Imagining a Road to Freedom – Jeanine Michna-Bales’ Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad

In the dying days of 2017 I decided to embark on an American road trip. Rather than travelling from east to west, I made my way from south to north instead, by loosely following the trajectory of the Mississippi. I drove from New Orleans to Chicago, via Baton Rouge, Natchez, Vicksburg, Jackson, Memphis, St. Louis, and Peoria. To this day I do not know why I wanted to go on this particular road trip. Perhaps I was inspired by Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi. Perhaps because the defining image of an early protest in Baton Rouge by the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement – of a young black woman in a floaty dress confronting white armed police – had been burned onto my retinas. Perhaps because I had become quite a fan of cult sci-fi television series Defiance, set in a post-apocalyptic St. Louis. And perhaps because at a young age I had uncritically absorbed a rather romantic vision of the Deep South, portrayed onscreen in Gone with the Wind and North and South.

The journey proved surprisingly troubling. New Orleans suffered an unexpected cold snap for which neither I nor the city was prepared. Finding groceries in a desolate and deserted Baton Rouge proved nigh impossible. In Jackson I not only blew out my tyre, I also discovered that the Woolworth’s lunch counter – where the most violent sit-in of the civil rights movement had taken place – had been replaced by an anonymous corporate office building. On the road I passed plantation after plantation, but the transformation of such places into tourist attractions felt perturbing. Likewise, I marvelled at and was discomfited by the antebellum beauty of Natchez and Vicksburg. In Memphis, I spent hours in the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, realising how little I actually knew about the history of slavery in the US, the era of Jim Crow, as well as the civil rights movement. During my trip I also encountered miles and miles of grinding poverty, seemingly without an end in sight or resolution in reach. And when I finally arrived in St. Louis, I felt as if an inexplicable weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Had the trauma of slavery and Jim Crow, the fight for civil rights sunk so deep into the land that it had started to affect me? Was I relieved because of the city’s location on the border with Illinois, a historically free state situated north of the Ohio river? Why was I so absurdly grateful to leave the Deep South behind?

Unbeknownst to me at the time, Princeton Architectural Press released Jeanine Michna-Bales’ project Through Darkness to Light: Photographs along the Underground Railroad in the same year as my road trip. It also started life as a touring exhibition in 2017, and has its own dedicated website, complete with extensive educational resources. In the book, historian Fergus M. Bordewich offers a thorough but accessible historical overview of the Underground Railroad, which came into being in the late eighteenth century, and operated as a decentralised and democratic network of white abolitionists, free blacks and slaves, all working together with the aim of helping slaves escape bondage. It expanded at the same time as the actual railroads in the US, and therefore adopted that infrastructure’s terminology. So-called station masters operated safe houses, ‘conductors’ such as Harriet Tubman – an erstwhile freedom seeker herself – guided escaping slaves on their way to freedom, and fugitives were known as passengers.

The Underground Railroad stretched about a hundred miles into the slave states of Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky [and] ran through the free northern states all the way up to Canada. … In the six decades up to the Civil War an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 freedom seekers successfully made use of the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad only stretched about a hundred miles into the slave states of Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky rather than extending into the Deep South. It ran, however, through the free northern states all the way up to Canada, because the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 stipulated that those attempting to escape bondage could be recaptured anywhere on US soil and returned to their masters. In any case, in the six decades up to the Civil War an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 freedom seekers successfully made use of the Underground Railroad. Whilst this may sound impressive, it should be borne in mind that approximately four million people were enslaved in 1860. Not only that, the vast majority of fugitives came from those slave states bordering the free ones. Any freedom seeker trying to make her way from the Deep South was on her own, at least at the start of her journey.

