Author Talk: History, Race and Photography

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PBS Books, in partnership with the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), will host a conversation on Monday, May 17 at 8pm to discuss History, Race and Photography, highlighting the recently released book To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes.  This book is a profound consideration of some of the most challenging images in the history of photography: fifteen daguerreotypes—men and women of African descent who were enslaved in South Carolina. The conversation will feature four extraordinary scholars; Ilisa Barbash, Deborah Willis, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and Sarah Elizabeth Lewis.

This important conversation will delve into the daguerreotypes that were made by photographer Joseph T. Zealy for Harvard professor Louis Agassiz in 1850 and were rediscovered at the Peabody Museum in 1976. Since that time, the images have drawn worldwide interest, provoking wide-ranging interpretations and raising critical questions about the history and conditions of slavery, racism, representation, and identity.  The conversation will examine the role photography plays in discussing race and our history.

About Contributor & Editor

Ilisa Barbash is the curator of visual anthropology at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. She co-directed the films In and Out of Africa (1992) and Sweetgrass (2009), which was nominated as best documentary film for the Independent Spirit Awards, Gotham Award, IDA Documentary Award, and Cinema Eye Awards and was selected for the U.S. State Department and the University of Southern California’s 2012 American Documentary Showcase. She co-wrote Cross-Cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Video (1997) and co-edited The Cinema of Robert Gardner (2007). Barbash’s book Where the Roads All End: Photography and Anthropology in the Kalahari (Peabody Museum Press, 2016) was the recipient of the Society for Visual Anthropology’s 2017 John Collier Junior Award for visual excellence in the use of still photography.

Deborah Willis, Ph.D., is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and has an affiliated appointment with the College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Social & Cultural Analysis, Africana Studies, where she teaches courses on Photography & Imaging, iconicity, and cultural histories visualizing the black body, women, and gender. Her research examines photography’s multifaceted histories, visual culture, the photographic history of Slavery and Emancipation; contemporary women photographers and beauty. She received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. Willis is the author of Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present; and co-author of The Black Female Body A Photographic HistoryEnvisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery; and Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs (both titles an NAACP Image Award Winner). Professor Willis’s curated exhibitions include: “In Pursuit of Beauty” at Express Newark; “Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits” at the International Center of Photography and “Reframing Beauty: Intimate Moments” at Indiana University. Since 2006 she has co-organized thematic conferences exploring imaging the black body in the West such as the conference titled Black Portraiture[s] which was held in Johannesburg in 2016. She has appeared and consulted on media projects including documentary films such as Through A Lens Darkly and Question Bridge: Black Males, a transmedia project, which received the ICP Infinity Award 2015, and American Photography, PBS Documentary.


About the Contributors

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Ph.D. is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She became the national president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in January 2016. Higginbotham began her teaching career as a public school teacher before moving to the university setting.  She has also taught on the faculties of Dartmouth College, the University of Maryland, and the University of Pennsylvania.  At the special invitation of Duke University, she taught at the Duke Law School in 2010-2011 as the inaugural John Hope Franklin Professor of American Legal History.

Higginbotham earned her Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in American History, her M.A. from Howard University, and her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A pioneering scholar in African American women’s history, she is the author of the prizewinning book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church 1880-1920. She is also co-editor with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of the African American National Biography, now in its second edition (2013).

Higginbotham is the recipient of numerous awards and honors. Most notably in September 2015, she received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama at the White House for “illuminating the African American journey.” In March 2015 she was named one of the “Top 25 Women in Higher Education” by Diverse Magazine.


Sarah Elizabeth Lewis is an associate professor at Harvard University in the Department of History of Art and Architecture and the Department of African and African American Studies. She is the founder of the Vision and Justice Project. Lewis has published essays on race, contemporary art, and culture, with forthcoming publications including a book on race, whiteness, and photography (Harvard University Press, 2021), Vision and Justice (Random House), an anthology on the work of Carrie Mae Weems (MIT Press, 2021), and an article focusing on the groundwork of contemporary arts in the context of Stand Your Ground Laws (Art Journal, Winter 2020). In 2019, she became the inaugural recipient of the Freedom Scholar Award, presented by The Association for the Study of African American Life and History to honor Lewis for her body of work and its “direct positive impact on the life of African-Americans.”


Photo Credits: Ilisa Barbash photo by Kris Snibbe © President and Fellows of Harvard College and Sarah’s is photo credit: Stu Rosner. The book’s cover credit is: Cover of To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes. (Peabody Museum Press/Aperture, 2020). With artwork by Carrie Mae Weems. Photograph by Fabrizio Amoroso/Aperture.


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