By the time Rick Smolan was twenty-five, he was taking pictures for illustrious publications such as Life, Time, New York Times and National Geographic. Perhaps owing to his youth and early success, Smolan didn’t share the jaded outlook of his much older peers. “They would all sit around in bars and bitch and moan about their editors and the stupid magazines they shot for.”
One fateful bar conversation changed Smolan’s career and opened up a whole new avenue of photography- chronicling everyday lives for commercial coffee table books. “ We were at a bar in Bangkok. They said ‘you don’t understand, we don’t want to just document things. We want to upset people and shock people and expose injustices. We want to change the world.” Chastened but undaunted Smolan asked, “What if we all get together and do a book about a day in life like somewhere in Australia?”
History was made as those photographers made the first “day in the life” book, capturing the lives of people on that continent in images over one twenty-four hour period. It was the first of many including A Day in the Life of America, America 24/7, Obama Time Capsule and many more.
Smolan’s newest creation is a hybrid of the traditional coffee table book and phone app. The app is a free download. Pointing your phone at over 60 specially marked photos instantly cues up short video essays about them on your phone. There are also text essays that accompany some of the book’s images. The Good Fight is a meticulously curated 250 plus pages charting many of the men and women whose struggle for (and in some cases against) justice were caught on camera. Most of the pictures were taken by people trained to find and be ready to claim for posterity, incredible never to be duplicated moments. They capture them in a way that challenges the viewer to feel and to act. Smolan observes, “It’s easy to take dramatic pictures during a war. It’s harder to take pictures in a shopping mall and make those pictures move you and make you think.”
Many photos were taken recently. One is a close up of a group of twenty- and thirty-something black men gathered on Baltimore’s West Side. They seem to be desperately trying to physically keep each other from crumpling to the ground. A tear is clearly making its way down the cheek of the one who appears at first glance to be the strongest. It was taken on April 28, 2015 in the wake of the Freddie Gray killing.
Smolan says the goal of The Good Fight is to, “Remind us of how far we’ve come and of how recent and fragile our progress is.” Some of the photos are classic and well-known, such as the stoic, bespectacled Elizabeth Eckford being harassed by white women who encircled her as she attempted (ultimately unsuccessfully) to enter Little Rock High School on September 4, 1957. There is Martin Luther King slumped across the front desk of a Montgomery Alabama police station, Colin Kaepernick in 2016 still in his 49ers uniform, his hair forming a black halo, flanked by teammates, kneeling hand over mouth as if muzzling an existential scream.
There are also many much less well-known photos. Civil Rights icon, Congressman and author John Lewis is shown in 2017 holding a photo of his younger self as he was beaten during a protest. “It’s a metapicture,” Smolan explains,” The fact that he’s holding a photo of himself from a different era and is still fighting the same battles and has become sort of a grand statesman of the civil rights movement.”
One horrifying image is an extreme close-up of a Miami Florida Klansman in 1939. He sits in full Klan gear in the passenger seat of a vehicle. Smolan points out he was one of many Klansmen who would, “Drive through neighborhoods the night before elections and basically say ‘We know where you live. If we see you at the voting booths tomorrow, we’re gonna come back and lynch you.” The klansman’s noose snakes menacingly over the open car window. The Klansman’s dead-seeming eyes do what they are meant to do; stop the viewer’s heart for a nanosecond.