Through the photographs Michna-Bales aims to show a potential 1,400 mile trajectory to freedom extending from deep down Louisiana up to Ontario, Canada. In other words, while the subtitle describes the project as ‘just’ a visualisation of the Underground Railroad, from a geographical perspective Michna-Bales takes the series well beyond that. To emulate the freedom seeker’s experience, the artist shot the photographs at night, at roughly twenty-mile intervals, the distance fugitive slaves could reasonably cover on foot in the dark. The strangely lush pictures of the nocturnal wilderness make painfully clear that the freedom seeker’s journey was no walk in the park. The spectator encounters dense underbrush, tangled roots, twisted thickets, whipping branches, rustling leaves, treacherous waters and unforgiving rock formations. The American landscape in these images is unlike the other, more familiar versions that we know from the photographic canon. Other images show the night sky, the constellations clearly visible. They are direct references to instructions found in African-American spirituals, urging freedom seekers to follow the Big Dipper and the North Star. Interspersed are photographs of buildings, visually often rather nondescript. Only the titles indicate the important role these structures fulfilled on the escapee’s journey. Other captions are more allegoric, regularly hinting at the dangers faced by the fugitive slaves. Nevertheless, each location depicted in the project is a site that – based on Michna-Bales’ research – could have reasonably featured on the freedom seekers’ trajectory or is a historically confirmed stop on the Underground Railroad.

The American landscape in these images is unlike the other, more familiar versions that we know from the photographic canon.

Through Darkness to Light is a bold project to undertake. In recent years, there have been more and more calls to include the voices of marginalised groups, for BIPOC artists and creatives to be finally given the spotlight. These calls have grown exponentially following the death of George Floyd in the spring of 2020 and the global Black Lives Matter protests held in its wake. This project predates that development somewhat, but it is nevertheless useful to consider it within that light. Given that Michna-Bales is white, and worked in advertising before starting her career in photography, the project could be criticised as yet another white, middle-class voice narrating and interpreting a historically black experience. Academic Linda Alcoff, for instance, notes at the start of her 1991/1992 essay “The Problem of Speaking for Others” that the impetus to speak for others always needs to be analysed and often resisted. Indeed, she considers it to be a potential desire for continued mastery and domination. Novelist and writer Zadie Smith, in her 2019 essay “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction,” similarly notes that, since certain representations have been and continue to be privileged at the cost of others, “[p]rejudice in these matters must be thought through, each and every time.” After all, “[t]hose who are unlike us have a long and dismal history of trying to contain us in false images.”

Even so, both strongly argue against a philosophical position in which one is only allowed to speak for or write about the group to which one belongs. Smith hints that such an understanding of self and identity based solely on visible, material or audible markers such as race, gender, and class – despite their undeniable importance – is partial and flawed. Alcoff, more pragmatically, remarks that it is simply impossible to establish where one group begins and another one ends. She further argues that the act of situating a speaker in terms of obvious identity markers, is not enough to validate or invalidate the meaning, truth and significance of the speaker’s words. In other words, we cannot simply dismiss a project like Through Darkness to Light on the basis of the photographer’s presumed identity. Nevertheless, it must be understood how the speaker’s identity impacts on what she says and who listens to her.

… we cannot simply dismiss a project like Through Darkness to Light on the basis of the photographer’s presumed identity. Nevertheless, it must be understood how the speaker’s identity impacts on what she says and who listens to her.

Indeed, a sceptical viewer might argue that Michna-Bales’ personal background and connections might have made it considerably easier to successfully produce and disseminate this project, whereas a black artist would likely have encountered difficulty. Through Darkness to Light is a classic photo publication with a portfolio of limited edition prints, available through an established art gallery, firmly aimed at a limited and privileged audience of photography connoisseurs and collectors. On the other hand, the project comprises an exhibition that has to date travelled far and wide within the US and will continue to do so, thereby broadening its reception. Additionally, the online resources make the series available to a much wider and more diverse group of viewers. Most bodies of photographic work, especially documentary ones, do not have such a wide reach and potential impact.

