The World In Focus: Five Black American Photographers On Capturing The Here And Now

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The World In Focus: Five Black American Photographers On Capturing The Here And Now

Words by The MR PORTER Team

3 February 2021

This year, Black History Month in the US is set against the backdrop of the protests and social upheaval of 2020. If nothing else, the mass uprising of the past 12 months has shown us that designating only one month a year to think about issues of race and discrimination is simply not enough. However, it’s important to use moments like this, when we are encouraged, collectively, to remember and educate ourselves and those around us, and think about what we want the future to look like.

In that spirit, we asked five Black American photographers to share an image or in some cases two that represent how they feel about the here and now. Some are photojournalists who, by training, capture current events, documenting newsworthy moments for posterity. Others focus on talent and celebrity or use photography as art. All bring a unique perspective, which begs the viewer to look closer, reflect and learn.

Mr Malike Sidibe

Mr Malike Sidibe’s strong portraits are a defining feature of his work. Using colour, light and shadow, his photos are striking and fun, intense and moving. His pictures of the Black Lives Matter protests in Brooklyn – shot in full, intense colour – show violent interactions with the police, catching moments that are shocking and unpleasant but are an important documentation of abuse. This kind of range, from straight-up talent portraiture to emotional photojournalism, is particularly impressive given that Mr Sidibe is 23 years old.

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Empire State Building, New York, 2015. Photograph by Mr Malike Sidibe

Why did you choose these images?

I chose these images because they are the first images that come to mind when I think of NYC. I feel like these images shows the bright and dark side of New York.

What does it say about your own here and now? Why?

They portray how I feel about the city; they show the dreams and the nightmares. I feel like New York City is a land with equal opportunities. You can make do with anything and be anyone in New York no matter where you come from. It could also break you if you don’t learn to adapt.

**What inspires you to take photographs? **

I love making pictures, it’s my passion. My camera is a tool that allows me to express myself and tell other people stories; I am inspired by where I come from, where I am now, my everyday surroundings and the people around me. 

How do you choose your subjects? What’s important to you to get into the frame?

It depends on the projects. My goal is to always tell my subjects’ stories in my photographs, also tell my own story as well. It’s important for me that my subject feels a sense of connection to the photograph.

What was the first photograph you ever took or remember taking? How did it make you feel?

The first photograph I ever took was a portrait of my family, I think in 2008. I remember spending the rest of that day photographing anything I could get my hands on – trees, cars, flowers, literally anything. It just felt great!

Mr Steven Irby

A born and bred Brooklynite, Mr Steven Irby is a photographer and co-founder of Street Dreams Magazine. He photographs his hometown with graphic precision, careful to give his subjects the emotional space and the respect they deserve. This summer, he joined the BLM protests, documenting the movement as it surged through Manhattan and Brooklyn. And he was out on the streets again after President Joe Biden won the election, capturing the collective celebration. His work asks us all to look, stop and think, and then look again.

Why did you choose this image?

I chose this image because I feel like it really defines the unity in the chaos of the whole year. The Black experience is really a full spectrum, and being able to communicate that visually means everything to me. To be honest, it was one of those moments that, if I’m blessed to be on this Earth for a while, will be the story that needs more than words. This was on 19 June 2020, going over the Williamsburg Bridge. Not only do I live about 20 minutes or less from here, but this bridge has been a very important part of my life. From being a teenager heading to my internship at the Supreme Court in the blistering summer heat to all the days I had to be on that train going to GameStop, where I used to work in my twenties. So seeing a scene like this and being a part of the protest against police violence all summer, was really the culmination of the summer for me. Plus, the homie on there was chanting “We need more ponies”, and I would have to agree. 

What does it say about your own here and now? Why?

For me, I’m trying to show that you have to see the truth for yourself. Being able to be aware enough, that there is always more sides to the story. 

I’m not afraid or ashamed to share personal accounts of history from a Black man’s perspective. I’m humbled by it every day and being able to share my perspective as a native New Yorker on top of that means everything to me. 

