INTERVIEWS BY NAJMA SHARIF
As protests erupt across the country, photographers are putting their lives—and their craft—on the line to document what has been called one of the biggest civil rights movements in history. Though different in style and perspective, their images serve as powerful commentary on Black liberation. Here, writer Najma Sharif interviews Braylen Dion, Vanessa Charlot, Kevin Claiborne, Chris Cook, and Bobby Rogers on what this moment means to them and their art, how their images disrupt the white gaze, and humanizing the Black experience in America through photography.
In Art on My Mind by bell hooks, the activist and author writes: “Cameras gave to Black folks, irrespective of class, a means by which we could participate fully in the production of images. Hence it is essential that any theoretical discussion of the relationship of Black life to the visual, to art making, make photography essential. Access and mass appeal have historically made photography a power location for the construction of an oppositional Black aesthetic.” hooks characterizes the history of Black liberation movements in the United States as “a struggle over images as much as it is a struggle for rights, for equal access.”
Following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the state, the world responded with an uprising and took to the streets. Cities were put under strict curfew, the threat of aerial surveillance and facial recognition tech scanned the masses, and Black photographers were compelled to document this historical moment—all while towing a clashing line between increasing visibility and maintaining anonymity of protestors.
Braylen Dion, Vanessa Charlot, Kevin Claiborne, Chris Cook, and Bobby Rogers captured the protests and protestors in their respective cities of Atlanta, St. Louis, New York, and Minneapolis. Their approach to photography differs in composition, content, and intent—but their purpose is the same—to continue the legacy of recording Black radical resistance.
I looked at a lot of your other stuff and you don’t take photos that are politically charged all the time. Were you compelled to go into the city?
I’m from Ohio and [New] Jersey; nothing ever really happened there where I could actually participate. I told my mom, This is literally history—I actually want to be a part of this and capture it in some way. I didn’t want to just capture anyone. I saw how people were saying that if you’re going to a protest and taking photos, [to] blur people’s faces out or ask for their photos. I told myself if I take a photo, I’m going to take pictures of people’s backs or ask the person for their photo. I see different photographers, with all these faces in their photos…you don’t know what could happen after protesting, and when I see stuff like that, it’s really worrying.
Carrie Mae Weems once said, “As soon as Blackness becomes the all-important sign, audiences assume that the images are addressing victimization.” Would you agree?
I took a photo of one of my friends—and I hate to say it, but I guess he can give off an intimidating look—but someone immediately asked “What’s his story?” When you see someone who is specifically dark skin, it’s like “What story do they have?” What’s his story? What do you mean? You see someone that is Brown or dark skin, you just immediately assume—and that is not okay.
Not only do your photos fixate on Black people, but they also tell a story about desire and power. Why is that important to you?
When you say power, I don’t even know what I think of but I don’t see my photos as that. Two summers ago, I was looking at my photos and I took everything down because I wasn’t pleased. I was like—I needed to figure out how to take pictures of Black people in a softer way. That was my goal in 2018 from the jump. Any time you see a Black person anywhere, they’re just seen as the aggressor.
What do you think of representation of visibility? How does your work disrupt the white and colonial gaze? Is that a symbiotic relationship, white guilt…there are so many ways of looking at it.
Black artists have always been telling the stories of their own community. There’s nothing new about the existence of the Black artists. There’s almost this moral responsibility that I think some Black artists hold to tell our stories in an authentic way that is free from the white or oppressive gaze. Personally, in my work, I speak to challenge stereotypes around Blackness because oftentimes these stereotypes are presented in a way that is uni-layered—that we’re only one way—and it completely negates the multi-faceted nature in which we exist; that we’re beautifully complex people.
So, that has always been an intrinsic part of Black artistry and that’s not only in the visual arts, but also in our literature when you look at the greats of our time and the greats that came before, like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison and just all these amazing people. But what is interesting now, specifically, is that Black visual artists are being given attention: one, I think definitely through guilt; two, it’s a bit unsettling that it’s turned into something beneficial for corporations.
A lot of corporations are coming out saying “Black Lives Matter” or saying they stand with the Black community yet their board rooms do not reflect that. It’s great that Black stories are being highlighted in this way, but I wish it wasn’t through the lens of Black pain. I think that it’s particularly dangerous that Black pain is being displayed on the world stage through a white lens because it is difficult to humanize the Black experience if it’s not us telling our own stories.
Do you think that sometimes the gaze of Black photographers can end up recreating a colonial or white gaze?
I think it can if the photographs are taken in a way that reinforces stereotypes. You don’t see anyone in my photographs being violent. You may have seen people being emotional, you may have seen people’s fists up, but I’m very intentional not to document anything that makes us look bad. Because you do have an opposing media that will take that and run with it.
Do you believe that photography can humanize Black people?
White thought has been dominant for the longest time; it speaks to a deeper thing in America. It makes you wonder: At what point is this fight for liberation and self-respect not sifted through a white standard? Why does how we express ourselves during this time need to be monitored through white eyes?