But if we cannot simply judge a photographic series on the basis of the presumed identity of its maker, and if speaking for others is a problematic act, how are we to determine whether a project is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? After all, Smith remarks that a fully correct and an absolutely complete knowledge of others is simply unfeasible, regardless of the quality and amount of research one has conducted. Alcoff similarly notes that having done research is, in itself, not sufficient to justify speaking for others, though one should always be accountable for what one says. Even so, from the moment the viewer opens the publication, or visits the accompanying website, it is clear that Michna-Bales has done an impressive amount of research, and has gone to great lengths to make herself accountable for her output. She has spent fourteen years studying history books, academic texts, slave narratives, memoirs, notes of antislavery meetings and other relevant material. She visited historical societies and public libraries, and looked through various collections of books and photographs. A further three years were spent scouting locations in the day, and shooting them at night. An extensive bibliography is provided, captions are annotated, quotes are referenced. The work is very, very thorough. Michna-Bales presents herself as not only as fully informed as she can be, but can also account for every image, every word, every piece of ephemera included within her project.

But is this enough? Does all this effort bring the photographs to life? Does it deepen our understanding of what it might have been like to escape bondage, to make use of the Underground Railroad? To my mind, it certainly does. After all, one of the reasons Michna-Bales embarked on this project was the complete lack of any contemporaneous visual record of the Underground Railroad. More importantly, simply by mapping out and capturing the stops on a potential route at night time, Michna-Bales drives home how far fugitives had to travel to gain freedom, how many days and weeks it would take them on foot to get there, how treacherous the terrain was for them to traverse, and how careful they needed to be about approaching people for help.

But beyond that, Smith and Alcoff suggest other ways of valuing a project beyond the person of the speaker, the hours of work put in, and the quality and quantity of the source materials used. Alcoff, for example, suggests that if speaking is to take place at all, it should take the form of speaking to and speaking with rather than speaking for. This is one of the strengths of Through Darkness to Light. Rather than doing all the speaking herself, Michna-Bales gives ample voice to others. She has invited scholars to provide insights on the Underground Railroad, the experiences of the fugitive slaves en route, and the role of spirituals in their escape attempts. Interspersed in between the photographs, the viewer also encounters accounts by the fugitives themselves – including luminaries such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman – statements by conductors and abolitionists, citations from anti-slavery publications and excerpts from spirituals. Indeed, the title is an indirect reference to a speech given by Douglass in which he stated that “[slavery] is one of those monsters of darkness to whom the light of truth is death. Expose slavery, and it dies.”

Smith, finally, argues that the strength of fiction has always been its interest in the lives of others – not just how things are, but how they might be otherwise. Writers, she continues, are excessively curious about others and almost compulsively imagine what those other lives might be like. Bad fiction simply contains the other, turns her into a caricature. The call for ‘correct’ representation to be conducted only by members of the group in question stems from a desire to replace stereotypes with more representative accounts. Good fiction, however, is not simply determined by the identity of its writer, but by its compassion and empathy, by its willingness to step into another person’s shoes, to identify with the other’s pain and grief, and its ability to impart this to the reader. After all, an ability for compassion and empathy for others is what enables us to have social lives at all, and fiction can make this process explicit. Indeed, it is this kind of compassion and empathy that made the phenomenon of the Underground Railroad possible in the first place. As Bordewich reminds us in his text in Through Darkness to Light: “people of different races, religions, and social classes – blacks and whites, rich and poor, Christians and non-Christians, women and men – consistently broke the law to assist black Americans in their quest for liberation.”

And whilst Through Darkness to Light is a photographic project rather than a work of fiction, it displays the same kind of compassion and empathy. As Michna-Bales notes in her introduction to the book, she became fascinated with the Underground Railroad during her childhood, and “often imagined what it must have been like to walk thousands of miles for the chance to be free.” Indeed, the viewer is all the richer for it.

Jeanine Michna-Bales
Princeton Architectural Press, 2017

All Rights Reserved: Text ©Karin Bareman;
Images ©Jeanine Michna-Bales/Princeton Architectural Press