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Frederick Douglass photos smashed stereotypes. Could Elizabeth Warren selfies do the same?

By Hannah Natanson, The Washington Post
Published: September 26, 2019, 6:00am

They look nothing alike.

Frederick Douglass — a black man campaigning for the abolition of slavery in the 1840s — appears alone in almost every photograph, staring down the camera in isolated, thoughtful splendor. Elizabeth Warren — a white woman campaigning for the presidency in 2019 — features today in countless iPhone photos and Instagram feeds, her arm around voter after voter, always bearing the same wide grin.

The two are separated by race, gender and more than 100 years of history that forged an America that would probably be unrecognizable to Douglass. Still, experts say, their use of photography collapses the distance: Douglass sat for scores of pictures to normalize the idea of black excellence and equality, and Warren’s thousands of selfies with supporters could do the same for a female president.

“It is cognitively harder for people to think about women in the role of political leader because we haven’t seen a lot of women in political leadership,” said Nichole Bauer, a professor of political communication at Louisiana State University. “With this selfie factory, she’s normalizing that image — in the same vein that Douglass used photography.”

Douglass, renowned statesman, abolitionist, orator and writer, was the most-photographed American of the 19th century, according to historians. Over the course of his career, he sat for more than 160 separate pictures, later reproduced millions of times and disseminated across the United States.

As Yale professor David Blight writes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” Douglass used the photos — in which he appeared elegantly dressed, his hair perfectly arranged — as “a means of spreading influence.” Douglass created “for a wide audience successive images of the intelligent, dignified black man,” Blight argues, in a larger bid to convince the country that black inferiority was a racist myth.

He was up against more than myth. Born into slavery, Douglass taught himself to read and write (both forbidden activities), escaped enslavement at age 20 and forged a career as the most accomplished orator of America’s abolition movement — and possibly in the entire country. He lived to see slavery abolished at the end of the Civil War but continued to fight against the country’s racist and inhumane treatment of African Americans all his life.

Although in a vastly different context, Warren is today confronting another harmful myth, experts said: that a woman is not presidential and does not belong in the Oval Office. Over the course of her campaign, she’s developed a similar strategy to fight back. At the end of every rally, Warren — one of three front-runners in the Democratic race, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll — stays behind to pose for pictures with pretty much every supporter who asks.

A Warren aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal statistics, said Tuesday that Warren has posed for nearly 60,000 selfies with supporters since launching her campaign. In a typical flurry Monday, Warren lingered for an extra four hours after giving a speech in New York to snap roughly 4,000 pictures with attendees, the aide said. The aide declined to comment beyond providing statistics.

Warren selfies are so in demand that her campaign has developed a sophisticated system to process would-be picture takers (a set up so complex it earned its own feature in the New York Times). Though other candidates are also taking selfies, Warren is doing it on a much greater scale than the rest of the field, and seems more focused on photography than any politician in recent memory, experts said.

“She’s presenting a public image of herself as somebody who is presidential,” said Alexander Alberro, a Columbia professor who studies the history of photography. “What Douglass tried to do was to create a public persona in the face of the negative type of image of African Americans at the time … so I think the comparison is really good.”

Douglass sat for his first photograph in 1841, near the start of his career.

Though early forms of photography required subjects to remain motionless for hours, Douglass probably had to hold still only for a couple of minutes. The exposure time soon reduced even further: As Douglass’ career advanced, so did the field of photography.

Because of rapid-fire technological improvements, “virtually every Northerner could afford to have his or her portrait taken” by the close of the 1840s, according to Harvard historian John Stauffer, who has written extensively on Douglass’ use of photography. This was a boon for Douglass, who had fallen in love with the medium — which he dubbed a “wonderful discovery and invention” in an 1861 lecture.

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“Men of all conditions may see themselves as others see them,” Douglass wrote of photography. “The humblest servant girl, whose income is but a few shillings per week, may now possess a more perfect likeness of herself than noble ladies and even royalty . . . could purchase fifty years ago.”

Over the next several decades, the abolitionist disseminated his well-coiffed image as widely as possible. Douglass visited photographers’ studios at every opportunity, placed photos of himself on the covers of his autobiographies and handed out small visiting cards stamped with his likeness everywhere he went.

He knew exactly what he was doing, Stauffer said.

“Douglass defined himself as a free man and citizen as much through his portraits as his words. He also believed in photography’s power to convey truth,” Stauffer wrote in a 2015 essay. “The truthful image represented abolitionists’ greatest weapon, for it exposed slavery as a dehumanizing horror. Photographic portraits bore witness to blacks’ essential humanity.”

He also saw the mere act of photography as a way to protest America’s racist and unequal society, according to Robin Kelsey, a professor of the history of photography at Harvard. This was because Douglass viewed picture-taking as “the great equalizer,” Kelsey said: Facing the impartial camera lens, everyone had to “stand and perform their identity,” no matter what that identity was.

“Everyone was in the same boat as a subject of photography,” Kelsey said. “And these days, Elizabeth Warren is making use of the selfie to assert the same thing: That she’s one of us, she is in the same boat as everyone else, she has to stand before the camera just like us.”

If democratizing, Warren’s selfies also assert a very specific identity, experts said — just as Douglass’s photos did.

For one thing, the pictures suggest Warren’s distance from wealthy donors, said Amanda Hunter, research and communications director for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which promotes women in politics.

When Warren announced her presidential bid in February, she promised she would neither attend private fundraisers nor solicit funds from the mega-rich. Posing for photos with anyone who asks underscores that message and challenges “the stereotype of who gets access to a presidential candidate — it’s not just the 1 percent anymore,” Hunter said.

It also questions more fundamental gender-based stereotypes, Bauer said.

“She’s showing she’s warm and thoughtful and interested in people through these really direct personal interactions and pictures,” she said. “It overcomes that image that women in leadership roles are cold, they’re unfeeling, they’re not kind.”

That could be especially important for former Harvard professor Warren, who will probably confront some voters’ impression that she’s too elite, a denizen of the Ivory Tower unable to understand most people’s lives.

Douglass’ use of photography panned out pretty well in his lifetime. He achieved massive fame and lived to see the abolition of slavery in the United States — an achievement aided by Douglass’s compelling rhetoric and larger-than-life persona, which he forged partly through photographs.

In “the long game of history, Douglass was extraordinarily successful,” in part because of the photos, Kelsey said.

Warren’s photos — especially those in which she poses alongside young girls — are reshaping American perceptions of who can serve as president, experts said.

Even if she loses, Bauer said, Warren has already accomplished something important. She’s already left behind an influential legacy — captured in the thousands of smiling photos stored in thousands of iPhones across the nation.

“We know individual interactions with female politicians and leaders can affect whether a young girl runs for political office,” Bauer said. “Whatever happens, Elizabeth Warren’s million selfies are just a little bit more of a crack in that glass ceiling.”