Indie Memphis Film Festival: The Picture Taker
THE PICTURE TAKER is a feature-length documentary film that traces the journey of photographer Ernest Withers from his humble Memphis origins to seminal chronicler of African American culture and the Civil Rights Movement.
Withers shot over one million images during a career spanning 60 years— many of them synonymous with the freedom struggle — others capturing key flash points in contemporary American history like Negro League Baseball; the Memphis Blues scene and everyday celebrations of black Americans.
Withers died at age 85, a hero to his community and an icon within the movement. But a newspaper exposé published three years after his death threatened that legacy. Files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that Ernest Withers was a paid informant to the FBI during the civil rights era. He provided photos, names, and other details of those who considered him a friend and colleague.
For many who knew him as the man who bravely documented the Movement—being a spy for the FBI was the ultimate betrayal. And yet to others, it wasn’t that simple. By weaving the stories of those captured by his lens, THE PICTURE TAKER moves beyond the headlines to paint a nuanced portrait of a man who made contrary choices in complicated times. Whether saint or sinner, loyalist or traitor, the film shows that Withers guilt or innocence is all a matter of perspective. What is unmistakable however is it that the photographic record he left behind provides an invaluable look at how far this country has come, and how far it has left to go.