Although people snap as many photos every two minutes as humanity as a whole did in the 19th century, it’s unlikely that few, if any, of these pictures are as important as the ones Stephen Somerstein took of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama march — an event which changed the entire course of civil rights in the United States.
Now, 50 years later, at a time when the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers have sparked national protests, Somerstein’s photos are the focus of a new exhibition commemorating the Selma march’s anniversary.
“All through the march I was thinking, ‘This is history in the making. Can I capture it? Can I give a sense to other people of what I am experiencing myself?’” Somerstein told Reuters. “That was the thread that always wove through the back of my mind. Am I up for the task?”
The exhibition, titled “Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March,” opened January 16 at the New-York Historical Society and runs until April 19. Though Somerstein took some 400 pictures of the march, the event will feature just a fraction of the pictures, which not only document Martin Luther King Jr., his inner circle, the protesters, and the police, but the hundreds of small town folk who witnessed history walking past them.
“I turned my camera most consciously to the people watching the march. It was meant to free them,” said Somerstein to Reuters. “The march was meant to give them voting rights. The march was meant to change their lives.”
By joining the marchers and the protest, Somerstein gained unprecedented access. He not only got to photograph Dr. King, but also Rosa Parks, James Baldwin, and Baynard Rustin with the five cameras he had slung around his neck during the five day, 54-mile march.
Though he sold some of the pictures to the New York Times Magazine and photo collectors, none of his shots were exhibited until 2010, when he participated in a similar exhibition at the San Francisco Art Exchange.
“Instead of looking in, Stephen looked out,” Marilyn Satin Kushner, the curator of the exhibit, told Reuters. “These are great photographs of a very historic moment.”