The streets are ablaze with peaceful protest. And across the country, photographers have been capturing the fire. Black people and their oppression have perhaps never had such a visible platform.
Years from now, these images will stand as record of a momentous shift in American consciousness. Those behind the camera lens and those constantly within its gaze have questions. What narrative will endure after the dust settles? What power dynamics come into play in who creates and curates the images and their context? What is the role of Black artists in the movement for Black lives?
Three Black photographers discuss their role in shaping the face of the Black lives movement, and how this moment feels different.
Creating A New Conversation
Ruddy Roye is a notable Jamaican-born, Brooklyn-based photojournalist whose portraits on his popular Instagram page center themselves in protest. He has documented the resistance surrounding the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castille and traces his awareness and creative sensibilities to reggae music, poetry, and the human rights epochs of the 1960s and 1970s. His work reveals an understanding of the power of art to change the way Black people see themselves and the spaces where their representations are consumed.
After a long career lifting up Black people in protest, he’s now stepping away from the direct action spaces that many younger photographers are drawn to.
As the marches for Black lives in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd have grown in size and heat, Roye is witnessing quieter spaces, such as Floyd’s funeral in Houston. The photos from his assignment for Time magazine reveal an intimate lens on pain and resilience. It’s his signature.
Roye said he’s thinking carefully about how he might impart something different in this moment, as a father of two Black boys documenting Black struggle. With record numbers of young and White protesters visibly supporting racial justice campaigns for the first time, he is concerned that, while “people grasp of the enormity of it…they are coming to it without the language of the past.”
His work now speaks to an interest in a more unfiltered and nuanced documentation of Black resistance and pain than the one that history books may one day show.
“It’s important for me to paddle, use my motorboat, or whatever I have to get to a side stream to go further upstream to push the conversation in a different space,” he said.
Making the Radical Irresistible
Baltimore-based organizer, photographer, and graphic artist Rob Ferrell shares Roye’s commitment to photographing the Black community in its fullness—in leadership, joy, and struggle.
Ferrell, 34, wears several hats as a senior organizer and trainer with a group called Organizing Black. When leading a protest, his primary focus is “the organizing, marshaling, scanning and being safety-oriented, and being in community with other folks,” Ferrell said.
But he also takes shots.
“I’ll have to oscillate between this place of creation and almost looking at the space from afar or from the outside,” he said. “How would it look from behind the lens? And then, you have to jump right back into marshaling.”
Ferrell spoke of the sense of unity and play among artists and organizers who responded to the call of organizers based in Washington, D.C., and Mayor Muriel Bowser to create vibrant yellow street art saying “Black Lives Matter.” He’s found a niche after years of committing himself to documenting Black lives and action through a life of practice and pedagogy—and craft.
“I mean, the revolution needs to be irresistible, right? I think that’s one of the main roles of artists,” he said. “Holding that space…creates an opening for folks to share other creative energy, whether it’s dancing or singing or performing spoken word.”
Ferrell said his participation in Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity’s 2019 Amandla training and network helped him to incorporate the notion of leadership embodied into his photography work. During the BOLD National Gathering in February 2020, he practiced asking the subjects of his portraits to join him in a centering exercise for 15 minutes, during which they would settle into their bodies and move with intention to create an image.“I ask the person what they’re committed to, and I share what I’m committed to. And when I photograph, I’m going to ask them to embody that commitment, in their body and show that to me through the camera. And that’s just been a beautiful experience.”
Ferrell said he immediately saw the images become more powerful through this experimental co-creation with his subjects. It helped to crystallize his deeper vision for what he has always sought to contribute to movement spaces.
His work is “intended to take ownership of our experience visually and allow ourselves to be seen, to preserve the legacy of our work for future generations to come. But it can also help to open and transform the hearts and minds of our audience and mobilize our base, in this current moment. So, I think about its utility now, and its utility in the future.”
Radicalizing the Black Artist
Photographer karen marshall is also the Executive Director of Rethink, a New Orleans-based organization that challenges 12- to 25-year-old Black youth to think critically about their social and political identities and to shift power in their communities. She inherited the craft of photography from her father and started taking photos at age 14.
She had a vision for documenting Black joy that led her to Mardi Gras and the streets of New Orleans—spaces “where we get to be real.” So often we have to be vigilant, she said—a sentiment echoed by Ferrell: “Radical joy—the cookouts, the smoke session, or whatever it is—is necessary for our revolution.”
But in her role at Rethink, marshall has also had to think critically about the role of culture, photography, and radical imagination as part of a strategic movement. Artists need to put in the work, she said, not only to become better artists, but to be better revolutionaries.
And there is often tension between art and action.
“I think sometimes…there might not be that much space to develop as an artist,” she said. This can present a false dilemma: “Either I’m going to really try to further my craft and my skill, or I’m going to further my revolutionary commitment.”
The goal, marshall says, is to bridge those visions of art and revolution and reconstruct a cohesive narrative that enables artists to bring their full selves.
For now, she’s got her hands full working with budding artists and photojournalists interested in joining justice efforts or trying to document them. “To advance a particular strategy, it’s going to require more: collective study, collective experimentation about what’s possible,” marshall said. “And that could also bring out…an intentional sharpening of craft.”