The Picture Taker

Meet Ernest Withers, civil rights photographer, and FBI informant. The Picture Taker reveals the man and motives behind the iconic images.

Ernest Withers
Funding Initiative
Open Call
Series and Special Projects
filmmaker Phil Bertelsen

Phil Bertelsen

Phil Bertelsen is an Emmy and two-time Peabody award-winning filmmaker based in New York City. He was Series Producer and Director of the 6-part documentary series Who Killed Malcolm X (Netflix). As a result of the investigative work and new evidence provided in the series, the Manhattan DA’s office is reviewing the decades old assassination case and Show more reconsidering the conviction one of the assassins. Prior to that he produced and directed a documentary special for NBC News called Hope and Fury: MLK, the Media and the Movement. Bertelsen is currently completing an independent feature documentary about a civil rights era photographer who was revealed to be an FBI informant. Bertelsen also directed a feature-length documentary special called Through The Fire: The Presidency of Barack Obama with Executive Producer Stanley Nelson and Firelight Media. His film School of the Future, made for the PBS science series NOVA, examines how science and technology are transforming the way students learn and teachers teach. He produced and directed multiple episodes of the Columbia-DuPont Award winning documentary series The African Americans--Many Rivers To Cross, hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and several episodes of Finding Your Roots. The PBS series, now in its sixth season, traces the genealogy of celebrated Americans. Previous work includes the award-winning Chisholm ’72; the feature documentary, Beyond The Steps about Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. His work has screened and broadcast internationally on PBS, MTV the Sundance Channel, Arte and Canal Plus. He has received support from the Ford Foundation; ITVS; National Black Programming Consortium and Corporation for Public Broadcasting, among others. He has also taught on the adjunct faculty at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism; The City College of New York, and at Temple University in Philadelphia. Prior to coming to New York, Phil helped launch public television station WYBE-TV in Philadelphia. He holds an M.F.A. in Film from New York University where he was a Spike Lee Fellow, and a B.A. in Political Science and Journalism from Rutgers University in his native New Jersey. Show less

filmmaker Lise Yasui

Lise Yasui

Produced, directed, and wrote A Family Gathering, (Academy Award Nomination) which explored the impact of the WWII Japanese American internment on her family and was broadcast on PBS's AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, the BBC, and Star TV, Asia. She produced The Gate of Heavenly Peace, (Peabody Award) which explored the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre; and Morning Show more Sun, about China's Cultural Revolution. "Gate" aired on PBS's FRONTLINE and was broadcast internationally. Yasui is a non-profit development consultant and producer based in Philadelphia. Show less

We fund untold stories for public media.

Learn more about funding opportunities with ITVS.

The Film

The vibrant life of Ernest Withers was anything but black and white. Soldier, police officer, civil rights activist, and paid FBI informant. It’s an unlikely resume for an African American photographer in the 1960s, but complex times spawn complicated stories. From his Memphis studio, Withers developed nearly 2 million images that came to illustrate America’s civil rights stories. But perhaps the push and pull of history is best illuminated by Withers’ lesser-known work, decades of secret FBI service uncovered only after his death. From the flashpoint of an American saga, The Picture Taker brings us a tale from in front of, and behind, the camera.