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PHOTOGRAPHY / Positively ordinary: Fifty black Americans were given cameras and told to get on with it. Andrew Palmer reports

IT IS a familiar picture: somewhere in the suburban jungle of America four black youths, in T-shirts and trainers, are standing in line with their hands behind their heads. The man in the foreground is being frisked by an armed policeman. Before jumping to conclusions, you'd best read the caption: Libby Tracy, the object of police attention, is not a crack dealer, a mugger, or a rapist, not even a gang member. He is, in fact, a good college student who scored high on his SAT. Wrongfully arrested, he spent the weekend of his 17th birthday in jail.

This photograph is one of a large collection featured in 'Songs of my People', an exhibition designed to 'tell the story of the African-American experience through the unique perspective of African Americans'. Fifty black American photographers were equipped with Kodak film and despatched to 'capture stories which spoke of our beauty, our achievements, our troubles, our diversity, our African heritage, and our Americanness'. In other words it is a show which hopes to provide an alternative view of black America, a view evolved from within, to challenge the racial stereotype.

Fifty photographers with free film make for a lot of photographs. And the exhibition demonstrates the dangers involved when it comes to captioning them. In an attempt to apply some order to the chaos the organisers have assembled the images under a series of painfully pedestrian sub-headings. You walk past big words like 'Youth', 'Culture', 'Profession', 'Spirituality' and 'Community', which are not so much informative as patronising.

'Profession' houses a pictorial list, which would grace the walls of any primary school classroom (there is an item for almost every letter of the alphabet, from A for astronaut to W for writer). Likewise 'Community' spans birth to death, taking in a few families on the way, while 'Culture' dwells heavily on jazz, making the odd foray into the other arts.

The eclectic, but inevitably selective, structure of this show threatens to drag you into a pedantic debate about its intentions. Subheadings seem to suggest an all-embracing whole: they say, this is the story of black America, and we go, surely not the story. Well-known figures are turned into ambassadors for their respective trades. In 'Culture', for example, the pictures pay tribute to the likes of Miles Davis and Quincy Jones. But great and influential as these figures are, they cannot adequately stand alone as envoys for the black music scene which has been so instrumental in shaping the course of contemporary soul, jazz and funk.

Ignore the guided tour. Commit a minor act of rebellion by walking haphazardly between the walls, rather than obediently along them. With the crass categories out of mind, a more provocative picture emerges. The white middle-class eye anticipates, in a series of pictures about black America, a pointed political statement about the underclass, whether it plays upon colonial guilt with images of downtrodden cotton-pickers, or on yuppie paranoia with portraits of menacing Harlem hoods. Instead we have a catalogue of understated social observation. And it is all the more radical for it.

It is not that the show ignores the socio-political issue: the picture of Libby Tracy is among a small minority of images which make a point of charting the blacks' degraded landscape. A chain-gang of exclusively black prisoners is accompanied by the caption: 'One in four black males in their twenties are either in prison or on parole.' Another picture of a muscular young man in curlers, with a declamatory finger pointed at the camera, has a caption-quote from its subject. 'I would love to be alive when 'Songs of my People' comes out,' he says, neatly animating the statistic that life expectancy in Harlem is lower than it is in Bangladesh.

Even these supposedly politically loaded shots are understated, however, and they are heavily outweighed by images of a lighter, more celebratory tone: Love in the French Quarter, which captures a snatched bench kiss, or Alice W Smith makes feeding the neighbourhood kittens a daily ritual, or Muslim girls have fun during recess. The titles spell it out - black people are normal people doing normal things.

These pictures work as an antidote, not only to the handful of depressing images within the exhibition, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to the bleak images of black America that we receive daily in the media. Whether it be through sensationalist reportage, or a more subtle form of labelling - for example, in pop videos, in which 'black is bad' is marketed as something to be respected, even revered - blacks are streamlined and marginalised.

The real success of this show lies in the photographers' confidence that the banal can be interesting. Whatever the subject matter - be it street buskers or families sitting round their kitchen tables or washing the car - a gritty, spirited optimism surfaces from the dark tones of the prints. There's the nonagenarian hula-hooper; the horseshoe thrower in ecstasy; the rapt gospel singer; the proud college graduates. Some shots deserve especial mention: David Lee's A Haircut, where a young boy at the barber's surveys his new flat-top in the mirror with an expression of comic dread; it's a universal moment, that mixture of foiled expectation and vain self-doubt which seizes you at the prospect of facing the street with your irreversible coiffure-catastrophe.

Even the most potentially pointed photographs tend to come across in a positive way. For example, instead of seeing the portraits of 'Professionals' (The first black assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, The first black certified psychiatrist, The first black specialty broker and so on) as shocking statements about the lamentable conservatism of a white-dominated society, we are inclined to take them as proud and auspicious assertions of achievement.

At the bottom line, this exhibition will not do much to challenge or alter racial stereotypes - images tend to be viewed through the prism of one's predefined political consciousness. The lesson to be learned from the picture of Libby Tracy's wrongful arrest is that there is no moral judgement inherent in the image itself. It is the caption that plays the decisive interpretative role, and without it, the shot could be used to confirm the views of liberal and fascist alike.

'We cannot get too comfortable in our houses,' says Gordon Parks, one of the photographers featured in the show. 'The hawk of intolerance still hovers in the air, and restless bigots still talk bigotry in their secret rooms . . . We need miracles now, I am afraid.' Parks may be right. Nevertheless,'Songs of My People', if not discordant or noisy enough to create controversy, manages to hit just the right note.

'Songs of My People' is at Level 2, the Royal Festival Hall Foyer Galleries until 25 October; then at the Impressions Gallery, York, from 7 November to 10 January.

A book of 214 photographs from the exhibition is published by Little, Brown and Co.

(Photograph omitted)