Local Authors Publish Exposé on Past and Present Progressive Movements

(Courtesy of Ania Keenan)
Front cover of Picturing Resistance, a book written by Ken and Melanie Light, which shows protests in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington.

    Demonstrators stood with hands held together in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The date was August 18, 1963, when it was still unusual to see African Americans and white people holding hands in public. The crowd was a part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, protesting for racial justice and civil rights. Standing a distance away, photojournalist Leonard Freed captured this historic shot, signifying interracial support for the civil rights movement.
    Nearly 80 years later, Freed’s cover photograph embodies the point-of-view of local husband and wife author-team’s Melanie and Ken Light’s newest social documentary book: Picturing Resistance, Moments of Social Change from the 1950s to Today.
    Although the specific focus of the project was new, both Melanie and Ken have spent their professional careers focused on social change.
    Ken, a professor of photojournalism at U.C. Berkeley, was first published as a photographer at the age of 18 when he captured images of the unrest that took place in the aftermath of the 1970 Kent State Shootings. For Ken, that was a turning point in his career, when he realized that photojournalism would be his path.
    “I was caught in that tornado of social change, and I realized that photography had an important way of recording history,” Ken said.
    Throughout his career, he continued to turn his lens on progressive movements, producing 11 books of photographs focusing upon specific movements and broader change over time.
    Melanie also developed a focus on social change, although her resume has been more multifaceted than Ken’s. As an executive founder of Forovision, an international non-profit that supports documentary photographers, Melanie is a certified fine art appraiser managing a private art and book collection. Prior to the pandemic, she taught and lectured internationally.
    According to Melanie, her work is driven by the particular question that captures her interest at the time.
    “That’s how my life has been driven, by whatever question consumes me,” Melanie said. It was this vibrant curiosity that drew Melanie to a job in the stock market out of college, and more recently to found the Orinda Fire Wise Council after becoming concerned about the lack of wildfire preparation in her neighborhood.
    Creating Picturing Resistance was not Melanie and Ken’s first joint project. The two worked together on previous documentary books, Coal Hollow and Valley of Shadows and Dreams. This, however, it was their first collaborative project working for a publishing company.
    Their previous projects had been self-driven, brainstormed and funded. In the case of Picturing Resistance, the Lights were contacted by Penguin Random House and given the assignment to capture progressive social movements from 1955 to 2019.
    Although they can’t know for sure, the Lights have a shared suspicion that their assignment for the book stemmed from an art show they curated at the Berkeley Arts Center in 2017. Called “Resistors,” it covered 50 years of political resistance in the Bay Area.
    “That gave rise, we think, to one of the editors seeing the show and contacting us to expand it to be a national overview of grassroots resistance,” Ken said.
    In the process of creating the book, Melanie and Ken divided the work so that they could each exercise their expertise. Melanie did most of the research and writing, combing through a lengthy list of sources to gather information about the dozens of social movements featured throughout the book’s six chapters. She then took this information and crafted short summaries for every chapter of the book as well as explanations for each of the photographs.
    Ken was responsible for jump-starting the process of selecting photos from his own work, and the work of other photojournalists, that would provide the best visuals for Melanie’s explanations.
    According to the couple, Ken possesses a somewhat encyclopedic memory when it comes to photography. He drew on professional connections and his background in activism to retrieve the images he most desired for the book.
    The personal connections the Light’s share to the movements featured in their book increased both their dedication to authenticity and the pressure that they felt to “get it right.” Ken said, “People’s lives were really in these movements, and they are the guardians of history.”
    The overall message the Lights concluded that they wanted young people to get from their book is a respect for history and for the generations of activists that came before them. “Sometimes, especially young people, become politically active and they’ll think that they are inventing something new. And, it’s like ‘No, your grandparents did the exact same thing,” Melanie said.

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