Gordon Parks documented as part of a 1968 Life magazine photo essay. A searing portrait of poverty in the United States, the Fontenelle photographs provide a view of Harlem through the narrative of a specific family at a particular moment in time.
When “A Harlem Family,” Gordon Parks’s story about race and poverty in America featuring the Fontenelle family of Harlem was published in LIFE in March 1968, the response was overwhelming. Many people, touched and moved by Parks’s images and text about the Fontenelles, wanted to help. The editors of LIFE received letters and donations on behalf of the family from large cities and small towns across the country. Not all of the responses were positive; many echoed much of the debate and turmoil that was boiling in this country in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
One could imagine the Fontenelles’ story, in the hands of some other journalists, inspiring a range of reactions. But the breadth and depth of the responses to the story may have been so great in large part because of the way Parks told the story — a way that was accessible to many people across the country. Parks brought his unique perspective and his ability to become a part of people’s daily lives to the Fontenelle family’s story and his tenure at LIFE. Part of Parks’s ability and skill as a photojournalist came from his desire and hope to not exploit his subjects. … By spending a significant amount of time with his subjects, as both journalist and friend, and treating them as equals and collaborators, Parks was able to present narratives rather than snapshots, allowing readers to see parallels between their own lives and the lives of the people in Parks’s stories.
Excerpt from “A Similar Existence,” A Harlem Family 1967