In this season of nationwide protest, I as a Black photo-journalist have found myself thinking through my shot list from a deeper place.
I’m quickly learning that there are a myriad of emotions that come with how black photographers and media content creators produce images and information. Many of those emotions are being driven by the stories that we’re hearing after the death of George Floyd. The feeling that resonates with me the most is that of being anxious. Why? As a man of color, I feel compelled to hit home runs with every shot that I take. For I know that someone’s life depends on how my images depict the narrative of people of color. In addition to that, there’s an internal sense of responsibility for me to show the depths of who African-Americans really are. The call of responsibility is what keeps me and other photographers up at night.
In having conversations with other photographers of color, many of them share the same burden of thought. I recently had this conversation with a white colleague, and they asked, “J, how do you shake that off and still shoot?” I replied, “I don’t, I use it as fuel to paint.” I shared with them that I/we only get one chance at being great. Unlike our white counterparts, many Black photographers have conditioned themselves to be twice as good every time we’re out on assignment; specifically, when telling stories birthed from communities of color.
In a recent protest, I came across an African-American gentleman by the name of John Lee. Mr. Lee shared with a crowd of roughly one thousand protesters that his father had been murdered by a group of racist white men in 1947 when he was just four years old. He went on to share more about his educational journey in colored-only schools. He also told us about his fight for the right to eat in the same cafeteria as his white counterparts, while working in the Havre de Grace Memorial Hospital, located in Havre de Grace, Maryland.
It is in those moments when I know that nobody else can tell Mr. Lee’s story through imagery better than I/we/us. I feel this way because we’ve been on the receiving end of the hatred, and the ignorance that makes us hard to the core, yet driving us to be more determined to rise above it all. Meanwhile knowing that the Pulitzer Prize will most likely go to someone who takes a great image vs going to the man or woman that’s lived the experiences of the image and captured it too.
Now that we have the world’s attention, it’s once again our duty, responsibility, and privilege to tell the story of Mr. Lee and those alike. Although I’d never negated the professional ability of content creators and image-makers of other hues, I am inclined to say that they can’t tell my story the way that I can. I am the story…