“His Camera is Guided by His Heart”: On Robert Houston’s Photographs of the Poor People’s Campaign
On a recent winter morning, the air crisp and chilly, Robert Houston is visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The 82-year-old photographer, inconspicuous in a dark green hat and round tortoise shell glasses, flashes a warm and welcoming smile.
The Baltimore-based Houston is on his way to see the exhibition “City of Hope: Resurrection City & the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign,” a collection of newly discovered photographs and videos—many Houston’s own—from the six-week protest for economic justice. What has come to be known as the final mission of Martin Luther King Jr., the Campaign marked a turning point in American history as poverty, and those plagued by it, made national headlines.
Houston’s photographs, in particular, revel in the human condition at Resurrection City, the encampment protestors constructed on the National Mall. In one photograph, a woman in a mustard scarf stares out at the viewer from a sea of tent frames, her eyes kind and questioning. In another, a man sits pensively in a rickety tent, his gaze skirting past the viewer’s. Never sentimental, Houston is unabashedly sympathetic to the plight of those pictured as though the photographs were lifted from his own family album.
“You would be surprised,” Houston says, “when your backs are against the wall, everybody is your brother, everybody is your sister. The misery doesn’t respect anything.”
On one occasion, a group of policemen approached Houston in Resurrection City. As he took a few steps back, he glanced over his shoulder to see two hundred protestors behind him, their clenched fists raised defiantly.
“Don’t run. Tell our story.” Houston recalls protestors in the crowd saying. “We have your back.”
For Houston, that moment, more than any other, reaffirmed his commitment to the Campaign. Here was a group of people unanimous in their conviction that poverty was too great an ill to ignore, and Houston would make it his mission to bring their plight into sharp relief.
Winding through the exhibition, the city’s tents emerge as a recurring theme, with Houston’s images an intimate vantage point into daily life in the city. In one photograph, a woman sits silently, reading a Bible, in another, three children peek out from behind a tent flap, each curious and confident. Houston’s photographs of Resurrection City, framed as they are by sparse wooden structures, serve as singular vignettes, lending nuance to a struggle long resigned to the nation’s margins.
“There was a kind of love there,” Houston adds, “A mutual respect, a sharing, and an understanding that everyone there had gone through the same thing. If they hadn’t already experienced poverty, they were in it, or about to step into it.”
As Houston made his way through the exhibition, pausing, as he did, at each and every photograph, one could not help but notice the silence with which he met the works. As if in conversation, Houston stared pensively at the faces peering out from the frames, breaking the silence only to mutter, “Where are they now? How are they now?”
In one photograph, a man sits next to a woman holding a child, his eyes downcast, fixed, as they are, on the cigarette in his hand. The woman and child stare into the distance, worry and trepidation coloring their brows.
For all their sorrow, though, the people of Resurrection City, as presented in Houston’s photographs, display a singular nobility, an assurance that, though poverty might plague them, a brighter tomorrow awaits.
In one of the most striking photographs in the exhibition, a woman sits in a tented alleyway, framed by walls of faded yellow tarp. The only person in the photograph, the woman sits casually, her feet crossed and arm bent, looking out at the viewer with a solemn smile. The large-scale image adds a kind of monumentality to a woman one might gloss over otherwise.
“I was very impressed with the dignity of the people who lived in that city,” Ginge Sivigny, a former schoolteacher in Southeast DC who doled out soup during the Campaign, said. “There was an absolute determination that nothing was going to stop [Resurrection City].”
“These people were not afraid of anything,” Houston added, echoing Sivigny. “They had lost everything. I don’t have time to hate you. I’m trying to survive now. Maybe together we can help each other.”
Houston is unique among photographers of the Poor People’s Campaign in his unflinching exploration of that defiance, that dignity. In his images, humanity looms large, and concern for others proves far deeper than momentary sensationalism.
Perhaps photographer Gordon Parks, Houston’s longtime mentor, put it best when he wrote that Houston’s camera is “guided by his heart.” Parks goes on to describe in an unpublished manuscript how Houston managed to bring out the essence of each and every person he photographed.
“One finds him immersed in the problems of poverty and inhumanity. People of all colors who suffer those problems come and go, and at times they tend to disappear. But wherever their destination happens to be, Houston’s camera seems to be there waiting—ready to take another look.”
 Houston, R., & Bryant, A. (2008). Most Daring Dream: Robert Houston Photography & the 1968 Poor People's Campaign. Callaloo, 31(4), 1272-1274. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.smithsonian.idm.oclc.org/stable/27654994
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