**What inspires you to take photographs? **

I’ve always been obsessed with family photos and just those moments you can always speak about vividly, but sometimes don’t have a photograph to complete the story.

Being born and raised in New York, you get so tapped in to the cadence of the city. But those little moments that make us all feel human and we can resonate with, I always gravitate towards. I’m able to have some control, in a time when you can get lost in an algorithm.

How do you choose your subjects? What’s important to you to get into the frame?

I love documenting people feeling empowered and sometimes with a slight bit of cinematic presence. I always joke around with my peoples, saying, “It’s a movie outside,” but it really is.

I’m flexible when it comes to working with people, especially when it comes to documenting the Black experience. There are stereotypes that we have to fight daily. So, if I have the power to make my brothers and sisters feel like the kings and queens they are, then I’m doing that. Period.

What was the first photograph you ever took or remember taking? How did it make you feel?

That’s a great question. It’s hard to know now, I’ve been around for a little bit. My first photo had to be a ’fit pic to be honest. I was definitely one of those guys… in the mid-2000s. 

One of the first photos I got that was halfway decent (but terrible to me now) had to be early 2011. I took a photo of the Flatiron Building and it was one of those moments that I finally realised I was in the best city in the world. And I had to make it my own. 

Mr Texas Isaiah

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Brooklyn-based photographer Mr Texas Isaiah’s work is full of heart. Each portrait, whether the subject is a celebrity or “real” person, feels finely wrought and deeply personal. And it just so happened that he photographed one of our Men Who Made A Difference In 2020 for the cover of Time magazine – Mr Dwyane Wade (along with his wife, actor Ms Gabrielle Union). When he posted the image to his Instagram feed, Mr Isaiah said of the couple in the accompanying comment “I… have witnessed the strength of their commitments [to] each other and their family. These commitments remind me of something my father tells me often: ‘You are ours, and you will always be our responsibility.’ We contain multitudes. It’s never too late to unfold. All it takes is a lot of work and a lot of love.”

Why did you choose this image? What does it say about your own here and now?

During one of my naps, I had a dream of my grandfather, who passed away in 2013. He insisted I shave my hair off to enter the new year, and when I woke up, I did just that. It was a way to remove some of the grief I experienced individually and collectively and offer my ancestors some reverence. My here and now can be translucent on some days and opaque on others. The image of the palm tree juxtaposed with my self-portrait serves as an homage to the land I find myself on, Tongva. 

What inspires you to take photographs?

There are many reasons why, but I sincerely enjoy connecting, supporting and creating images with individuals. As violent as the origins of photography are, I believe it can be an effective healing mechanism. 

**How do you choose your subjects? What’s important to you to get into the frame? **

I do not believe I “choose” who gets to be in the image and who doesn’t. I’m a firm believer that everyone deserves to be photographed, and I try my best to collaborate with the sitter on an image that feels most at home. 

What was the first photograph you ever took or remember taking? How did it make you feel?

I don’t remember the first photograph I’ve ever taken, but my first solo project, “BLACKNESS”, celebrated the African diaspora’s diversity across the spectrums of gender, sexuality and ethnic heritage. It’s the first series of images I had taken that inspired my perspective. 

Mr Mel D Cole

_New York-based photographer Mr Mel D Cole is best known for his work with hip-hop and R&B superstars. If you can name them, he’s probably photographed them – Mr Dev Hynes, Mr Kanye West, Mr Pharrell Williams, The Roots, Ms Erykah Badu and many others have all been captured by Mr Cole. His distinctive close-range portraits catch the subject in raw, emotional moments, humanising even the most larger-than-life celebrities. This year, Mr Cole spent time documenting protests throughout the US, eventually finding himself among the rioters at the Capitol on 6 January. The resulting images are downright terrifying, and an important, close-up view of the events of the day. _

Why did you choose this image?

I chose this image because it speaks volumes as to where we are as a society. A lot of White people do not look at Black men and boys as equals. The most basic human aspiration is to be alive and sometimes, if not all of the time, for us (and when I say us, I mean Black people) we have to tell everyone that we deserve to grow up and be alive just like you. 

What does it say about your own here and now?

