Words + Links

Demanding Justice for Shahidul Alam.” Aperture, August 9, 2018.

For the Forgotten African-American Dead.New York Times, January 7, 2017.

My Inspiring Year Uncovering Forgotten African-American Graves.” Narrative.ly, August 31, 2016.

These Volunteers Have Been Cleaning Up Abandoned Black Cemeteries.” Buzzfeed, July 9, 2016.

Why Does This Old Cemetery Matter?” Reading the Pictures, May 10, 2016.

Race Trips.Colorlines. Seven-part series, with Erin Hollaway Palmer, July 8 to August 3, 2015.


Industry Truth: Reflection On the Business of Photojournalism, #2

Image Truth/Story Truth  conference, Columbia Journalism School, NY, NY, October 16, 2015

Image Truth/Story Truth conference, Columbia Journalism School, NY, NY, October 16, 2015

A couple of days ago a thread on a closed Facebook group for journalists of color stopped me in my tracks. A Medium.com piece, "Where Are All the Black Photographers?," by an educator and image-maker named Ron Cowie, a white man, triggered a roaring response from... black photographers.

Cowie made a list of the black photographers he knows—the last entry was "this guy I saw on 60 minutes who photographed Jazz Musicians back in the 80's"—and by his own reckoning, came up short. He did some Googling, which didn't produce the bounty he must have been hoping for. "It’s almost like we’re looking to celebrate anything but African American photographers," he writes.

I wrote a few replies to photographers on the closed FB page, but I'm stitching some of them together here because I think the conversation needs a wider airing.

Here is what I wrote on the FB page, minus names of and references to participants in the private discussion:

I have been attending photo/documentary conferences of late. I am one of a handful of black folks and people of color in the room. Doesn't feel very different from a decade or more ago.

I'd like to offer some information and make a gentle call to action here...

A week ago, at a photojournalism conference at the Columbia Journalism School, Image Truth/Story Truth (#imagetruth), Kenny Irby of the Poynter Institute noted that many promising initiatives launched 10 to 20 years ago to make newsrooms more inclusive were ended and not replaced when digital began crushing the profitability of old-line news media. People of color have not advanced in the field, Irby said to the mostly white group. Santiago Lyon of the Associated Press told the audience that an estimated 85% of AP’s photographers come from the countries in which they work. “If it works internationally, why can’t it work at home,” Irby asked? “We still have a pitiful state of affairs.”

Michele McNally, director of photo at the New York Times— and an Assistant Managing Editor at the paper— acknowledged that since the buyout, the paper’s record on “diversity” has been dismal. (I don't dig the term "diversity." It turns black and brown folks into sprinkles on a white, mainstream sundae. We are ice cream; we have abundant flavor/flava.) The conversation took many turns after this, all away from the issue of inclusion. Panelists discussed branded content, collaboration between news media and corporations to create… whatever it is that they create, which NYT, AP, and Getty Images are all embracing. (This conversation got heated, and then, poof, it ended, too. The links above lead to the branded content sites—NYT's T Brand Studio, Getty's Curve, and AP Content Services.  See what you think.)

We must acknowledge something that the old guard is loath to: digital technology has destroyed their power to define “news,” “photojournalism,” and “documentary” for the world. They still have power, and some money, too, but they will prosper only by reaching new communities, not simply speaking to (and about) people like them, and starting—or deepening—relationships with practitioners from these communities.

This erosion of power has a lot of implications, among them the collapse in the monetary value of what they disseminate (and what we make). For us, it means that the pie of potential assignments/paying opportunities, never a big slice, is perhaps reduced to a sliver.

But perhaps this a moment of opportunity, for us and for them.

Journalists of color are producing amazing work and innovating on the Web. If the old guard is acknowledging that it has a problem with inclusion of people of color, let’s show them (again) what we’re doing. I’m not talking about stopping what we’re doing and directing all of our attention their way. But if there are great projects that haven’t gotten “mainstream” exposure—perhaps we can discuss and nominate some here—let’s bring them to the attention of the gatekeepers. Directly, via emails, snail mail, at industry events.

We’re not rattling the tin cup in front of the NYT or Getty or AP or whatever/whomever; we’re picking up the conversation they started. You have a problem with inclusion, you say, here’s some beautiful, powerful work that might help you address it. Here’s a photographer you might want to pay attention to, develop a connection with. Here's someone who would make a mighty fine producer, editor, curator. And let’s keep track of the responses. Talk is cheap, as we well know.

This goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Let’s keep innovating, creating, sharing, collaborating. We can continue to break down our own silos and connect to each other horizontally—Brooklyn to Addis, for example, or LA-Chicago-Miami—building what comes next. And we can work/keep working with white allies who step to us as partners, not tokens.

One page member noted that I hadn’t dealt with youth, the people who might transform our field.

So I replied:

Those of of us who teach journalism, PJ, or documentary at the undergrad or grad level are probably accustomed to having few black and brown students—I’m talking US nationals, not international. That’s obviously not the case at HBCUs—I taught broadcast journalism at Hampton University in 2013—and at some other schools, but at many colleges, public and private, I think this is the case. Where are the kids of color? Most likely they’re studying in disciplines that can get them paid when they graduate with a load of debt. It’s a little nuts to go into journalism now—unless you’re very focused, very connected, and/or very rich.

