Written by Meagan Bailey, UAB Curatorial Fellow
Gordon Parks was one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century. He is best known for photojournalism that speaks to social justice. Parks was born in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas, into poverty and segregation. He picked up photography after realizing “the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs.”
Mother and Child, Mobile, Alabama was taken by Parks while documenting the Jim Crow South for a Life magazine pictorial essay, “The Restraints: Hidden and Open,” in 1956. It shows a mother with her three young children at the doorway of a wooden structure, possibly their house.
In the pictorial essay and his related series of photographs, Segregation Story, Parks focused on Shady Grove, near Mobile, Alabama, a segregated neighborhood. Parks chose to feature the largely African American community going about their daily lives. In this photograph, the woman rinses her hands under a faucet, while her children stand and sit at their mother’s side. Inside the doorway, there is a table covered in a brightly colored tablecloth and few plates and cups. Parks aimed to highlight the racial and economic injustices of the 1950s by creating images that spoke to Black and white Americans, such as scenes from daily life, including this photograph. Parks wanted magazine readers to relate to the people represented in his photographs, even as he revealed that the people in his photographs lived without the opportunities available to white Americans.
Parks believed that discrimination, racism, and systematic oppression could cause problems within the lives of individuals and communities, such as poverty, stress, and anxiety. These issues remain with us today. In today’s society, discrimination still runs rampant; studies from Johns Hopkins and the National Center for Biotechnlogy Information have shown that discrimination can lead to chronic stress, which can ultimately lead to poverty, less healthy lifestyles, and higher risk for illness. We can still learn from Parks’s photography today as we continue to confront these issues, including during the ongoing COIVD-19 pandemic. If Parks was still alive, how do you think he might have photographed Alabama during the pandemic?