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  • Articles by Sonali

    Talk: Doris Derby at The Photographers' Gallery


    A fortnight before “lockdown” people gathered for an event at The Photographers’ Gallery to hear photographer, teacher and activist Doris Derby talk about her life and work to artist Hannah Collins. Little did we know how much our world was about to change in the weeks to come: in hindsight the event was unique and well-timed. Derby’s pictures are part of the “We Will Walk: Art and Resistance in the American South” exhibition curated by Collins which will reopen at the Turner Contemporary Gallery in September when lockdown eases.

    80 year-old Doris Derby is primarily known as a photographer having taken thousands of photographs, but she has used various art forms. Some of her work, always inspired by a need to document the situation around her can be seen in her recent (2019) publication, “Poetagraphy: Artistic Reflections of a Mississippi Lifeline in Words and Images: 1963 – 1972".  She is also a painter, writer and a poet. In 1965 she co-founded a theatre group, the Free Southern Theatre, getting people in the community involved in repertory theatre and storytelling.

    Derby is a compelling storyteller herself. The audience listened intently while she related the circumstances surrounding her pictures and discussed her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. She began by saying her interest in photography was passed on from her father. He took family pictures to record their heritage. Born in 1939 – by fifth Grade at school in New York City, she noticed that the lives and culture of African American people was not being represented in films or history books. She wanted to change that.

    She joined the youth division of the Civil Rights Movement aged sixteen and then, in 1961, when she was a teacher and photography was a hobby, she joined the Civil Rights movement as an activist and travelled south to Mississippi to work at grassroots level in several areas in a direct challenge to segregation. There she first developed learning materials for an adult literacy programme, enabling people to apply for voting rights.

    She mentioned that in 1962 she had met and worked with Martin Luther King and Andrew Young in Albany, Georgia. She said she was, on occasion the only woman on certain projects, but she was enthusiastic and full of ideas and persevered with the tasks at hand regardless. Derby spoke about the Freedom riders. They were an integrated group of people who travelled by bus to the south deliberately flouting rules on segregation. Apparently, many of the buses that went deep south to Mississippi and Alabama were bombed. Seeing television footage of the police setting off fire hoses and dogs on people protesting against segregation and the lack of voting rights encouraged her to join the movement and to work in Mississippi.

    In 1965, she became Head Teacher and Teacher Trainer in two pre-school centres in the first Head Start programme in the country, created by the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM). By the end of 1965 she was asked to develop handcraft cooperatives to help provide employment for the poverty-stricken black community, especially those who had lost their jobs because of civil rights activism. The cooperatives were organized through the Poor Peoples Corporation (PPC) and the Liberty House Marketing Cooperative. 

    In 1966, Derby was recruited by Southern Media, Inc., affiliated to PPC, to photograph what was politically happening in Mississippi. She learned different aspects of documentary photography and filmmaking from the other Southern Media photographers.

    Derby’s photographs are often close-ups of her subjects, mainly women and children. They are represented going about their daily lives, relating to each other and working to improve their educational, social and economic wellbeing (often thwarted by law, powerful individuals and racism). The pictures seem calm and unfussy, each consisting of a few bold, sculptural and substantial forms. By contrast, many of the pictures of the Civil Rights Movement in the exhibition are taken from a distance: of people marching in protest or being attacked by the police.

    Derby said her photographs through Southern Media served a practical purpose.  Southern Media photographers often took pictures of specific events or of people who wanted to run for office.  They would be used to make flyers, posters, and film strips and to document community activities. The pictures were sourced by magazines and newspapers.

    Her pictures are notable for their sense of humanity, gentleness and industry. Many of the photographs are of people from the various organizations she worked with. There is a sense of her connection to them in the pictures. She said she is a people person. She went on to further her studies in Cultural Anthropology and African Diaspora Studies, graduating with an M.A. and Ph.D.  She later became an Associate Professor of Anthropology, and the Founding Director of the African American Student Services Program at Georgia University. She remained there for 22 years before retiring at the age of 72.

    She discussed some of her photographs, including an image of L. C. Dorsey working at a vegetable Co-op. Derby often worked alongside L. C. Dorsey. Dorsey started off as a sharecropper, worked with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was a well-known leader in her community. She later went on to finish a college degree and was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement.

    Derby said the Independent African American farmers were the secret weapon of civil rights movement. Its members were given safe accommodation and support by these Independent farmers while the freedoms of the sharecropper farmers were limited by landowners who supported segregation.

    In the Q & A that followed Derby was asked what motivated the people in the Civil Rights Movement to continue when faced with the ever-present threat of danger. She replied it was their mission. They felt compelled to continue the struggle for justice and equality as human beings and American citizens.

    Doris Derby is an engaging speaker and it was evident that she had a good rapport with her audience. It was a privilege to hear her discuss her photographs and recount her story in that setting at the Photographers Gallery just before lockdown.

     

    1. L.C. Dorsey  North Bolivar County, MS Vegetable Cooperation 1968 - Dr. Doris A. Derby

    2. Volunteer Math Teacher with Students - Tufts - Mound Bayou, MS 1968 - Dr. Doris A. Derby


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