This photo is me, now and when I was a kid. I will always be him. The kid in the photo is every Black kid around the world. He’s my son and yours. 

_What inspires you to take photographs? _

What inspired me to start taking photos was music. Music still inspires me, but with the work I have been doing over the last year I would say humanity, education and the quest to tell Black stories inspire me the most.  

How do you choose your subjects? What’s important to you to get into the frame?

I look to photograph any and everyone I find interesting and fascinating.

What was the first photograph you ever took or remember taking? How did it make you feel?

I can’t remember the first photo I captured. Throughout my life I have always taken photos here and there. What I can remember is the first photos that inspired me to keep going, to go out and spend money on a real camera. It was the photos from a Common show at SOBs in NYC. Music! If it were not for my love of hip-hop, I don’t know if I would be the same man – let alone the same photographer.

Mr Tramaine Townsend

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Self-portrait, Dallas, 2021. Photograph by Mr Tramaine Townsend

_Whether he is photographing talent such as Mr Leon Bridges or creating abstract, avant-garde, sometimes bizarre imagery, Mr Tramaine Townsend’s idiosyncratic aesthetic shines through. Bold colour saturation and unusual perspectives lend his work a ponderous, otherworldly vibe even though his subjects are very much situated in the here and now. _

Why did you choose these images?

I’m a person that doesn’t get in front of the camera that often. I’m usually on the other side, creating imagery of others for them, or [for] my work in its collective narrative. I chose this one because it resembles a lot of the themes I represent throughout my efforts: singularity, individuality, euphoria, exceptionalism and overall excellence. Especially being a Black artist, it’s important to me to resonate that through everything, including myself. You could say it’s pride. It’s also about legacy. I think we all want to leave a mark on this world. This is for those in the future to have evidence of “when”.

What does it say about your own here and now?

It shows growth. Growth in myself: my journey has gone through a multitude of stages. [It shows] mistakes that have been happy and bad. Realising my potential and the integrity behind it. Not making just to make. Embracing the purpose and understanding it. Keeping myself informed about my environment and what I put out there to the world. Meticulously weaving together a narrative I want the world to see and it being cohesive. Humbling myself [in order] to continue to be a student of a world that continues to change before and after this sentence ends.

What inspires you to take photographs? 

Capturing moments in time have always fascinated me. I think it’s because I feel like I’m seeing something no one else sees. Sometimes it could be incredibly mundane and uninteresting. I usually see things as a memory or note I want to revisit in the future. It could be because that second could never happen again, or it’s [for] another project [and] I think it will be good to reference. I’m constantly paying attention to my environment and those around me. My narratives spring from them. If not for that moment, definitely in the future at some point, for whatever effort it may turn into.

How do you choose your subjects? What’s important to you to get into the frame?

There are actually a couple ways I potentially approach it. If it’s of (or for) the person, I try to bridge the gap of the “who and why”. The “how” is usually always there and it varies from subject to subject. Ultimately it’s up to me to make sure it looks and feels like a progressive effort. The person is very important to me. Right front and centre. Contrasted with a stark background for emotion and dramatic effect. The moment couldn’t exist without me putting all the pieces together. Perpetually creating an iconic moment for a more vast narrative.

**What was the first photograph you ever took or remember taking? How did it make you feel? **

I believe I was 15, and my family and I were visiting Dallas. This was just a few years before I moved here. We were visiting family and we went to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum. I remember being really excited because it was the summer before I started my sophomore year at an art high school I was attending in Houston. I was so stoked because it was the year they would start teaching us photography. I didn’t know anything about it at all, but I was mentally preparing for it.

I had to have had a disposable and I remember taking a photo of a flower bush outside of the museum. I was trying to hone into my inner photographer. But I do remember that was the first time I thought of composition through the viewfinder. It was an exciting moment for me. From that moment on, I’ve been obsessed with photography. It set the tone for what I wanted to do for the future. Now I can’t say I truly knew that I wanted to be a photographer for the rest of my life in that moment, but there were times I for sure had to take a hiatus from it growing up. I always found my way back to it somehow throughout my artistic journey.