Friday, November 21, 2014

Do You See You? The Revolutionary Artist!

“You should be able to look at me and see my work.  You should be able to look at my work and see me.”
Roy DeCarava
Thru Black Eyes

In sociology we have something we call reference groups.  Reference groups are those groups of people you look up to and aspire to become.  As a budding photographer I have found it so important to find those photographers whose work can inspire and inform my work.  What I’ve found in my studies, just like in my former academic journeys, there are few African Americans put in front of us in the classroom.

When the roll of great photographers are called they very rarely look like me or see as I do. The eye of the photographer is focused via his or her socialization.  The background from which one comes informs how he or she views the world through the view finder.  Moreover when the world of photography has primarily been defined by the eyes of those who don’t look like and don’t see as I see then the question becomes how is the work of the African American photographers viewed in a world that is defined by the “masters”?

When I think of the roll call that is laid out in photography programs we get all the usual suspects. The Life  magazine photographers and the  Magnum photographers and VII are the names we here.  But if I were to call the names:
The Kamoinge Workshop
Louis Draper
Thomas Askew
Jim Alexander
Albert Fennar
Moneta Sleet
Michael Cheers
Vandell Cobb
Kenneth Coleman
Lacey Crawford
Todd Duncan
Bill Gillohm
Bob Johnson
Herbert Randall
John Shearer
Ozar Muhamad
G. Marshall Wilson
Just to name a few….the room would go silent. These names aren’t called.  The work of these photographers is not on the contact sheet of important photographers.  How do I see the group I want to be part of when the group isn’t presented to me in the classroom?  As an African American who holds a camera and views the world through the viewfinder how do I connect with those who have been socialized as I have, especially those, who like me, considers themselves activist photographers?  When the work of those who look like me and see like me have been ignored by the institutions that shape photographers the question becomes how are these institutions teaching me to see and can I see myself and my work in a world that doesn’t see those who came before me?

The answer to my dilemma is it is up to me, it is up to you to find your group.  Your group is that group of artist, thinkers, game changers that you want to be part of and you have to study them. Follow them and find out how you might become part of that group.  Don’t wait for or expect others to show you the road to artistic freedom and expression.  It is your responsibility to find yourself.
Required Reading - Not Assigned - This is my reading list over the winter break.
Let me be clear this is not a personal attack but rather an institutional critique.  This is not about the teachers in the classroom but rather I am talking about how institutions systemically embrace, nurture and support systems of oppression. Masters aren’t trained to nurture revolutionaries.  Masters are trained to break revolutionaries. Institutions that award you master degrees aren’t preparing you to become a master but rather to submit to the master. You have to reflect on Audre Lorde question:  “Can we use the masters tools to dismantle the master’s house.”  The master will never give you the tools for freedom.  The tools to secure your freedom is constructed in the heart, mind and eye of the revolutionary artist.  Go find your group and in-turn you will find yourself and create revolutionary art.  Where are you looking?  What are you seeing?  What are you creating?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Don’t Wait On Others To Tell You How Good You Are – Tell yourself and do the WORK!

Coretta Scott King at the funeral for Martin Luther King, Jr.  -  On May 5, 1969,  Photographer,  Moneta J. Sleet Jr. won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Photography for this image of Coretta Scott King at her husband’s funeral. Wearing a black veil and looking stoic, Mrs.  King holds her daughter who is slumped over her mother’s lap.  It’s said to be one of the most graceful images of the Civil Rights Movement.
Photographer, Moneta J. Sleet Jr. 1969 Pulitzer Prize winning image.

Who was Moneta Sleet?  Moneta  J. Sleet Jr. was the first African American to win Pulitzer Prize Feature Award in 1969 for the image we all know but many didn’t know who took it.  Mr. Sleet was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement and his covering of The Movement wasn’t an assignment but rather he was an activist.  He said, “I wasn’t there as an objective reporter….I had something to say.”

The story goes something like this.  As they were clearing the press core to cover the funeral of Dr. Martin L. King Jr., word got back to Mrs. Coretta Scott King that there were no African American journalists covering her husband’s funeral.  She sends word: If Moneta Sleet is not allowed into the church, there will be no photographers.”

In 1955 Sleet became a staff photographer for Ebony magazine.  It is interesting to me how the photographers for Life magazine are celebrated as masters in the field while the Ebony photographers are seldom if ever mentioned.  We know the names of the great Life photographers and they are standards in our field but not the Ebony photographers.  Why is that? 

Sleet covered our struggle as one who felt the pictures he was taking.  I have concluded that is difficult for people who don’t understand or appreciate you and your people’s contribution to then affirm you or see what you bring to the table.  This is why it is so hard to get organizations to see the asset in diversity.  They don’t realize the power of what different people bring to the table.  The masters still by and large overlook African Americans, women, ethnic minorities and persons of LGTBQ community.  The masters are still telling us who the masters are in our field and we are trying to be like them and the reality is we will never be them.
@Moneta Sleet Jr. 

While Moneta Sleet won the Pulitzer the real key to this story is that Mrs. King recognized his giftedness before he won. She knew he would be the one who would take the image we could feel.  She saw the gift before the world recognized it.  We have to look for our affirmation from those who love us, understand us and truly appreciate our work and us.  In too many instances we are looking for affirmation from those who may never recognize us. They can’t see what you see because they are looking through a different lens.  We see through a lens darkly and our images are those that Sleet sees.  Who are you looking to for affirmation?  How do you serve your community and stay in-touch with your people so that they can affirm what the creator has put in you and what you create?

