Photos from the front lines of change

Stanford database will share the sharp eye, open heart of Bob Fitch

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is the value of 200,000 images?

Ben Stone, curator of American and British history with Stanford University Libraries, has an idea -- at least when it comes to the roughly 200,000 photographs taken by Bob Fitch during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

"We view this archive as an amazing resource for history and teaching," Stone said of the collection of pictures, which can be accessed by visiting the Stanford University Libraries website and searching for "Bob Fitch."

In the many years he worked as a photographer, Fitch documented the movements led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "These images that Bob Fitch took add a visual component to these histories. ... Images often tell the story in different ways. I think they add great depth and complexity to the story. It's hard to study these movements without seeing the images. They capture things that paper-based archives don't or can't."

Furthermore, Stone continued, Fitch was able to take photos most other photographers at the time couldn't -- especially when it comes to King and Chavez, to whom Fitch had "privileged access."

Fitch was granted this access due to his affiliation with the Southern Christian Leadership Council, a strong and outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement. When it came to photographing King, Fitch was able to get shots no one else could because he was the official photographer for King and his campaign against segregation and Jim Crow in the South.

Stone and his colleague at the library, Robert Trujillo, are currently working to pair down the 200,000 images -- collected as negatives -- to about 10,000 for the permanent collection. It is a formidable task. Each photograph must be scanned, uploaded at various resolutions, and tagged with searchable metadata. At the time this article was published, the archive had only uploaded about 200 of Fitch's photographs.

Fitch was born in Los Angeles on July 20, 1939. He moved to Berkeley with his family when he was 10 years old and came of age in the 50s. As part of the community that coalesced around the community-funded radio station, KPFA, Fitch grew up listening to Pete Seeger and early on developed a progressive political ideology, which would eventually inform his work as a photographer and champion of equal rights.

Upon graduating from his seminary school, the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, he decided that he needed to take a break from school and reading books, and the Civil Rights Movement called to him -- in particular, the work King was doing in the South. "My father was a clergyman," Fitch recalled. "He admired Dr. King. I equally was taken by his spirit and charisma."

Fitch had already involved himself in a variety of local civil rights and social justice campaigns in the Bay Area, he knew he was good with a camera, and he had the urge to travel, so he reached out to the Leadership Council to see if they could use his services to document their activities in the South.

"I said, 'Could you use a photographer?' They said, 'You bet.'"

Fitch worked with the SCLC during the summer of 1965, as they organized marches and worked to mobilize black voters throughout the South. During that summer, Fitch said, "I was pretty much the lone photographer for the Civil Rights Movement in the field."

That's because it was too dangerous for the nation's African American magazines and newspapers to send photographers and reporters to the scenes unfolding in the deep south, Fitch explained, recalling how Hosea Williams, one of King's inner circle, said to him, "We're going to send your white ass out there and you're going to come back with photos and stories every week."

And come back he did. Again and again, Fitch went out with marchers, capturing some of the best known images from the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. was modeled after one of Fitch's photos -- with King standing in his office in Atlanta, Ga., a portrait of Gandhi hung on the wall behind him. The United States Postal Service also used one of Fitch's photos to produce their memorial stamp of Chavez (although, Fitch noted wryly, on the stamp the USPS replaced the United Farmworker's flag found in his original image with picturesque farm).

The database will be available to anyone to use, Stone said. It will be free for non-commercial users and fee-based when the images are being used for commercial purposes.

Stone said he is excited to get all 10,000 photos online. "He took so many photos," Stone said, referring to Fitch. "People may be familiar with some of his most iconic images, but in this database you'll be able to see the photos he took before and after those shots. Those photos will give the iconic photos even more context."

Perusing the limited amount of photographs the Stanford library has made available for the public, Stone's statement comes into focus -- literally.

There are photos of King meeting with his inner circle, and with his arm around two young girls as they walk into a newly integrated school in Mississippi. We see key figures from the Southern Christian Leadership Council, none of them as well known as King, but important to the Civil Rights Movement nonetheless.

The same goes for the images Fitch captured of Chavez, which include a solitary moment, with Chavez talking on the phone, alone in his spartan office. There's Joan Baez speaking at a United Farmworkers Union rally. And there is Chavez, standing with his mother, Juanita Estrada, at another UFW rally.

All of these pictures are moving, and they each tell a little piece of the story.

Fitch isn't so humble as to say he doesn't recognize his work as powerful. He is proud of what he's done. However, he told the Weekly, if his photographs have any power at all, it's only because he was able to get close to his subjects -- both physically and emotionally.

"I had a knack for two things," he said. "I had a passion for the organizations for which I worked, and I got close. I took sides, and I believed. The consequences are that my images are intimate."

Some documentary photographers, and especially photojournalists, might have actively tried to remain dispassionate about the Civil Rights Movement. In order to maintain objectivity, reporters and photographers in the news business are supposed to refrain from rooting for the causes they document.

Fitch makes no apologies for his partisanship, however. In his heart he knows his subjects were fighting for what was right. And so, he said, he has worked his whole life to show the world what he knows to be true in his heart, so that they may also see the truth.

Fitch concluded his interview with the Weekly with a quote from the novel, "The Little Prince," by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. "That which is essential is not seen by the eye; it is seen by the heart."

"That's my soul guide," he added -- "It encapsulates most of my better work."

To access all of Fitch's photos currently in the Stanford library's collection, go to library.stanford.edu and type "Bob Fitch" into the search box.


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