Doris Derby: A photographer with a different purpose

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In anticipation of her UK exhibition work, which are to feature in a new exhibition at Turner Contemporary in Margate called We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South, Doris Derby, an activist and former academic discusses how she had a productive 81 years as an elementary school teacher, a documentary photographer, and a civil rights activist.

Doris Derby, who is now a retired adjunct associate professor of anthropology at Georgia State University, reveals that all through her life she has worn several hats. The story embedded in Derby’s wonderful, intimate pictures mesh with the rest of her extraordinary life. 

Doris’ life as a civil rights activist began at age 16, where she joined the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Youth Chapter in her hometown of New York City. As a student she was on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. Thereon, she became an active member of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, of which her work addresses the themes of race and African American identity. 

Derby’s works capture small, private moments but withholds a prominence of change for a people who wanted and deserved better. Each photograph Derby takes depicts the life of blacks in the segregated South contributing to the narrative that propels the Civil Rights Movement.

Her desire to record history led to the exhibition of her photography throughout the United States. Two of her photographs were published in Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, to which she also contributed an essay about her experiences in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement.

This culturally and racially diverse neighborhood in the Bronx is a place that envelopes Derby with dancing, music, poetry, and art. Her father, Hubert Derby was a civil engineer often overlooked for jobs he was qualified for. Hubert had given Doris a Brownie camera when she was a child, and she had an instinctive eye for detail and storytelling. “I also was a painter before I came to Mississippi,” she says.

“I think that the painting, from a visual perspective, and the photographs, went hand-in-hand. I was able to develop my painting by studying people, particularly black people and families, especially women and children. I later translated that into photography, so a lot of my pictures, when I look through the lens, I’m looking also from a perspective of: ‘How would this look like a picture, a painting?”.

Occasionally, she was invited to participate in documenting everything she can remember that happened in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. Derby said she was especially interested in the experiences of women and children and the grassroots initiatives of the local communities. At this point, she feels her training in photography truly begins.

Her images became powerful overtime. Derby’s intimate photographs create a contrast to the images of funerals, protests, demonstrations and murders that dominate the front pages as the Civil Rights Movement unfolded. Her photographs serve a different purpose. They appear on leaflets, brochures, and posters and speak directly to black communities in ways which the Civil Rights Movement is working toward creating change and instilling black agency.

“I was passionate to show the world who the people are, where they lived, and what they were doing. They were the basis of the success of the Civil Rights Movement,” Derby reveals. “Many activities and initiatives, including forming cooperatives, were a part of that whole movement. Anything you did to challenge the status quo was considered political.”

“The world often sees those who are out there protesting, meeting with officials or scenes from a tragedy—which all are very important. But not everybody was involved outwardly in that part. My objective was to document black people who were engaged in the struggle for equality and justice for all. To depict the life-giving force of the black community keeps on. Even though they face poverty and injustice, they’re surviving, they’re living.”

Derby now lives with her husband, actor Bob Banks in Atlanta, Georgia. Her work is exhibited in galleries throughout the world, and now Krannert Art Museum is the permanent home of four of her images. Also, she has donated her extensive basket collection from West Africa, South Carolina, and Charleston to the Spurlock Museum, where she was an assistant curator/graduate assistant during her adventure in life.

From an early age, Derby learns the momentous of documenting lives through photography and the value of shared struggle and resilience. All the experiences acquired contribute to her lasting imprint on the Civil Rights Movement, and ultimately, the movement’s imprint on her.

“I knew I was creating historic photographs,” Derby says. “I knew I was building this for the future.”

Africh Royale

Africh Royale

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