A Gordon Parks Photograph for Martin Luther King Day

A Gordon Parks Photograph for Martin Luther King Day

To honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, today’s #PowerPhoto represents an incredible example of visual storytelling. Gordon Parks, the first African American photographer at LIFE describes his work from 1942, “what the camera had to do was expose the evils of racism.” This image challenges us to live up to our magnificent mantra, that all men are created equal, while demonstrating when we as a nation have faltered in that grand aspiration.

History of the subject, Ella Watson

The subject of this influential image, Ella Watson, was herself a person struggling after both her father and husband were murdered by lynch mobs. The photo demonstrates her daily life, caught between a mop and a broom, the American flag hanging proudly, almost overbearingly, over her head. She appears resigned but determined, and though she faces us, she doesn’t look at us directly. This photograph explores an invisible life in servitude, not recognized or celebrated, but this is a woman undefeated. She stands strong and resilient in the face of terrible tragedy.

Considering the obviously intentional contrast with Grant Woods’ iconic painting, American Gothic, from 1930s depression-era of the Midwestern farmer and wife, we can see the comparison of the stolid and staid, but resigned to accepting the vital role they served to the functionality of the greater whole.

History of the Photographer, Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks himself grew up in poverty in Kansas and never experienced such intense racism until he arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1941 for a photography fellowship with the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Upon his arrival in our nation’s capital, he experienced disturbing inequality from being forced to use separate entrances, water fountains and restrooms to being excluded from white movie theaters solely because of the color of his skin. Parks stated that he uses his camera as a weaponhe understood that visual storytelling compels change much more strongly than the written word alone. Seeing is believing.

Gordon Parks

Refusing to be defeated by his unjust treatment, Gordon Parks sought out older African Americans and asked them to document their daily indignities when he met Ella Watson who worked at the FSA’s building and learned her compelling and horrific story. In the words of Parks, “this photograph serves as an indictment of the treatment of African Americans by accentuating inequality, symbolizing life in pre-civil rights America. The image exposes the evils of racism by showing the people who suffered most under it.” He asked Ella Watson to represent the inequalities African Americans face every day and an indictment of the “land of the free” in the face of this unequal treatment.

As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, separate but equal is inherently unequal. One may wonder if visual storytelling like Gordon Parks’ American Gothic helped change Americans’ outlook, compelling this monumental shift toward greater equality.

Honoring Film Photography as Powerful Visual Storytelling

This photograph was captured on 4×5 black and white film, an ideal format for photography and the standard for some of the most influential images in history. At Most Media we honor these traditional methods, while integrating with the latest in technology to create the most lasting impact. We use the tools available in our modern world to tell the most incredible stories that we hope will change our world for the better.

What makes imagery so powerful? Art stories like Gordon Parks’ American Gothic evoke an emotional response. This remarkable woman, who has suffered so much, standing strong and never defeated serves to inspire us. If she can prevail over such personal tragedy, she stands as a beacon of what of we all might accomplish, despite our circumstances. We shall overcome.

We live in a time of intense turmoil, but our nation has faced similar challenges in years past. Our goal is to use the powers of positivity to appeal to the goodness inherent in everyone to create a better future for all of us. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “uncertain times, while scary, are also an opportunity for growth, meaningful change and healing.”


Aimee McAffee is a founder at Most Media and our Communication Ninja. Her roles include head content writer, editor and brand strategist for our company's clients.

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