Robert Frank — An Outsider’s Perspective on the Discrepancies of Social Justice in the United States

Robert Frank was born in the year 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland, and emigrated to America in 1947. Living in the United States immediately following one of the most tumultuous times within the country’s history, Frank was able to capture the raw essence of post-war America and its people through his photography.


One image in particular speaks to the state of America and its residents following World War II. Through his use of documentary photography (also commonly referred to as ‘photo essay’) in his image ‘TrolleyNew Orleans,’ Frank remarks upon the cruel social order remaining in the United States, challenges the state of freedom within the country, and ultimately questions the idealistic image that American citizens had created of their homeland. ​ Robert Frank utilized his platform as a photographer to remark upon social injustice remaining in the United states during the 1950's. The existence and allowance of slavery, perhaps the most shameful part of America’s history as a country, legally came to an end after the 13th Amendment to the Constitution took effect in 1865. However, its remaining effects have lasted long into the following century and beyond.


These effects manifested themselves in the forms of social injustice, racial segregation, and a continuation of lack of human rights for those who had already been so negatively impacted by the evil of slavery.


Robert Frank’s image ‘Trolley — New Orleans,’ captured in the year 1955 shows the remaining existence of such injustice. The image portrays a trolley passing through the streets of New Orleans, carrying six passengers in view. Four of these passengers are white, and two are of African American descent. The latter two passengers are seated in the back of the trolley car, as required by Jim Crow laws of the time.


The Jim Crow laws implemented requirements such as the following: “black people were legally required to: attend separate schools and churches, use public bathrooms marked “for colored only,” eat in a separate section of a restaurant, and finally, to sit in the rear of a bus.” This final requirement is clearly portrayed in Frank’s image, a problem of racial segregation that continued from the time of the abolition of slavery well into the 1960’s. The Jim Crow laws were finally abolished in the same decade.


Frank’s role as a documentary photographer allowed him to use his images to challenge the state of freedom within the United States. Though no written essay is attached to ‘TrolleyNew Orleans,’ Frank’s photograph speaks volumes to the post-war social order of the country. World War II, which lasted from the year 1939 to 1945, was a brutal challenge for the nation as a whole and reminded its inhabitants of the state of freedom that they had to fight for.


The irony in this situation, however, was that as the United States fought against the tyranny and injustice of brutal dictators such as Hitler in Germany, many of its own citizens were still abiding by the unjust standards of racial and social segregation within their own country. Frank’s image of the travelers on the New Orleans Trolley poses a question to the viewer — if the United States was truly established upon the principles of freedom and equality between all, why is such racial segregation and injustice allowed to continue? What good does it do to fight to maintain the country’s freedom when this basic human right is not reflected in the daily lives of all individual inhabitants?


Frank’s image ‘Trolley — New Orleans’ questioned the idealized image that American citizens had of their nation. According to a description of the photograph written for Time Online, “[Frank] simply saw his adopted country as it was, not as it imagined itself to be.”

This attitude through his photography is displayed clearly in the image of the Trolley in New Orleans. Frank did not attempt to idealize the image in any way, but rather captured the moment candidly. His subjects were not given any forewarning about the image and therefore the viewer is provided with their most unadulterated reactions and expressions.

Robert Frank’s photography was not readily accepted by U.S. Citizens, as it was thought to be a remark on the negative parts of American life. However, Frank’s goal was simply to capture daily life in America as authentically as possible, and to potentially challenge the over-idealized image that many individuals had of the country.


Frank utilized his role in society as a documentary photographer to make a statement about the cruel social order present in the United States, to question the true state of freedom within the ‘land of the free,’ and to ultimately challenge the idealistic image of the United States. Robert Frank’s portfolio promoted a previously uncommon form of “visually raw” and “personally expressive” style that determined a pivotal point in the history of photography.

‘I am always looking outside, trying to say something that is true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what’s out there. And what’s out there is constantly changing.”


Frank's approach should cause us to question our roles in our own modern society - and our responsibility to work towards justice. The effects of the evil of slavery and racism continue to thrive when we treat them as if they are long over. Are we truly doing our job to contribute to an environment of freedom, acceptance, and equality, or are we simply ignoring injustice that continues to take place? It seems as though it is easy to silently neglect the uncomfortable situations that continually arise relating to these issues, especially for those who have never known anything but to be the privileged individual in society. It is uncomfortable - as it should be. It is ugly, horrifying, disturbing, and absolutely shameful to live in a modern world that continues to perpetrate racism. However, we have no excuse not to engage in this conversation. We are apart of it, whether we like it or not, and we have great responsibility to see that such injustice does not continue.


Let us learn from Robert Frank and his raw portrayal of our world - his attempt to bring to light the injustice that might otherwise go unnoticed. Let us "...always [look] outside, [try] to say something that is true."


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