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INDEPENDENT LENS: The Picture Taker

Credit: Ernest C. Withers
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PBS
Ernest C. Withers with 1941 Ford Woody photo mobile, Memphis, Tenn.

Premieres Monday, Jan. 30, 2023 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV + Saturday, Feb. 4 at 9 a.m. on KPBS 2 / PBS Video app

Born and raised in the segregated South, Ernest Withers (1922-2007) captured over six decades of African American history that witnessed the height of the Civil Rights Movement and The Cold War. The Memphis, Tennessee, native photographed legendary icons, ranging from prominent activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers to musicians like Elvis Presley, Tina Turner, and B.B. King.

Despite his commitment to truth-telling through photojournalism, Withers took a closely-guarded secret to his grave: for over a decade of his professional career, he worked for the FBI. “The Picture Taker” makes its broadcast debut on INDEPENDENT LENS on Jan. 30, 2023.

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Emmy and Peabody Award winner Phil Bertelsen (“Who Killed Malcolm X?”) tells the alluring story of Withers’ career — from his mom-and-pop photo shop beginnings through the shocking revelations about his FBI cooperation.

Ernest C. Withers
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ITVS / PBS
Ernest C. Withers, Beale Street studio, Memphis, Tenn., late 1950s-early 1960s

Withers learned his craft while serving in the segregated U.S. Army during WWII. Through dogged determination, talent, and courage, he established himself as a photojournalist with unprecedented access to the movers and shakers of Southern culture and politics.

Ernest C. Withers
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ITVS
Ernestine Hooks handing record to Martell LaGrone-Girhan, late 1940s- early 1950s
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His camera snapped nearly 2 million images, creating a photographic treasure trove of Black history from the everyday to the momentous. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers, the desegregation of Little Rock High, the Memphis sanitation strike, and the turbulent aftermath of Dr. King’s death were all captured by a man whose boundless energy and work ethic put him on the front lines of newsworthy events.

Ernest C. Withers
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ITVS
Martin Luther King, Jr. being confronted by Jackson, Miss. police during the funeral march for slain Miss. NAACP leader Medgar Evers, June 1963.

Withers’ images spread the word about civil rights and wrongs throughout the nation, making him a hero in his hometown of Memphis. But that legacy was shattered by a newspaper exposé published after his death, detailing years of secret FBI service. Bertelsen gives voice to this work by interweaving archival testimony from Withers’ FBI handler, agent William Lawrence, to whom Withers reported and provided photographs and identification of key activists.

Ernest C. Withers
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ITVS
Some Memphis Black power advocates, The Invaders, pose outside Ernest Withers’ studio on Beale Street, late 1960s. The Invaders were subjects of Withers' surveillance for the FBI.

“The Picture Taker” includes interviews with Lawrence’s daughter as well as activists close to Withers, including Rosetta Miller-Perry who, upon discovering his work with the FBI, questions Withers’ intentions. Throughout the documentary, the juxtaposition of Withers’ work—as witness, photographer, and potential spy for the U.S. government — is explored within the context of Withers’ coming-of-age in the Jim Crow South and the civic upheavals which threatened that status quo.

Fred Griffith/The Commercial Appeal-USA TODAY
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Fred Griffith-USA TODAY NETWORK
Southern Christian Leadership Conference members (SCLC), civil rights advocates, March Against Fear. L-R: unknown, Floyd McKissick, unknown (maybe Bernard Lee), Martin Luther King, Jr, James Lawson, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Ernest C. Withers, Withers son (?). King joined to draw attention to the march started by James Meredith after Meredith was shot by a white segregationist, June 7, 1966

Filmmaker Quote:

“There is almost no one else in contemporary U.S. history who has chronicled African American life with such depth and intimacy as Ernest Withers,” said Bertelsen. “We set out to capture the complexity of Withers, from his undeniable accomplishments and contributions to Black history, culture, and journalism as a whole, to the underlying question of his work with the FBI and how it impacts that legacy. We wanted to honor Withers’ work, his community, and the labor of activists by using his photographs to convey the realities of the segregated South for future generations.”

Described by The New York Times as “a compelling biography of Ernest Withers” and “an engrossing watch,” “The Picture Taker” showcases Withers’ incredible photographic archive alongside testimonials from those closest to him, providing an in-depth, multilayered account not only of Withers’ career, but also of milestone moments in American history and the ongoing fight for African American liberation.

Credits:

Producer / Director: Phil Bertelsen. Producer: Lise Yasui. Executive Producers: Sally Jo Fifer, Lois Vossen, Leslie Fields-Cruz, Tony Decaneas, Eric Meola, Robert Katz, Philip Hack. Presented by ITVS