When Ernest Withers died in 2007, he took a secret to the grave that would ruin his legacy as the famous photographer of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
For years, while capturing critical moments in Black American history, Withers worked as an informant for the FBI, often providing the photographs he took of the civil rights movement to the very organization that aimed to suppress it. break.
No one but Withers himself can say for sure what his motivations were for working with the FBI—why, as a Black man who has dedicated his career to documenting and celebrating Black life, he provided information that might have those same endangering lives. But in The Picture Taker, a documentary premiering ahead of Black History Month, director Phil Bertelsen and producer Lise Yasui attempt to explore that question through what can only be described as Withers’ best defense: his body of work.
Bertelsen inherited the project from his mentor, St Clair Bourne, who died before Withers’ FBI connections came to light. The film opens and draws on a number of archival interviews with Withers himself, who describes his life growing up in Memphis, Tennessee and learning photography while serving in a segregated army during World War II.
The interviews with Withers not only provide a biographical background – they show the respect and reverence Withers was held as a chronicler of Black history, prior to the FBI revelations. In his 60-year photography career, Withers left behind an estimated 1.8 million images, documenting everything from First Communion, Beale Street, the Emmett Till trial, the Montgomery bus boycott, participants and BB King.
“He walked so many different paths and was presented to the public as either this hero on the front lines of the civil rights movement who put himself in very dangerous situations – an African-American man in the South with a camera was a very dangerous position to be in during the 50s and 60s,” Yasui said in an interview with the Guardian. “And when the FBI revelations came out, he was vilified. We really wanted to unpack that because we felt that understanding that period and era that Ernest was raised in, that context is everything. And you can’t really reduce someone’s decisions to this either/or.”
And Yasui and Bertelsen went hard with context, not only to inform, but also to raise possible reasons behind Withers’ involvement with the FBI. The film touches on Withers becoming one of the first Black police officers hired by the Memphis Police Department and later Kathleen Cleaver, a Black Panther activist, questioned whether the FBI might have had a hold on him from his time as a police officer. A former FBI agent during that period spoke about the fear of communism leading others to wonder if Withers joined the FBI because he wanted the civil rights movement to flourish and sought to weed out any alleged communists who might hinder their mission. weaken. Marc Perrusquia, the journalist formerly of the Commercial Appeal who broke the story about Withers’ FBI connections, talked about how Withers received about $20,000 from the FBI, the equivalent of about $170,000 today, while Rosetta Miller-Perry, a former representative of the US Civil Rights Commission, noted that someone also had to foot the bill for a poor photographer like Withers to travel across the country to document the movement.
“You always have to remember the background of segregation and how it worked. You didn’t say no to white people. You did things that you felt would increase your ability to survive because you wanted white connections,” activist John B Smith said in the documentary, adding another possibility to the mix.
The filmmakers never sugarcoated Withers’ work with the FBI, suggesting at one point that all the FBI informants at the time bore some responsibility for King’s assassination. While James Earl Ray was arrested and convicted as the gunman in King’s murder, King’s family and others within the civil rights movement maintain that there were other forces at work in a conspiracy to remove King from the public sphere. “You take it as part of the collective intelligence gathering that was going on – was he aware of that? Did he intend any of that information to be used against Dr. King? I doubt it very seriously,” Bertelsen said in an interview. “But I think it’s safe to say that his information probably had a negative impact.”
But throughout the documentary, the photos taken by Withers himself, between 300 and 500 of Withers’ photos in total, are a mere fraction of his entire body of work, Bertelsen said.
In the 15 years since work began on the documentary, two books and a podcast have appeared about Withers’ life and involvement with the FBI. But what Bertelsen realized a documentary could do that those other mediums couldn’t was allow Withers to mount his own defense from beyond the grave through the images he took throughout his life.
Because even with his involvement with the FBI, no one can take away the sheer volume of Black history and life he captured on film. “And you can’t take that away from the community in which he lived and served, during a period where there were a few people like him who took images of our lives,” Bertelsen said. “It’s an archive, it’s a legacy, which is really remarkable and unparalleled.”
Few in the documentary take a strong stand against Withers. “Most people in and around Memphis knew about these revelations, and weren’t really willing to throw him under the bus,” Bertelsen said. “It was a surprise to us, and it showed that they themselves had a very nuanced understanding of that history and that period and that man.”
Both Bertelsen and Yasui hope that viewers will take that same nuance away from the documentary to continue in a complicated world where too many see only in black or white.
“Over the years, I woke up some mornings loving Ernest and in love with the images he took, knowing that no one else took them with the same compassion and insight that he did,” Bertelsen said. “And then other mornings I woke up and just despised the man for undermining the movement and putting people’s lives at risk. So it was never an either/or proposition for me. It was always both. In that light, I hoped to tell a story that reflected something more than just a hero or heretic question. At different times, Ernest was both of those things.”