A photograph is worth a thousand words, and maybe more in a society immersed in mass media.
"We don't really yet have a language that is specific to photographs or mass media," said Lauren Mason, assistant professor of literature and African-American studies at Armstrong Atlantic State University. "What's happened is we tend to read photographs in the same way we read text. So we look at the way those texts speak and how they mean to different people."
In "To Be Beautiful in Light: The Role of Photography in Shaping the Modern Black Identity," as part of A Movable Feast Lecture Series presented by AASU, Mason will explore the visual impact photographs and other media have on defining the collective African-American identity.
"For photographs, particularly of African-Americans, we read it as a narrative of the black community or the shaping of the black community at the time," she said.
Focusing primarily on the Harlem Renaissance through literary icons such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke and Langston Hughes, Mason explores the shaping of the black community and its generational influence.
"When African-Americans moved to the city, to Harlem, photography became a huge part of the black consciousness," she said. "For Langston Hughes, he writes a lot about the black identity and how blacks should be seen or portray themselves. And that carries over to the way African-Americans have photographed themselves."
Using such recent examples of magazine spreads featuring celebrities such as Beyonce in GQ or first lady Michelle Obama in Vanity Fair, Mason says the consciousness of the black community and its outward appearance is perpetually in the spotlight.
"In this era, we deal with mass media, or the images of black stars, and those images are heavily stylized, so when we see someone like Beyonce, we would have to think about what Beyonce wants people to think about black women," she said. "When you are representing yourself as a black woman, you're representing black women."
Through digital manipulation, photographs are now becoming less genuine, catering to an idealized beauty rather than what is directly before the camera.
"I think it reinforces one of the latent problems ... which is that there's a notion that blackness that is worth photographing is a blackness that isn't very black," she said. "The one thing that hasn't changed is controlling one's identity, controlling the production of one's identity. If anything, that's become more important."