Cornell Watson’s photo should now hang in a gallery at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Watson, a freelance photographer who grew up in Weldon, North Carolina, titled the planned exhibition “The Tar Healing,” and will focus on places that are important to the black community inside and outside the university.
Instead, the exhibition has been canceled, with little explanation from the gallery, except that some of the works have recently been in Washington post, Include photos the gallery is trying to ban from the wall.
The gallery’s decision raised questions about whether university officials sought to censor images that displayed the institution in unflattering ways, including student protests last year when the board considered whether to give journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones donated photos for a professorship.
University officials overseeing the planned exhibit feuded with Watson over the documentary photos, as well as a conceptual piece showing the Unknown Founders Memorial — a campus memorial to the enslaved people who were forced to build the university — visually located on a man holding a noose .
The university said its decision was based on unauthorized use of the photos. “I was told that a photo essay with the name of our exhibition had been printed on Washington post It also includes photographs that we say should not be part of our exhibit,” said Joseph F. Jordan, vice provost for academic and community engagement and director of the Sonia Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History In a written statement, said the venue for the exhibition. “We have not been consulted and are not aware of Mr Watson’s submission to postal,“ the statement said.
Jordan said in a call with reporters that the center made it clear from the start that the exhibit was for collaboration. He said the center’s staff took Watson to a spot they wanted to highlight and introduced him to people to talk to.
Jordan said he was the one responsible for making sure the images “thematically fit” what the center was trying to do. Jordan said the purpose of the exhibit was to give “people a place to spend a moment on these sites that they were never allowed to have”, not to make people uncomfortable.
Among his other museum exhibits, Watson said, the institution offers a standard contract that grants it the right to display the work only, rather than restricting its use in other venues.For example, he said, his collection of photographs titled “Behind the Masks” was displayed in a gallery at nearby Duke University, but was also used by Washington post.
“Normally, galleries get excited about this level of news coverage,” Watson said.
However, Watson said, the Stone Center had no written or even verbal agreement on whether the photos could be displayed elsewhere. If it tried to limit how his photos could be used outside the exhibition, he wouldn’t have accepted the assignment, which included a $5,000 stipend as a visiting artist.
Even more disturbing to Watson, he said, is the fact that the story he was trying to tell through the photos, which was initially limited by the center, has now been removed entirely. Watson sent Jordan on Feb. 22 after the show was canceled.
There was also some irony in the decision to cancel, Watson said, because the center was named after Sonya Haynes Stone, a prominent associate professor of African-American studies and an early advocate of the Black Studies movement on campus. Like Hannah-Jones, Stone was initially thwarted in her tenure-track bid, before student protests prompted the university to offer her tenure.
“The decision to tell only part of the story is disappointing,” Watson wrote. “The decision not to tell the story at all is even more disappointing.”
“It’s an opportunity for people to come together in one place and tell their stories in an authentic, unapologetic way,” Watson said in an interview. “It’s a healing time, and we’re stepping back from the healing part. “