At a time of rich rebel iconography, no other revolutionarily minded group of the era played with images as well as the Black Panther Party in the years 1965-1972. For all the posters of Che Guevara, it was but one picture of one man on every girl’s dormroom wall. The Panthers were the embodiment of political committedness, civil rights, righteous struggle, and they were as sexy as hell in their Afros, berets “patterned after the Resistance,” their shades, and their leather jackets. The conscious eroticism of their imagery obscures the relevance of their political programme, “What We Want, What We Believe,” whose 10 points still resonate today in America. It obscures the infighting that every movement has, with often fatal consequences, and it obscured the war carried out against them by J Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Richard Nixon’s COINTELPRO programme that served to defend a still racist, conservative regime against most forms of democratic change and played into the hands of the militants in the Panther Party.
Of all the photographers of the era who covered the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, perhaps none is as important as Stephen Shames whose work is now collected in a book, The Black Panthers, published by Aperture. Panther founding chairman Bobby Seale records that he invited Shames to be the photographer for the movement’s weekly newspaper, The Black Panther, and thus “embedded” with them. It is this unusual access and intimacy to all aspects of the Black Panther Party that makes this the most important document to date.
His images of Bobby Seale, Huey P Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, and others at work and play are vital to the understanding of the movement. Not only did he create the iconic images of the BPP, he also photographed their performative, public presence with its press conferences, sit-ins and rallies, he also documented their efforts to effect political change by encouraging self-help, self-determination, social work, and the Panthers’ education programmes as much as he showed images of their armed, self-defence efforts in the wake of police shootings that claimed the lives of several of their members.
From his first shots of Bobby Seale and Huey P Newton from a 15 April 1967 demonstration against the Viet-Nam War at the University of California, Berkeley, through the arrests and sieges in Oakland, California, and New Haven, Connecticut, and the trials and funerals of George Jackson, Bobby Hutton, and others, Shames was there and accepted as an insider by the Panthers. At a talk a few years ago in Oakland, he relates that he was asked by an audience member if he had been a party member, he said, “No, I was a photographer.” Former Panthers in the audience got up and said, “Steve, we always considered you a member of the party.” In the introduction to his book Shames writes, “That is a badge I wear with honor.” Other photographers, notably Jeffrey Scales, Pirkle Jones, and Michelle Vignes, were there as well, but it is Shames’s images that stand out as the most complete document to date.