The Commercial Appeal in Memphis dropped a bombshell this week – that famed civil rights photographer Ernest Withers was also working for the FBI as a paid informant. Many people, including Withers’ family, expressed shock that the photographer could have been at the same time documenting the black community’s struggle and helping the government keep tabs on it. The Appeal was able to obtain more than 7,000 pages of documents that outlined Withers’ work for the FBI in the 1960s, including handing over photos and names of people involved in protest activities.
Known as the “original civil rights photographer,” Withers was on the front lines during some of the era’s seminal events, including the Emmett Till trial, the integration of Ole Miss and Martin Luther King’s assassination.
Withers’ actions are infuriating. As documentary photographers, we all know how difficult it is to earn someone’s trust and be allowed entry into their private lives. We are privileged when that happens. But when someone like Withers comes along, his behavior casts a looming shadow of distrust over all of us. If Withers were alive today he should be expelled from the profession and marked with a scarlet I—for informant. That way, everyone would know how much of a disgrace he his, despite his fascinating work.
On a personal note, a few years ago I was on Sunset Boulevard and an LAPD officer asked me what I knew about some people I was photographing and if there was anything I would like to share with him. I told him I didn’t know anything. The cop then let out this dismissive chuckle and said, “Oh yeah?”, knowing that what I just said was absolutely not true. That’s all I said and walked away. Like most documentary photographers, I would never betray the people I photograph.