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In conversation with Danny Lyon

Danny Lyon—a photojournalist—joined Waltham High School members and university students in a Zoom session on Nov. 17, to answer questions from students. Lyon discussed his career in photography and different projects of his work with students. 

After receiving a B.A. in History from the University of Chicago in 1963, Lyon joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the main outlet for students in support of the civil rights movement, and worked as their photographer. He was also involved in a motorcycle club called The Chicago Outlaws. Lyon photographed his time during the club and many of the pictures he took during this time were consolidated into books such as “The Bikeriders.” 

Lyon also spent time photographing a Texas penitentiary. His work photographing this place was consolidated into a book called “Conversations with the Dead.” During his career, he was also able to take photos that were influential throughout the civil rights movement.

Rynn Parrack ’23 asked Lyon what stories and life he was able to capture on camera that he was not able to tell to the full extent that he wanted to. In response, Lyon claimed that photography was more of an organic and evolutionary process. Instead, he stated that for him, he simply took pictures of what he found interesting around him and then later turned it into the stories that are popular today. 

Another student asked Lyon to compare photography and videography, and how he can compare the two techniques, particularly, what he can accomplish with one but not with the other. Lyon responded that filmmaking was expensive during the time when he wanted to film in the 1970s compared to today, and that this limited the scope of what he could accomplish during that period. Specifically, he said that he found it exciting when films were beginning to be shown in galleries. 

A follow-up question asked if Lyon felt that he gave people a platform to tell their stories and express themselves. In response, Lyon said that he was more “cold-blooded” than that. According to Lyon, he sees the individuals that he photographs as subjects, and he can portray them in whatever manner he wants. As an example, when photographing one of his friends, Lyon said that he saw his friend better than how his friend saw himself. He would subsequently take it as his duty to portray what he saw in his friend to the world.

Logan Shanks ’24 asked if Lyon was desensitized to photos on the internet because of how frequently they are found in daily life. In response, Lyon said that generally, photos have tended to have a dehumanizing and desensitizing effect as you are continuously exposed to them. For him, his main response came through a story of pictures that he had seen of a concentration camp in World War II. 

One of the pictures that he saw was that of a dead girl who starved to death, and he said that he was unable to shake the image out of his head and that he regretted looking at the picture. By citing this story, he said that he was not desensitized to the power of pictures.

Parrack then asked if Lyon had any advice for the activists and photographers of the next generation. Lyon’s advice to these people was that they should go out into the world and spread their voice as much as they can, further claiming that this would not happen on a college campus. He also said that this was part of the reason why he left school.

The talk with Lyon ended with him responding to comments made within the Zoom chat. He stated that he was the campus photographer during college and got paid for it. Lyon took great pride in this and said that it was a reason why he continued taking part in photography.

The event was sponsored by the Rose Art Museum, the Department of Fine Arts, the Department of African and African American Studies as well as the Creativity, the Arts and Social Transformation Program (CAST).

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