Ernest Withers lived a complicated life that elicits equally complicated feelings from those who knew him. To the public, he was an incredible photographer who captured millions of images from historic scenes like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first marches, the Emmett Till murder trial, and early performances of musical legends like BB King, Elvis Presley, and more. After his death, however, it was revealed that he was also a long-time FBI informant who accepted as much as today’s equivalent of $170,000 in payments.
Phil Bertelsen, an Emmy and Peabody-winning director and producer, has been working on The Picture Taker (now streaming on PBS) for 16 years, telling the story of a man who lived two very distinct lives and how his friends, family, and fans of his work each come to terms with his legacy.
Uproxx had the chance to speak with Bertelsen shortly after the film premiered o talk about how long he’d been working on the story and how he depicted the life of the late photographer with such a complicated past.
How did you first hear about Ernest Withers and what spoke to you about his story?
Well, to be honest, the film was a dedication to a man named St. Clair Bourne, a trailblazing Black documentarian, who made stories about the life of Paul Robeson, John Henrick Clark, and Gordon Parks, just to name a few. Ernest Withers was his last subject before he and Ernest himself died within two months of each other. And this was before the revelations about him being an FBI informant had been made public. Saint died making a film about a civil rights photographer and I inherited a film about a civil rights photographer who was shown to be an FBI informant. For me, that’s kind of the evolution of the story. Saint was a mentor to me, so I finished his last film and it was nothing like the film (he) started.
The film asks viewers to juxtapose the legacy of Ernest as this iconic photographer and chronicler of the community who was also an FBI informant informing on that exact same community. Did your perspective about Ernest change?
It’s an interesting question. My perspective on Ernest never changed so much as it evolved and is still evolving. As I deepen my understanding of his legacy of work as a photographer, deepen my knowledge of his role as an informant, my opinion of him got increasingly complex and complicated. At times he was a hero to me and other times a traitor to me, but, ultimately, he was neither and he’s both.
It’s difficult to express how complicated it is to come to know a man like that whose work really is profound and irreplaceable and to think that he may have put his friends and neighbors at risk, either by arrest or in some cases death. You know, it’s troubling. At the end of the day, I refuse to think of him as one thing. He’s a lot of things and as his picture got more complicated, so did my own opinion of him.
It can be challenging to tell a story about such a nuanced person who is no longer living. How did you counteract that while making this film?
Only Ernest knew why Ernest did what he did. And Ernest took that to the grave. So in an effort to give him a voice in this film, we made every effort to use found footage of him talking about his life and his career to make him as much a narrator of his own story as we possibly could. What you will find in the film are early sound bites from Ernest’s journey through the years. I think the earliest video we have of him is probably in the early 90s up until the last known video of him alive, which was shot by St. Clair Bourne in 2007. So you get this kind of 20-year stretch of time, from the man whose career stretches 60 years.
It’s got to be difficult to tell that much story in an hour and a half. Is there anything left on the cutting room floor you would’ve liked to keep?
Different things, quite honestly. Again, here’s a man, whose life spans 80-plus years, and whose career spans 60-plus years and we only tell about 15 to 20 years of that time, for the sake of storytelling. There’s a whole nother chapter, at least, left on his role as a father of nine children, which is worthy of a film in and of itself. To be a Black family in the segregated south and somehow manage to send all your children to college, some of who go on to elected office and government positions that give Ernest access to the White House. I mean, that’s a significant story that we couldn’t even begin to tell. But that’s just a slice of what’s left on the cutting room floor to say nothing of the 1.8 million images that he photographed. Only 350 or so more are in the film.
This may be an oversimplification, but I felt Ernest kind of had a Forrest Gump quality by always being around important people during important moments. Did that play a role in some of the people you got to appear in this film?
It was all a function of the fact that Ernest was Forrest Gump. He knew everybody and touched every life, so when the news broke about him being an informant, I immediately thought that I wanted to hear from the leaders of the movement, who knew him to be that guy embedded in their movement, who he was on a first name basis with. By all accounts, if the movement came through Memphis, then on Saturday they were all at the Withers house and Dot was making brunch for everybody. To get Reverend [Joseph] Lowery, to get Kathleen Cleaver, and to get Jesse Jackson was just a matter of asking, and scheduling, obviously. But they all knew him and they all had something to say about him and what he did and what he didn’t do.
People were very eager to talk about his life and career, but not so eager to throw him under the bus. I did notice that there was a general reluctance to condemn him for what he did across the board with, you know, a few exceptions. Now there were those out there who were adversely impacted by him. For whatever reason, you know, they weren’t willing to sit before our cameras. So, it’s a complicated story, and people have their reasons for wanting to speak or not speak.
Courtney B. Vance was another matter altogether. He, like most people, today, discovers Ernest when they wander down Beale Street after one of those nights and see the lights on in this gallery and looks around and sees these photographs. Courtney became a collector and a real advocate for the collection and that’s how he ended up being in the film alongside Carl Hickson, both of whom have taken a great interest in digitizing the collection for its own preservation.
One of the most fascinating parts of this documentary for me was seeing how he helped get the photographer who captured the famous photo of the moment immediately after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Ernest didn’t get that shot, but he played a major role in its release.
You know, it’s interesting. You point out that photograph because that whole story when you hear ‘FBI informant,’ ‘Memphis’ and ‘1960s,’ you immediately think, ‘Oh, man, that’s where Dr. King was murdered. Wasn’t the FBI involved in that? Could Ernest have somehow gotten his hands dirty with that?’ At least that was the question on everyone’s mind when these allegations, and what turned out to be revelations, about him came through.
That photograph was taken by the documentarian Joe Louw, who was not a still photographer, but a filmmaker who had the presence of mind to get his camera and take that shot of folks on the balcony pointing to the assassin – that legendary shot. In my view, if Ernest had any prior knowledge or role alongside the FBI in conspiring to kill Dr. King, he would have botched that role. That role was given to him to develop and if he was in any way, a co-conspirator in that assassination, why not just pull that roll? That roll is really the only evidence there is about who may have done what they did. And he sits there full of pride and gives you perfect development.
He and Danny got that man out of town and on a plane back to New York so those photos could be printed in Life Magazine the following week. For me, that photograph was evidence that Ernest had no role whatsoever in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
‘The Picture Taker’ is available to stream now on PBS