You say monitor, and monitor is such an interesting word to use—does the white gaze feel policing or voyeuristic?
Absolutely. Unless it’s us taking our own images, like Gordon Parks and other people like that. I typically find that white photographers—not all, I don’t want to generalize—use Blackness as this fetish; this thing that is intriguing in almost a debasing way: You can’t look at it, but you can’t look away.
How can photography play a role in uprooting oppression?
Photography can obviously be used to tell stories about oppression and the different ways it manifests. The first thing it can do is bring light and faces to things that are systemic and things that people aren’t necessarily aware of outside of their micro-environments. It increases the visibility of the effects of oppression. In terms of uprooting it, knowledge is necessary and once people can put a face to these systemic issues then they can help track those issues and map these different types of violence. From there, the art form can spark action in another way, once people are more aware of what’s going on—then, you can visibly see that people’s lives are impacted by oppression and it can further the fight.
Recently, it was revealed that the FBI tracked a protestor from an image at a protest. In the age of surveillance, what responsibility do photographers have?
There’s a real life retaliation that protestors can face. There has to be a certain level of sensitivity when photographers are out there. You can do that by trying different angles, different positions, by having people’s faces obscured in a natural way… Essentially, you’re trying not to harm any people through creating the work—but you also have to document reality. So I think it takes a certain, careful balance. Maybe when you’re editing images, take the images [out] with people’s obvious tattoos showing where people can be identified. People need to be smarter about that and I think it helps when you’re not out there trying to win some newsworthy award and you’re one with the people. When you’re not coming in trying to exploit, then you can be more ethical.
Why is it important for you to document these different moments?
It’s important for me to document all this because I’m showing things through my eyes as a Black creative and right now is a Black historical moment. With us, it’s a little bit different because we experience it. I was born and raised here, I live here. White photographers I see, I’ve never seen them in my life, but they might be on assignment—who knows—but, for me, I’m doing it because it’s important to me. This is something I want to see in history books; it’s just a different feeling. When I see another person of color, they want me to take a portrait of them, but with white photographers, it’s a little different. I think some here and there might be able to communicate with the community, but it’s all about communication—and I know how to communicate with my own people.
When you share your photography, what do you think nonblack people are looking at and seeing and what do you think Black people are looking at and seeing?
Everyone’s eyes are different. It’s really hard to say ‘in their eyes’ because I have no idea what they’re seeing. This is probably just a protest to them and I’m pretty sure they know it’s historical and you can’t avoid it; it’s newsworthy to them.
In my eyes, this is my movement. It’s something I definitely want to document so many parts of what is going on—not just the frontlines. I have friends in this right now and I want to document them. When I shoot, I try to get different elements of what is going on. I’ll get something in the frontlines, and what is also happening in the middle. I want to talk about the stories that aren’t shown on the news. It might not be a cover photo, but it’s personal.
I thought it was very interesting that everyone I’ve spoken to mentioned that white photographers are interested in the prize-winning shot or being on assignment—and that they seem removed.
We already know the entire photography industry is white dominated—you can see this. I remember the first couple of weeks, we decided to hit up all the social media accounts of Nikon and Canon and they didn’t respond to what’s going on right now. At the end of the day, they don’t have to but I know I’m not spending my money there if that is the case. And you know why they couldn’t say anything? Because they don’t know how to market this.
Last year, it was easy for them—it was Pride month and all they had to do is put a rainbow on their logo. It’s a shame because a lot of the gear I use for film or digital and whatnot, I’m using to document history. This is what your stuff is used for, and for you to not say anything about what’s going on? I was really disappointed. But it goes to show you it’s a white dominated industry and the only way to change this is to organize.
What was the purpose and intention of making your latest photo series more artistic-driven instead of being at the protests? Is there a difference between the art and the documentation for you or are you doing the work of both?
My photography career started with movement work, and at this point in my artistic journey, I’m not the one that needs to be documenting the protests partly because there are so many people out there doing that. The resources and the voice that I have can be utilized in another way. It’s also partly me not wanting to capture things that could be incriminating for protestors at this point because we know surveillance at the scale it’s at now is a lot more intense than it was in 2014.
Since you’ve covered the movement before, what is different now?
Over time, I’ve understood my artistic aesthetic to show up a certain way. I have a more art-directed approach now. I understand the work that I do isn’t so real-time or documentary, but moreso capturing the movement from a very specific lens to capture the context. Creating with that lens requires me to think more deeply about what I’m doing; I want to tell a very specific story and I have a very specific voice. Usually, that means I’m looking at parts of the movement that a lot of people might be overlooking. Instead of documenting what is happening in real time, I decided to talk about the youth that spawned the movement. I think that is something that isn’t talked about often: You hear talks about an uprising, you hear about Black organizers and organizations pushing the needle, but that needle would’ve never been pushed without Black youth putting their lives on the line. The reason I create what I create is so that we can remember them—because, without them, none of this would be possible.