Fighting With a Camera

Originally posted on USC’s now-defunct TRANS/MISSIONS: Media, Culture, Religion, Society blog.

by Judith Weisenfeld

Photographer Charles Moore died on March 11, 2010 at the age of 79.  Although Moore covered a range of events over the course of his career, the powerful images he produced during the Civil Rights era emerge by all estimations, including Moore’s own, as his greatest contributions to photojournalism.

His training prepared him for commercial fashion photography, but his decision to take a different professional path and work for the newspapers in Montgomery, Alabama placed him in the right place at the right time to document the movement from the start. As a white Alabama native, Moore’s interest in the movement was not obvious or without personal cost to him, but he attributed his success to the tolerance and compassion his Baptist minister father taught him.

In an interview for Syracuse University’s project on Civil Rights and the Press, Moore spoke of the impact on his career of the decision to work in Montgomery: “So I got a job and it turned my life around. I mean it literally turned my life around. Because I had found something that’s more important than fashion or commercial or whatever, or even more important than money. And that is what you can do with a newspaper and what you can do in telling stories.”

Among the most memorable and affecting of his photographs are those documenting the violence inflicted upon civil rights activists, including the rough handling Martin Luther King, Jr. experienced during an arrest in Montgomery. Moore spoke often of having recognized King’s power as a religious and political leader during those early days following him in Montgomery.

Moore’s portraits of the religious dimensions of the Civil Rights Movement were not limited to African American church contexts. His photographs for Life of a 1965 Ku Klux Klan gathering in North Carolina make vividly clear the degree to which Christian commitment undergirded some streams of white supremacist ideology.

Moore’s photographs from the Civil Rights era are collected in Powerful Days: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore, and you can hear his gripping accounts of photographing during this period in Daniel Love’s 2005 documentary, “I Fight With My Camera.”  He was modest about his contributions to American society, telling those gathered at a 2004 event at Syracuse University on the press and the Civil Rights Movement: “[I]t is about the photographs – it’s not about me. It’s the photographs that can change people’s mind – I can’t. If they can change people’s minds and make an effect on people where they can look at them and say, ‘Gosh, that was wrong,’ then the pictures made a difference. I’ll be gone one day, but they won’t.”

In considering the intersections of religion and media in a new media age, we should not forget the power of still photographs in shaping interpretations of religion’s role in American society. Such images have made and continue to make a profound difference. That’s the testimony of the lives of chroniclers like Charles Moore who threw themselves into the fray to make sure we had those pictures.