THE SNCC PHOTO DEPARTMENT
SNCC, through its photographic and research department, documented like no other organization in the history of the movement for human and civil rights during the 1960s. This area features ten SNCC Photographers’ Work.
*SNCC Legacy Project also recognizes Joffre Todd Clark, Norris McNamara, and Rufus Hinton for their photographic contributions.
The story of the SNCC Photo Department begins with Danny Lyon. Born in New York in 1942, Danny was a 19-year-old student at the University of Chicago where he was the campus magazine photographer. When the Freedom Rides began in 1961, he read with great interest of the students’ courage. In early 1962 he hitchhiked to Cairo, Illinois after hearing about SNCC demonstrations there on the college radio. In Cairo, he met Chuck Neblett and Salynn McCullum, who arranged a place for him to stay. “Chuck and Salynn were the first SNCC people I met,” reports Danny. “The next morning we were at a church, and there was John Lewis sitting in a corner. During that trip to Cairo I took a photo of John and Chuck kneeling in prayer during a demonstration, and that photo later became a SNCC poster.” After his trip to Cairo, Danny next went to Albany Georgia in August 1962 where SNCC students were organizing and marching. He met James Forman, SNCC’s executive director, who offered him a job as SNCC’s first staff photographer. “The one request I had to Jim was that I would own my own negatives. He agreed to that and we shook on it,” reports Danny. He spent the next two years documenting SNCC work across the South. His photos were used to illustrate SNCC’s newspaper The Student Voice, brochures, posters, mailings and other materials. Later other photographers joined the staff. “I trained Tamio and got him a Nikon F donated by Richard Avedon who was a friend of SNCC and gave us cameras. I worked closely with Julian Bond.” (Danny Lyon telephone interview 2/2/2022 with Sharlene Kranz). Danny Lyon has published many books of photography and prose, including two based on his SNCC work: The Movement (Simon & Schuster 1964) (text by Lorraine Hansberry); and Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement (Univ. of North Carolina Press 1992).
Robert E. “Bob” Fletcher
Born in 1938 in Detroit, Bob attended Fisk University before heading south. From 1964 to 1968 he photographed for SNCC in Alabama and Mississippi, including the Mississippi Freedom Schools, the MFDP delegation to the 1964 Democratic Convention, the Selma to Montgomery March, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, and the March on Washington. His Movement photos were on exhibit at the Schomburg Library in New York City from 1962-67. Later Bob moved to New York and received a law degree from NYU in 1990; he is now practicing law in New York.
Doy Gorton was born in 1942 in Greenville, Mississippi. As a student at the University of Mississippi in 1964 he was expelled from Ole Miss for getting involved in the Freedom Movement. He became a SNCC staff photographer and took pictures in Southwest, Georgia, Selma, Americus, McComb, and other towns from 1964-66. He was a trainer at Oxford, Ohio for the 1964 Summer Project. Later in his career Doy was the New York Times White House photographer. He is now retired and living in Carbondale, IL. (Doy Gorton telephone interview 2/1/2022 with Sharlene Kranz).
“About 1964 I listened to Martin Luther King on the radio and decided I would join the Movement. I went to a party at Penny Patch’s house in Englewood, NJ, we did a voter registration project in Englewood when she came back from Southwest Georgia. So I got a ride to Atlanta from Jamaica, NY, and walked into the SNCC office. Ivanhoe Donaldson and I had gone to high school together (we were both on the track team) so I knew about SNCC from him. I had been a student at Hofstra College in NY.
When I visited my grandfather to tell him I was going south, he said remember you are going into the land of cotton, and it is the land of your Native American ancestors. I met a few other SNCC people who had Native American ancestry, for example Mac Cotton whose grandmother had been with Geronimo and she jumped the train in Mississippi. Hollis and I used to talk about our Indian ancestry.
I came to join the Movement and was assigned to North Carolina. I was sent a camera and told to take some pictures in Halifax County. For assignments I’d get a call from Ruby Doris and she’d say “this is happening go check it out”. SNCC bought me a car for my work, a ’55 Chevy from an Atlanta gas station which I drove to Selma.
