Why Black Photographers Documenting the Protests Will Shape History

With the Black Lives Matters protests attempting to trigger a shift in attitudes towards race around the world, the role of black photographers in documenting the demonstrations is crucial, as outlined by this short video from PBS NewsHour. (Warning: This video contains graphic imagery.)

In a recent article, I argued that the lack of photographs taken by black photographers appearing in mainstream publications was at risk of creating a version of history that is shaped by an existing status quo that fails to include a diversity of voices and experiences. In this short video, photographer Mark Clennon adds his thoughts:

“I want to make sure that the black voice is not left out of this conversation,” he explains, “especially since we are at the center of this conversation. We black Americans are taking ownership of our stories, right?”

PBS NewsHour unpicks the power of journalism to shape history and thus our future, emphasizing the importance of having black people’s experiences given equal weight in the public record of what the U.S.A. is experiencing since the death of George Floyd. The role of photographers such as the legendary Gordon Parks should become the norm, not the exception.

Andy Day's picture

Andy Day is a British photographer and writer living in France. He began photographing parkour in 2003 and has been doing weird things in the city and elsewhere ever since. He's addicted to climbing and owns a fairly useless dog. He has an MA in Sociology & Photography which often makes him ponder what all of this really means.

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You don't give up! Do you!
I am surprised, not shocked, that you get published here again!
This time around, I will be more direct...You have a sick mindset. It is people like you who create hatred and divides!

Nitin, what exactly about the article/video do you not like? What about it do you think it might create divide?

Just the fact that you show a division is enough to make that a mindset for most. It is already a proven fact. You keep hammering in the same kind of statements and it will set in for people who probably never even thought about it earlier. Recall your own self as a child...We never differentiated or behaved differently towards anyone. All that came in later when this kind of mindset hammered in the differentiation.

I'll tell you what happened with my childhood. I pretty much didn't 'see' colour, obviously I noticed it, being black growing up in a predominantly white country you notice pretty quickly that you are in the minority but that in itself was never an issue. It was when I was 11 and moved up from primary to secondary school that I really began to see race, because I was subjected to racism. Mostly by older kids who had already been influenced by our society's underlying racist culture, but also from adults (including uniformed Police officers). I didn't choose to live in a world where racism exists, but I'm here, and ignoring it won't cause any kind of change in people with those feelings. Discussion and understanding is the only thing that will move us forward. Bear in mind I'm from the UK, and things are 100x worse in the USA. Oh and I'm not talking about the distant past here, I went to school in the 1990s.

Exactly the point Alex. This keeps coming down to the children over time till it explodes. It's not just colour, it is also religion and then castes and more. While politicians will never let go of that, we should. Just IMO...

BTW, by 1990 I had already authored a couple of tech books :)

My point Nitin, is if you want to complain about not being able to not see race you need to do it to wider society, not those who are addressing the issues of racism. That is sort like white knighting for racism itself.

You're basically saying you acknowledge that racism exists, but you want the people who are subjected to it to stop talking about it, rather than those who are perpetuating it to stop doing it.

You have a point there as well...

Really? Give up the racist propaganda man, it will create more racism than solving it. You will end up invariably sidelining one community over another. People in other parts of the work have moved on.

Can you expand on your point? I'd like to know what about this strikes you as "racist propaganda"?

Not sure you can answer another man's question, and I'm pretty sure I don't understand your reference. So let's just wait for Rhonald to reply :)

In my view, all races are equal to a point that it does not matter whether a person is a black, brown, yellow, pink or white. Skill, experience and availability should get a job and that should be the qualification. If a black person is qualified, working with the company for long time and their goto repoter, then let him be the one shoot. If a white person is qualified, working with a company for long time and their goto reporter, then let him be the one to take pictures. Instead, if we start saying that only black should cover the prostests by blacks, we do not bring people together, but instead we start dividing further. It will also restrict some other communities that are even more minorities than white or black.

We know racism exists and its part of some of our decisions. The only way to get rid of racism is to reiterate that we all are same, spread awareness that we all (not just blacks and whites) are equal and must be treated the same way we expect to be treated by others, right from the time we are kids and, get to know each other. Governments should stop by just getting rid of barriers that create biases and step in when thing get out of control (courts, etc...) instead of asking for a quota system as an evidence from the companies that they are not racially biased. Such a system, government ordained or SJW ordained, will continue drive people against each other. I have seen how quota systems treat people unfair. I have seen white people being racially abused in some african and asian countries where I worked and lives for a short time and it is equally bad. I have seen brown people being racially abused (ironically even in India) and it is bad as well.

