The Water Bearer, Lorna Simpson, 1986

The Water Bearer, Lorna Simpson, 1986

I don’t know if I’ve ever found a single to photo to be more moving than this one by
Lorna Simpson. Earlier in the week this image was discussed in my women in art class. Surprisingly, it was the first time that we discussed photography in the class. Furthermore, this image was being discussed within the context of black feminism. However for me, this photo represents so many of the things that I both love and struggle with in feminism. There are also a lot of things that I appreciate from a formal perspective as well.
the role of text in photography is something that we’ve discussed a fair amount in class. With this image, I feel like the use of text is so strong and does something really interesting and effective for the interactivity between the image and the viewer. “SHE SAW HIM DISAPPEAR BY THE RIVER. THEY ASKED HER TO TELL WHAT HAPPENED ONLY TO DISCOUNT HER MEMORY.” Once a viewer reads this text they can’t’ help but react. Who did “She” see? Who was “He”? Who asked “Her” to tell what happened? What really did happen? Why was her memory discounted? Did “She” know it didn’t count? The text makes it almost impossible for the viewer not to dive in to all of the image’s possible meanings.
This image is also unbelievably rich in content. I do recognize that I was initially introduced to this image through a black feminist lens, but to me, I don’t see how anyone couldn’t recognize the racial and feminist based themes in this image. Everything seems so intentional and symbolic. First the female subject, pouring the jugs of water, is strong. Look at her back muscles, imaging how heavy they are to be holding them both out, all of that strength only to pour water out onto the ground. The pouring of the water onto the ground, it’s such a sad almost pointless act which interacts perfectly with the caption…”only to discount her memory”. This, to me, resonated with me as a young woman. I specifically thought of sexual assault– rape– after I read the text. All too often when a woman is recounting the story of a sexual assault or a rape, her memory is questioned. Often, it is questioned so extensively that her memory does seem to be completely “discounted”. She’s pouring her story out only for it to fall on deaf ears– to fall on the ground.
Racially, I think that there is something to be said for the pouring of water from jugs. Perhaps it’s just me, but I associate that imagery with manual labor, something that is often fit into the early stereotype of African Americans. I don’t think that it’s possible to truly know what this image means. I also don’t think that we’re ever meant to. I think that we as viewers are meant to exhaust every possible option until perhaps we start coming up with answers we’re ashamed to have come up with. The meaning of this image is undefined, but the purpose of this image is to challenge us to try to define what all of the possible adversities in this image really are.


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