Later I was invited to study photography at the Richard Avedon Studio in NY and learned to process film, to take a picture story, and got my first used camera, then went back south and started taking pictures. Some were sent to Jet Magazine. I worked in Selma for a while with Silas Norman and in Lowndes County with Jen Lawson and Cox and Stokely. At the time I was married to Tina Lawrence of the SNCC Selma office. I covered Tent City in Lowndes. For a while I was on the road with the Freedom Singers. Worked in McComb, photographed the first Freedom School in Mississippi bombed by the Klan. I photographed Mrs. Hamer and Malcolm X at a church in Harlem. Early on, I sent my film to Atlanta to be processed, later I processed it in Selma; I had a lab in the back of the Selma SNCC office. Jet published my photo of MLKing reading a newspaper headline about Vietnam.
After SNCC I taught motion picture production at City College of New York, worked as a cinematographer for ABC-TV in NY, started a film company Harlem Audiovisuals where we did a film about Amiri Baraka; Rufus Hinton worked on that project. Then I moved to Rhode Island when I married the medicine woman of the Narragansett Tribe. I had an exhibition of my civil rights photos at the Smithsonian from 1965-1970. Nothing in my life has been greater than my experience with SNCC.” (Doug Harris telephone interview 2/3/2022 with Sharlene Kranz).
Lester was born in St. Louis on Jan. 27, 1939. He grew up in Kansas City, Kan., the son of a minister, and later Nashville, Tenn., where in 1960 he received an English degree from the historically black Fisk University. In 1961, Lester moved to New York City, where he taught banjo and guitar, performed as a folk singer, hosted a talk radio show on WBAI and hosted a television show on WNET. It was while he was a folk singer in New York City that Lester, in 1964, decided to travel to Mississippi during the Freedom Summer. “Going to Mississippi in ’64, you knew you could be arrested, you knew you could be killed, you knew you could be injured. And so it’s not something you did lightly, not something you did because it was going to be fun,” Lester told PBS in a 2014 interview. “But there was this feeling inside of me that it was just something I had to do.” In addition to using his musical gifts at mass meetings and rallies, Lester also chronicled the civil rights movement as a SNCC photographer. Those photographs were later part of a civil rights exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, and his larger body of work has also been featured in solo shows at many galleries. Lester was a true polymath. He wrote dozens of critically acclaimed books, for children — including a retelling of the Br’er Rabbit tales and an exploration of slavery, “To Be a Slave” — as well as nonfiction and novels for adults. He was also a musician, and his very first book was a guide to the 12-string guitar, co-written with legendary folk singer Pete Seeger. He taught for three decades at the University of Massachusetts.
Francis Hamlin Mitchell
Born in Arkansas, Mitch was a World War II veteran and Ebony Magazine photographer before joining the SNCC photography project in 1964-65. He was one of the first Black photographers for “Life” magazine.
Maria Varela was a staff member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963-1967 working primarily in Alabama and Mississippi. Varela created filmstrips and photo books utilized by SNCC and local community organizers for various organizing campaigns. She took up the camera because of the lack of training materials showing Black people taking leadership to change their communities. Varela’s job as a SNCC staffer also included photographing marches, as the presence of cameras often protected marchers from violence.
In 1968, she moved to New Mexico at the invitation of leaders of the Hispano land rights movements. She also continued her photography documenting the 1968 Poor Peoples Campaign, the first Chicano Youth Conference, the 1960s and 1970s Chicano movement, and the lifestyles of Nuevo Mexicano villages. For 40 years Maria organized rural communities in New Mexico and the Southwest to create culturally-sustainable economic enterprises to help reduce poverty and loss of ancestral lands. In 1990, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for this work.
For the last five decades, Maria’s work has been included in books, magazines, TV media and photo exhibitions including at the New York Public Library (1968), the Smithsonian (1980), the Howard Greenberg Gallery (1994), Eastman House (1998), The Colorado College (2000), Smith College (2005), The Fralin Museum (2019), and The Bullock Museum (2020). Traveling exhibitions include: This Light of Ours (2010-20) Center for Documentary Expression and Arts, and Roots of My Resistance, a solo exhibit curated by the National Museum of Mexican Art (2017-2019). Varela’s work is also found in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and the National Mexican Art Museum.