Correct me if I'm wrong, those of you who teach photo at the secondary level and in community programs: You have a tough time getting more than one or two students into the field as paid professionals, right?

And yet even as the journalism as we know it disintegrates, digital creates genuine opportunities. At Image Truth/Story Truth, Fred Ritchin used the hypothetical example of an Instagrammer in Egypt with 80,000 followers shooting iPhone news images. Young American kids of color blew up social media in Ferguson. Some parlayed that into paying work. (Help me with examples, social media-savvy comrades.) More than that, they got the word (and image) out unmediated. They defined the story for the MSM—or at least created a powerful grassroots narrative that Fox and friends had to contend with. So how do we capitalize on digital’s potential to do this in ways that create new narratives and new modes of communication? Again, it’s happening—Black Twitter—but can we shape it into a more cohesive and powerful force? Maybe create ways to get paid, too?

As I lecture and adjunct my way across US campuses, I note the young folks (of all colors) who are taking the lead in visual journalism/social media journalism/etc. They are multiplatform. They can write. They have confidence. And a few who I have met can code, or at least dig into existing content-management systems in ways that goes beyond posting to Wordpress and posting Youtube videos. My challenge is to impart what I know—about photos and writing and ethics and so on—while encouraging students to courageously develop backend knowledge and experience.

The Fighting Colored Troops of New Market Heights

I’ve developed an enormous appreciation for Civil War reenactors during the two years Erin and I have been researching for and shooting our documentary, Make the Ground Talk. Hardcore reenactors know their history, from the minutiae of buttons and biscuits to the details of their characters and units and the moment-to-moment evolution (or devolution) of battles.

But the hardcore men who portray soldiers of the United States Colored Troops — as well as the men and women who play enslaved and free people — dig especially deep into archival material and newly unearthed research on 19th-century African America. Their research goes beyond the standard great-general, tactic-and-strategies history, out of both necessity and conviction, into the lives of the largely ignored people who turned the tide of war toward the Union. By embodying women and men who actually lived, who fought for their own freedom, and that of the Union, they act as emissaries from the past. Their very presence expands and reshapes the work-in-progress we call American history.

The September 2014 reenactment of the battle of New Market Heights was historic in its own way, Malcolm Beech, a reenactor and president of the USCT Living History Association, told me. The USCT — African Americans in general — are usually slotted in to such events as an afterthought, he said. "In some places in the South with these reenactments, you’d think the Confederates won, because they organize the scenarios. They decide the order of battle. In New Market Heights today, this is one of the first times that African Americans were at the table, describing and participating with the scenarios.”

With my incessant questioning, I was keeping Beech from the buffet dinner event organizers had laid on. So I let him sign off: "It’s no different than when people tell you about cowboys and Indians. As long as the cowboys write the books, cowboys always win," said Beech whose brow was glistening from the late evening sun I had compelled him to endure. "We have to tell our own stories. We have to write more books. We have to do more research."

Archive: Harlem's Finishing School for Young Ladies, 2004

Posting this gallery on September 11, a national day of mourning and reflection, felt wrong. September 12, though, feels appropriate. These images, to me, are playful yet serious, hopeful and earnest.

Teaching comportment and fork-handling skills to young women of color may seem retrograde and bourgeois. But these Saturday-morning activities were simply vehicles for a larger project: giving these girls one more set of tools (or sharpening those they already possessed) to move and succeed in the parallel American culture where the greatest economic opportunity exists.

Yes, the girls were blasé some days, the teens more so than the little ones. But most focused their attention and energy when enveloped in the environment created by the instructors — school director Rose, volunteers like Mrs. Block, and Denise, a tremendously effective and sensitive thirtyish African American woman. Denise held sway on Saturday mornings with intensity and sincerity. She used examples the girls related to: What would you say to a person, say, an older white man who stepped on your foot unintentionally — and who said "excuse me" — as he walked past you on the subway? One of the teens, a statuesque girl who the others looked up to, uncorked a righteous sistah-girl, oh no you di'nt rap, cutting her eyes and cocking her head like she'd been wronged to the soul by the Man himself. She was performing for the younger girls, that was clear.

With a bemused smile, Denise gave her that — for about 30 seconds. Then she reeled the girls in to the task at hand. That's precisely what some people will expect from you, Denise told them; that's precisely what some people will use against you and the other black girls and Latinas they encounter, avoid, dismiss, quietly denigrate. Denise told the girls they had flexibility, choices, in that moment to react in ways that didn't make them stoop, ways that allowed them to express their dignity, and to exercise a kind of power over themselves and a potentially volatile, yet inconsequential situation. A polite "that's OK" or a nod of forgiveness would do.

Parents, mostly moms, were serious about DFI. Those who appeared to have more, financially speaking, as well as those who I believed to have less were committed to a clear set of goals that may have been fuzzier to their children: access, confidence, and yes, polish.

Iraq pulled me away from the DFI story. I contacted Rose, the director, now and again, but the school closed and she moved on to other projects. I'm pleased and proud to have witnessed this effort, this experiment. I can't say whether DFI profoundly shaped the lives of the girls I met, but on those Saturdays I saw joy, fun — plus some silliness and overimportance — honesty, commitment, optimism, and strength. All of this lodged somewhere deep in me. I know it helped me through the worst of my Iraq war experience. And it's still there.