Why Frederick Douglass Was The Most Photographed Person Of The 19th Century

frederick douglass portrait
Briona Lamback
May 21, 2023

Frederick Douglass was the most photographed person of the 19th century. His love for documenting life wasn’t just for vanity’s sake. He was doing it for something much more important.

Douglass posed with intention, usually appearing in a suit, tie, and vest, with clenched fists and his eyes staring directly into the camera’s lens, for more than 160 photographs. Combining his written work with imagery, he often included his portrait along with letters he sent.

Douglass believed in the power of photography, embracing the new media as a storytelling tool critical to spreading resistance messages during abolition. And he wasn’t the only one. 

Sojourner Truth paid off her house by selling portraits of herself expressing that she, “used to be sold for other people’s benefit, but now she sold herself for her own.”

Photography helped Douglass pose in direct opposition anti-Black societal norms. We were considered less than human, but he claimed an equal stake in humanity. 

Technology allowed Douglass to control his narrative, resist, and contribute to the future. “It is evident that the great cheapness and universality of pictures must exert a powerful, though silent, influence upon the ideas and sentiment of present and future generations,” he said.

Documenting our lives and movement is crucial for our future remembrance. Like Frederick Douglass, we should never let anyone tell us who we are or control our narrative - only we have the power to do that.