Skills, experience and availability must be awarded (and of course, we all are humans and if we prefer one specific person with whom we have known for a very long time and our goto guy, it should be fine as well) rather than a specific race. It may benefit certain group of people when we continue identifying people based on their race and make decisions accordingly (politicians, SJWs). Walks and protests must encourage human beings go beyond their racial identity and not elevate one against another just because of race.

You seem to have missed all of the points of the article and segued into something else. The point was about including more black photographers in this event which obviously is effecting black lives directly, It was about getting a broader view, not a single view. Also John McWhorter is an 'Uncle Tom', showing me a video of a sellout black man supporting your view doesn't really add anything.

Colourism within Black and Asian communities is another matter altogether and a hangover of colonialism.

Well, I am addressing the issue in general (this is not the only sjw article in fstopper or by Andy). Also, I believe there are black photographers covering the event as well (read somewhere, maybe reddit, not sure). Btw, Asians have gone past the colonialism hangover.

That's laughable, Asians are FAR from 'over the colonial hangover' how else do you explain the caste systems which was so generously given to you by your colonisers?

It's not just the police attacking photojournalists today. It's the protesters themselves. Everyone wants to control their own narrative, without the media trying to do it for them. It's not a racial issue (the journalism part), it's a power issue. And for exhibit A, I remind you of you Melissa Click--worth Googling if you don't remember her (and her red hair). I've also read that the "inhabitants" of Seattle's CHAZ don't allow the media in, either. If you want to talk about how blacks at BLM protests are doing it too, fine. But making it sound like it's just them doing this is very misleading. It's a change that's happening all over the place.

I don't know about you but I would like to see the words black, brown or white not used at all in the context of the human race. So is the dumb words African American.

You are an American, period. In Canada we are Canadians, period. I don't remember ever hearing anyone used the term African Canadians...and we have lots of decedents of American slaves in Canada.

I'd like more than anything for racism to not exist, but it does, so we must identify it, because things that exist need names so that we can acknowledge them. Why not go to some white power or KKK forums and tell them that you'd like to see race forgotten about, instead of complaining in the thread of a photography website that is posting a story about photographers covering the result of racism. This article is not the cause of racism.

KKK? You want to reason with the unreasonable? It's like Asking Germans in the 30's not to kill Jews, yeah right. There will always be nutters and racists and murderers and rapists.

My comment meant to the mainstream people, those who make most of our society. If we as a society, and that means all blacks too, will stop labeling people then we are one step forward.

I may be mistaken but it seems the black community, in an effort to find an identity, became very comfortable with African-American label. I honestly wished they did not. No need. Find identity with actions and creativity.

The labels aren't the issues, the stereotypes, prejudices and actions of people are. We don't have an issue with there being people from different countries, different towns, or speaking different languages. So why should we pretend that race and culture do not exist? What is wrong with them calling themselves African American?

I really don't like the articles that say we need more of such and such demographics in photography, or any profession for that matter but, in this case, I agree with Andy. This is a very complex issue with many conflicting viewpoints so I think it's important to represent those viewpoints in the reporting and photography, assuming those black photographers *are*, in fact, representing other viewpoints. I would argue, groups like BLM, et. al. should have their own photographers! I would feel just as strongly if there were only black photographers, assigned to the protests and riots, but no white ones. How can we respect each other's views if we don't share them?
So, to summarize: Black photographers for the sake of black photographers? No. Female photographers for the sake of female photographers? No. LGBTQ... photographers for the sake of them? No.
At least some members of whatever group is the subject of an issue? Yes.

This makes so much sense! Thank you for explaining this this way. Great respect for people here!

I don't agree that aiming for representation in hiring is "for the sake of" it. Unfortunately we live in societies where some groups are simply encouraged more than others. From the media and from wider society. Add this to disproportionate allocation of resources to communities, historical inequalities etc and it's not hard to see why the idea of 'affirmative action' exists. Unless the playing field is TRULY going to be leveled overnight and all of these hindrances disappear then trying to fix the issue from a top down approach is the only real answer. But I'm open to other suggestions.

I would love to continue that debate with you in the future, when the subject, inevitably, comes up, but don't want to hijack the focus of this article. :-)

Oh. I didn't realize there were a finite number of positions and for anyone to join, someone else would need to be displaced.