To order the book:
Order the Book

To buy prints:
Buy Prints

To see more of Mr. Sleet's work see the link below:

To see the work of more Ebony photographers:
The Work of Ebony Photographers

Monday, November 3, 2014

Blood Stained Ballots: Dying to Vote

I can remember my great grandmother taking me to vote with her.  She was a soft spoken woman, so I don’t remember her saying much about this ritual but I can plainly see walking behind that curtain, hearing it close and my five year old eyes watching her vote.  I can remember it like it was today as I go to vote.  The voting machines look a lot different than what my great grandmother used but the process is still as important.

My great grandmother taking me to vote is a special memory for me because she told me of the time when she couldn’t vote.  For her to vote was a radical political act in itself.  When I vote today I continue to give her voice.  I am not only giving her voice but I am also joining with the million of voices dead and alive, ancestors, elders and my peers as we to exercise our right to vote that was won by the blood of those who died for me and us to have this right.

When I go to the polls this year ther are really souls at the polls.  The souls of the ancestors are there.  When I go to the polls I pray to the ancestors and I thank them for their sacrifice and I promise to not let their hard work be in vain.  This year I call on the name of my Great Grandmother Laura Respress of  Fannie Lou Hamer.  When you vote this year whose name will you call out? In whose name are you voting?  Do you see the blood of those who died on your ballot?  

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Atlanta Daily World Renovation Continues!!! This Isn’t Kansas: Gene Kansas get’s It!

I had a chance to meet and talk with Gene Kansas last week about the Atlanta Daily World building.  First let me say he is a super guy so my opinion may be  bit biased here but I was looking and listening as we talked.  One of the issues I have been wrestling with is how we remember?  What does it mean for Auburn Avenue to be the “New Sweet Auburn Avenue”? It will not be what it was and it shouldn’t be.  This street has to evolve. As it evolves one of my many questions has been how it remembers?  I’ve especially been asking how will African American history be remembered? 

The work Gene Kansas is doing and the building he owns is a central part of this story I am telling.  We are talking about The Atlanta Daily World Building.  This is the place where the oldest African American owned and ran newspaper resided.  The days of the Atlanta Daily World’s heyday is history but we can’t forget what it was and what it did for our people.  The world has changed and this building has changed owners and it is being changed, in the process of change will we forget to remember? 

The thing that amazed me most about my time with Gene was his keen sense of and respect for history in general and African American history in particular.  He ins’t some fly by night developer and overseer of gentrification.  He is a compassionate soul who is connecting this building with it’s history.  Everything that is going into the building harkens back to a time in past of that very building.  There is this neat integration of the past with the present that breathes from outside to the inside of the building.  Gene get’s it and this is a relief for me.  I think memory is important and the question is how do we remember?  What does it mean and look like to celebrate the past as we live into the future?   Gene has taken questions like thes very seriously and I am happy to see what he is doing.  

Gene is allowing me to walk with him and his team as they do the historical restoration and renovation and I plan to do just that.  I invite you to journey with us on this ride down Sweet Auburn Avenue as it becomes sweet again.  How does a street that has gone through several failed revitalization efforts come out of this one?   We will see?  What is it in your life that needs revitalizing?  Are you getting your construction project started?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

You Can’t Pick Your Family but You Can Pick Your Mentors: Who are you picking?

Eugene Richards and Ralph Basui Watkins
October 9, 2014 - Atlanta, GA
Some of us are lucky enough to have families that we enjoy being around because we share a common set of values, goals and dreams.  There are others who have families that don’t embrace your worldview and as a result you don’t feel close to them.  They can’t nurture your dreams or celebrate your desire to constantly remake yourself.  In the case when our family members can’t be the supportive nurturing network we need it is up to us to find that network we need for support.

It is idealistic and unrealistic to expect our family to be this totally supportive network.  When it comes to family, it is what it is.  Don’t hate your family for what they are not.  Define your familial relationship in ways that are healthy for you and then move on.  I have found it necessary to draw close to people who see the world as I choose to see it.  I know that I am “different” and I don’t expect certain folk to get me so I get with folk I get and want to be like.

I think it is important to establish reference groups.  Reference groups are those people who represent what you want to become.  For example in my area of photography there are certain photographers I admire.  One such photographer is Eugene Richards.  I admire both his work and the person that he is.  Eugene is a person of integrity, moral character and he is transparent.  His work is about relationships.  He cares for the people he photographs.  He doesn’t tell their story but rather he becomes a part of their story.  

I had the chance to meet Eugene last week and talk with him.  While I have everyone of his books and I have followed his career that meeting was more than what I expected it to be.  He was humble, kind, gentle and patient.  He took time to talk with me, answer my questions and give me advice.  Everything I thought he was he turned out to be.  When I heard Eugene was coming to town I made it my business to be at the lecture, front row and to stand inline as long as I needed to talk to him.  I was going to press my way to make a connection that I was hoping would confirm who I thought he was and affirm who I am becoming.  It HAPPENED!  Who are the members of your reference group? Are you seeking them out?  Are you trying to meet them and connect with them?  Do they know you exist?