reminder of what is at stake in the fight for racial, economic, and environmental justice, America’s politicians could do worse than look to DOCUMERICA. This hugely ambitious photography project was inaugurated fifty years ago by the newly-formed Environmental Protection Agency with the aim of creating a “visual baseline” for federal environmental policy. The project was the brainchild of Giff Hampshire, who joined the EPA as the deputy director of its Office of Public Affairs shortly after the agency’s establishment in 1970. With the support of EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus, Hampshire believed that DOCUMERICA could help generate public support for the EPA’s mission. Unveiled to the American public in November 1971, DOCUMERICA ran from 1972 to 1977, involving dozens of freelance photographers who produced tens of thousands of images on assignment in every corner of the United States which powerfully visualized the social cost of “environmental harm and defilement.” Inspired by the Farm Security Administration’s photography program of the New Deal era, Hampshire also envisioned DOCUMERICA as an opportunity to emphasize the encompassing, holistic nature of America’s environmental challenges. He embraced the first rule of ecology advanced by influential scientist and popular author Barry Commoner, which emphasized that “everything is connected to everything else.” Accordingly, he challenged his photographers to go beyond cataloging images of garbage-filled streets, smog, and other visual indicators of pollution to document what he described as “the human condition.”

This was not universally successful, with many photographers stymied by mundane assignments and Hampshire’s somewhat vague guidelines. The majority of DOCUMERICA assignments focused on white Americans, with minority communities pushed to the sidelines. Yet at its best, DOCUMERICA offers a complex and kaleidoscopic snapshot of the United States at a pivotal moment in its modern history and a powerful window into the enduring connections between economic, racial, and environmental injustice. Some photographers were able to use DOCUMERICA as an opportunity to shed light on how the nation’s environmental problems disproportionately impacted poor and working-class communities of color. In the process, they helped to produce something more: a vibrant portrait of Black American life and culture in the 1970s.

It is perhaps unsurprising that these connections were exhibited most strongly through the assignments submitted by DOCUMERICA’s small band of Black photographers. This group included LeRoy Woodson, a prolific photojournalist who would begin a two-decade stint at National Geographic on the back of his DOCUMERICA assignment. Focusing on Birmingham, Alabama, Woodson’s photographs catalogued the disproportionate impact of industrial pollution on the city’s poor and working-class communities and communities of color. In one image, a young Black boy walks barefoot alongside a creek polluted by effluent from local steel mills. Other images reveal the appalling living conditions in “Little Korea,” a predominantly Black neighborhood which was often evacuated during heavy rains due to poor drainage. Another of DOCUMERICA’s Black photojournalists was John H. White, a North Carolinian who had recently joined the Chicago Daily News. Many of White’s images of Chicago’s “Black Metropolis” provided a stark profile of urban decline and African American poverty. Yet at the same time, his assignment helped to push back against racialized public policy debates around the “urban crisis” which depicted Black communities as either passive victims or agents of social disorder. White envisioned his work for DOCUMERICA as an opportunity to “portray life in all its seasons,” authoring a multifaceted portrait of Black Chicago that reflected “pride, love, beauty, hope, struggle, joy, hate, frustration, discontent, worship, and faith.”

Other photographers offered their own contributions to DOCUMERICA’s geographically and aesthetically diverse portrayal of Black life in the 1970s. Paul Conklin, who was hired as the first official photographer of the Peace Corps in 1964, documented the Black experiences in the Lowcountry and Sea Islands in South Carolina. His assignment shed light on how coastal development and the growth of Lowcountry tourism was impacting Gullah culture and Black business development. Dick Swanson, a celebrated military photographer and White House bureau correspondent, devoted part of his DOCUMERICA assignment to Philadelphia’s Black community. Among many other arresting photographs, his assignment produced an image that will be familiar to many of you from the cover of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s recent work, Race for Profit. Tom Hubbard’s work for DOCUMERICA took him to downtown Cincinnati and Fountain square, where he documented the ways in which Black residents participated in the city’s social and cultural life and helped shape its public sphere.

For decades these photographs languished in the National Archives, largely forgotten. Over the past decade interest in DOCUMERICA has been revived by the digitization of many photographs and their distribution across social media, as well as the impact of a 2013 exhibit titled “Searching for the Seventies” at the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery in Washington, DC. However, the vast majority of digitized images remain blemished and discolored, and DOCUMERICA’s portraits of Black life remain scattered and disorganized. In an attempt to address these issues, I am working to restore and catalog some of these images at www.thislanddocumerica.org.

Beyond questions of restoration and organization, however, the fiftieth anniversary of DOCUMERICA’S inauguration provides us with an opportune moment to reflect on the project’s depiction of Black people. Over subsequent posts for Black Perspectives, I will be exploring the assignments of Woodson, White, and other DOCUMERICA photographers in more detail, using the project’s archive to craft a visual geography of Black life in the 1970s. DOCUMERICA’s guiding focus – that “everything is connected to everything else” – is perhaps most powerfully visualized through its portraits of Black America and the opportunities and challenges facing African Americans across the country – from the South Carolina Lowcountry and backstreets of Philadelphia to the South Side of Chicago. At the same time, its images remain an important reminder that the challenges of economic, racial, and environmental injustice which America faces today are the same challenges that the nation has been dealing with for generations, and that our ability to address these interconnected crises is contingent on our recognition of the ineradicable links between them.

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E. James West

E. James West is a UK-based writer and historian, currently working as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University Newcastle. Her is the author of 'Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History' (University of Illinois Press). Follow him on Twitter @ejwestuk.