What policy are you referring to? From my limited understanding, it sounds like he's inviting others to the party, not kicking anyone out.

Please understand, I am NOT advocating for quotas, forced or otherwise, but advocating for more information, not less, and that, only in those situations where it's clearly beneficial. If we were talking about wildlife, landscape, architectural, et. al. photography, I wouldn't care, one whit, who took the photos.

Andy, if your objective is to generate measurables, in the form of comments, then kudos. If not, this (after the reaction to the previous) is a little tone deaf.

I'm not a student of American history so can only wonder how many times Martin L. King repeated the same message, despite negative reactions, before people started agreeing.

No he isn't (I assume you mean Andy). He's suggesting that, to get a good report of an event, you should view it from multiple vantage points. Imagine we were viewing footage of George Floyd's slaying but from only one camera (poor analogy, I know), wouldn't you prefer to see it from other camera viewpoints? I've posted this link before but the speaker explains my point of view – well, hers, actually ;-) – far better than I ever could. It's only about 19 minutes and well worth the time.

I said it before, OBJECTIVE PHOTOGRAPHERS/JOURNALISTS would give the best documentation of this point in history. If that objective person is black, white, brown, Catholic, Jew, Mennonite, gay, lesbian, atheist, etc, it will be the proper perspective. Any slant for any agenda is useless other than proving my point.

Objectivity being impossible, the best we can hope for is a plurality of viewpoints.

Especially in something as nuanced as race, where we ALL know unconscious bias exists, on both sides. A white photographer covering a BLM protest could show just as much bias as a black photographer doing the same job. I think the greater variety of perspectives the better.

It's a shame that it's gotten to that point.

How could it be otherwise? Using a geographic metaphor, one can only stand in one spot at one time; it would be impossible to see an event from more than that one perspective.

[skin color] photographers

"I have a dream that my four photographer children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the content of their character or their photos, but by their skin color." - Martin Luther King

Powerful words!
Never change fstoppers

How well do you think Martin Luther King's words would have been received, coming from a white man? That's not to say white people have nothing to say about these issues but, both white and black, along with the entire spectrum of races, have something to say and each voice offers a unique perspective; but those *specific* words could not have come from a white man. I don't know of anyone who's advocating for forced, or exclusionary, reportage but, rather, opining that multiple perspectives would be to the good of those affected today and a holistic, more objective, view as history.

Don't talk to me, racist.

As you wish.

Something I found I think should be noted, not about this article, but what some photographers may face in Seattle. I screen captured this, so I not able to verify if real. If true its an racist view.

This is an act of racism as well, if its true and its enforced.

I also found this piece of news: "Weekend of peaceful protests ends in vandalism of MLK monument".

If only one race remains in a country, then they start dividing themselves again (for example, Catholics vs. Protestants or Buddhists vs. Muslims). Then one religion only prevails and they start fighting about something else (the coastal people vs. the continentals). Then they all pack on the coast, and they find something else to fight about (straight vs. curly hair). Then one man is left, and he starts arguing with the local squirrels, which also fight each other occasionally for the perfect tree, and the tree is fighting against plants fighting its roots and against the weather.
But right now, the issue of police brutality needs to be addressed. It's not directed against blacks only, and if you turn it into a racial issue you'll lose the fight.

Mr. Kasiopis, The issue for me is not to turn anything into anything. Reporting what I saw. There is no fight to lose or win. Your advice "turn" warning is unfounded. Your mind-reading skills are woefully lacking about what a loss is. Please keep your judgements to your own self

I wasn't talking to you though. Did I press the wrong button in a thread or something? I was talking in general, not replying to you.

I suggest being more lucid next time. No buttons here. Instead of a reply to me, post your own thoughts independent of me.

It is two separate issues, one of Police brutality overall, but then on top of that, the racism which exists within the force which makes black people more likely to be on the receiving end of that brutality.

What makes the author so sure that a black photographer would even actually be 'part of the conversation'? Not all apparent members of groups speak with anything even approaching the same voice (a huge intersectional flaw). A black photographer might actually live in the area of the riots and be appalled by the looting, something that has been widely reported. The images might well be very heavily skewed against the BLM's chosen narrative. It's this flaw in the 'reasoning' that make the whole argument spurious IMO.

Having said that there is no doubt that a POC (can I say Photographer-Of-Colour?) would be seen in a different light by the protesters and would certainly get a different level of access to the goings-on.

@paolo.fortades on Instagram has a lot of great content from these recent events. Worth to follow!