America Needs More Portraits of Black Men

Why does America need more portraits of black men?

Last week Jeronimo Yanez joined the ranks of so many police officers who have killed black men, women, and children with system-wide impunity. His acquittal is another acquittal of our racism, of our system, of our conscience, and it bolted me with rage the night I heard. I realized America needs more portraits of black men. Of black women. Of black children. America needs new stories that challenge our current stories of blackness. America needs more portraits of black men which burrow into our hearts, make us non-black people reconsider our deepest assumptions when we encounter black people.

Because we are all responsible for the stories of blackness that are moving the hands of exonerated police and vigilantes. Just as we erase men from domestic violence by calling it a “women’s issue,” we focus all our attention on the murdered. How many of us know the name of Eric Garner’s killer? Daniel Pantaleo. Michael Brown’s killer? Darren Wilson. Tamir Rice’s killer? Timothy Loehmann. Philando Castille’s killer, the one who prompted this in me? Do you remember? Don’t look up.

We must all be the keepers of all their names. The dead and the un-indicted. The martyrs and their murderers.

Showing and telling

Here’s the things. I’m one of the last people to tell those stories. I’m young, white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, tall, and so on, so how can I tell a story of blackness?

I can’t. I can’t tell a story of blackness, because it’s not my story.

But I can listen. You can tell me your story, which I can show. I can use my privilege to make your story into an image, and I can bring your story to other people of privilege, while you bring it back to your community.

Beyond respectability politics

The images below, which I made with my friend Hakim Bellamy, show a certain kind of story: a well-dressed black man. That story is interesting. Maybe it’s about a man breaking stereotypes of what a black man is allowed to wear. Maybe it’s about a black man reaching for a white man’s sense of style. Maybe it’s about a black man radically appropriating that white man’s style. One image provokes many stories.

But that’s just one (handsome, cisgendered) man, and while these images are important, they can’t explode the story of blackness. Just as important are stories of black people who don’t have the access to the elements of those stories, or who don’t want to participate in them. Stories of black people in the clothes which are their daily uniform—whether that’s low jeans and Jordans, a low-cut pink top and afro-puffs, Sunday best, a power suit, or anything on the spectrum. I want to make images of people in the clothes which make them feel themselves.

Let’s have a conversation with the camera between us. Let’s talk about you life, your loves and disappointments and triumphs and the dirty jokes your uncle told when you were five. I’ll press the shutter. We’ll look at the images together. We’ll make more. We’ll review those. You help me help you show your story.

Then we let them on the world

The fact is, any story can be stolen and remade.

The fact that even the images of Hakim, below, can be read so many ways means even our well-intentioned stories can’t be safe. But I think that’s a feature, not a bug. An image that tells many stories is safer than an image which seems to tell one, because any attempt to reframe one story will have to reframe all stories. And once that explosive, questioning, dangerous image of a full, black, human being enters the mind of a viewer, it will sit there. It will gnaw on their vision of blackness. If it makes them sympathetic, if it makes them angry, if it makes them see beauty, it may make them see another black person differently.

But stopping there misses the point. We’re finally entering an age of more POC representing themselves, in their own stories. (MoonlightLuke CageSugar Hill, Master of None, and Black-ish all come to mind.) I want to help young black people make their own media. Certainly not all black people will want to take up a camera, and I’m happy to work with those people as photographer. But for those who do, and haven’t had the opportunities I have, to learn and to practice, I want to empower them. May this project return not only new stories, but new storytellers. New storyshowers.

It reminds me of something I read in Mychal Denzel Smith’s jaw-dropping new(ish) book, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching:

“Invisible to whom?”

Toni Morrison found a question in the first pages of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man I sure never considered. If somehow you’ve never read it, the novel is about the speaker’s blackness, which renders him invisible. Politically, culturally, even socially. She says simply, “Invisible to whom?” To white people, even to other black men. Not to black women. And, I imagine, not to gay black men. (Really-really, read Smith’s book.)

The diversity of black cultures and communities is really visible in gender and queerness. To say I want to focus anywhere right now might also be missing the point. I want the stories of my sitters to tell me where the project should go. After 12 years making art this way, I’m really good at it. I know how to jump in, feel my way through seemingly disconnected ideas, and ask for help.

That said, I’m really interested in queerness, and queer self-expression, in communities of color. There are so many layers here, of resilience within resilience. I’d love to help those particular people add some extra light on their stories, if they want it.

So, let’s make new portraits of black men.

Let’s make bold, strange, authentic portraits of black men. Let’s show new stories of you.

This session grew out of my City of Roses project, and in many ways, it lead me right here.

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