Maria Varela currently supports the work of Latino and Native American activists in the Southwest who fight for ancestral lands, waters, cultures and environmental justice.
Clifford A. Vaughs
Clifford A. Vaughs was born in Boston, joined the Marines in 1953, later received his Masters degree at the University of Mexico in Mexico City. He was a civil rights activist, award-winning photographer and independent filmmaker. Cliff was a SNCC Field Secretary 1963-65, and a noted photojournalist. He was also a designer of motorcycles and a co-producer of the film Easy Rider.
Born and raised in British Columbia, Canada, as a child he and his parents were interned in a World War II internment camp for Japanese-Canadians. While a college student, he became aware of and went to see SNCC students in the South. He joined SNCC in 1963 and soon was working as an official SNCC staff photographer. After 1964 Freedom Summer, Tamio returned to Canada where he organized a Friends of SNCC Chapter. He was the author of six books, including Dream of Riches: The Japanese Canadians 1877-1977, a photographic reconstruction of the memory of the Nikkei community,
Tamio’s friend Ed Nakawatase writes: “By the time SNCC organized Freedom Summer in 1964, bringing hundreds of college volunteers, most of them white; from all over the country to Mississippi, Tamio had become quite active photographing the work in the state. Having been active previously in Georgia, he became, basically, SNCC’s Mississippi photographer. His photos of the places and the people of Mississippi capture both the stark realities of poverty and racism as well as the insurgent spirit of the local movement.
“Tamio set up the SNCC darkroom, developing pictures from its expanding coterie of photographers who covered SNCC’s activities throughout the South. Visually recording the civil rights movement was an important task of the struggle; a form of truth telling for the world to see. Within a short period of time, with his evident skills and visual eye, Tamio became a SNCC photographer, and he was one of the best. He had an eye for composition and light and a respect for precision and details. He moved about unobtrusively (or at least as unobtrusive as an Asian with a camera could be in the Black Belt South). When necessary, he moved quickly as all Movement photographers learned to do in the face of racist hostility. Tamio also had a sense of history, for that was what he was recording, and he knew it. He clearly had an artist’s sensibility and photography was a logical outlet for it.”
Matthew J. Herron died when his glider plane crashed near San Rafael, California. He was 89 years old.
Born in Rochester, NY, Matt studied photography in Rochester as a private student of Minor White, and then worked as a writer and photographer for the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia. A conscientious objector during the Korean War, Herron was organizing peace demonstrations and beginning to shoot assignments for Life and Look at the time the first sit-ins were occurring in Tennessee and North Carolina. He was arrested for attempting to integrate an amusement park in Maryland in the summer of 1963, and shortly afterward, he and his wife, Jeannine, moved to Jackson, Mississippi, with their two small children.
For the next two years, Herron pursued three styles of photography: classical photojournalism for the major picture and news magazines, documentary photography as practiced by his mentor, Dorothea Lange, and photography as propaganda in the service of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other civil rights organizations. Often he was able to use news assignments as cover for a more documentary style of work. Many of the iconic photos used to document SNCC’s story were taken by Matt.
In the summer of 1964, Herron organized a team of five photographers, The Southern Documentary Project, in an attempt to record the rapid social change taking place in Mississippi and other parts of the South as civil rights organizations brought northern college students to work in voter registration and education. George Ballis and Danny Lyon were among the Southern Documentary photographers, and Dorothea Lange served as an informal adviser to the project.
In 2012 he curated a 158-print photography exhibition, This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement, featuring nine photographers who joined the civil rights movement and shot it from the inside. This Light opened in Salt Lake City and is now touring the US. The University Press of Mississippi has published a companion volume to the show. In 2014 Herron published Mississippi Eyes, the story of the Southern Documentary Project. The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service has recently agreed to host a US tour of his 50 print exhibition on the Selma March and Voting Rights.
Herron’s photographs are in the permanent collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Memphis National Civil Rights Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, the High Museum of Art, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the George Eastman House. He is the subject of several profiles, including Witness in Our Time: Working Lives of Documentary Photographers, and a cover story in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, June 2014.
Read more about Matt Herron:
New York Times obituary: