When protests erupted around the world after the death of George Floyd, who died in the custody of Minneapolis police, the threat of a global pandemic calmly took a backseat as a rush of justifiable rage against ongoing racial injustice flowed through all 50 American states and several countries around the world. As protesters took to the streets, it became imperative that black photographers, specifically, capture this moment. Lynsey Weatherspoon, Alexis Hunley, and Darrel Hunter participated in protests in their hometowns of Atlanta, Los Angeles, and London, respectively. Though their images have different backdrops, the trio’s personal experiences connect them and their photographs. Their work not only documents the reality of this historic moment but also demonstrates what they see as their shared responsibility to protect the narratives and moral identities of black protesters in an era of misinformation and sophisticated surveillance. WIRED spoke to them about their experiences photographing protests over the past two weeks.
Lynsey Weatherspoon is an Atlanta- and Birmingham, Alabama-based documentary and portraiture photographer. In her first attempt photographing a protest, Weatherspoon captures the resilient legacy of a Southern city.
Lauryn Hill: When you first heard about the death of George Floyd, can you describe where you were and what you were doing at that time?
Lynsey Weatherspoon: Well, I was at home because it was a holiday and, just like everybody else, we were all at home. I started seeing the video and photos of it being shared everywhere after it happened. I couldn’t pull myself to watch it because there have been too many instances of watching black bodies die right in front of you. For some reason, this one was the one that really punched me in the gut, and I knew we just couldn’t stand by and watch this idly.
Can you describe a little bit more your reaction to his death?
Though we are not surprised by any of it, there was still shock to see and know that George Floyd died in front of a crowd of people at the hands of the police. So, definitely, there was a bit of fear, a bit of rage. Just so much uneasiness that came with seeing what happened.
What was the first protest that you can remember in Atlanta?
It was the first day, which was Friday, May 29, and we started from Centennial Park and walked to the Georgia State Capitol. People were chanting, of course, holding signs, and there was solidarity amongst the crowd. I decided to stay back at the capitol for a little while because I just needed to catch my breath from walking with everybody, and just seeing and feeling what everybody else was feeling as we were marching. But as soon as I walked back, there was a small group that gathered right in front of one of the statues and started spray painting and giving speeches until the police ran them off. Then we all went back to Centennial Park, and there was another group that was in front of the CNN center. That’s when you started seeing the range of emotions that people had around what happened.
Speaking of that first night, because I remember seeing it on CNN, how were you feeling when you were seeing that happen in Atlanta?
I ‘m gonna keep it real with you. I didn’t even know it was happening until my grandma called me. She called me to see if I was out there. And I had to zone out from everything, because I was so tired and I was like, I just want to go home, take a shower, and eat dinner. So my grandma called me, and she said, “I was just trying to see if you were out there taking pictures.” I said I was. But now I’m home and she was shocked that I was out there, and I’m like, “What happened?” So that led me to go online to CNN and that’s when I saw the police car on fire. I was like, oh my God, I was actually in that vicinity before I left. I was smart enough to leave because you can feel when people are getting riled up and something could happen. Not saying it was going to, but I just felt like it was. I didn’t want to see it nor be in the midst of it. You know, you have to think about it; I had equipment, and I’m a woman. So those things are always going to be at the forefront of my mind. My safety is always going to be a priority. Now, you know, I’ll let the brave souls who want to be in situations like that do it. But I’m not afraid to say that I went home because I wanted to be safe.
In the midst of Covid-19 and being surrounded by so many people, did you have any reservations initially about protesting? And if not, why?
I didn’t have any reservation, because we all needed to be there. I do understand that we all should have still been at home, because we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic. Yet this instance felt extremely different. You had George Floyd. You had Ahmaud Arbery, you had Tony McDade, you had Breonna Taylor. All of those folks within the range of time that we’ve been at home, and to be out there protesting, you know, in such anger and such fervor, it meant more than staying at home from a disease. I know that sounds odd, but I feel like most people felt the same way, like there was no need to stay at home and sit down, when we saw what happened. So, I didn’t have any apprehension. You know, I tried to protect myself as much as I could. There’s only so much we can do at this point, but it was definitely much more important to stand up than to stay home.
Did you get any pushback from friends or roommates or relatives?
I didn’t tell anybody I was going. Well, I only told one person and that was just to let them know I’m going to be as safe as possible and I want to make sure I call you when I’m going home. So, I didn’t stay long enough once I saw the police cars on fire and once people started throwing rocks and other objects into windows and at people. As I said, this is my first time photographing a protest, so I went in very green, yet I understand that my safety is important. So I left when I felt uncomfortable.
This was your first protest?
My very first time photographing a protest.
Wow, I thought you did this on a regular basis.
Oh, no. I’ve never done this. Not only have I never done this, I did not expect this response. It’s been very overwhelming, because now so many people are following me, especially on Instagram. I went up from 3,700 or 3,800 followers to 14.4 thousand followers. All of this happened in the span of this week. So I’m overwhelmed. I’m thankful that the world is seeing what we’ve already seen and known. The world is definitely watching. I’ve received messages from Germany, Tokyo, parts of Mexico. I want to say Scotland, Barcelona. Everywhere. Everywhere.
Can you describe the atmosphere of the protests in Atlanta?
It’s changed a bit from Friday until the last time I went, which was [last] Monday. I think Friday was much more like it was the beginning of the Atlanta protest, and we’re also trying to get a feel for what we can do in the midst of this. On Sunday, it was similar to that of Friday, May 29, but it was a bit subdued. Monday, I feel like since most people were probably at work, and couldn’t make it, there was a smaller crowd but it was still effective. Still, they marched from Centennial up to the capitol. That was the first time I saw the capitol as armed as it was. So that’s when I started feeling a bit nerved by it, just seeing police, seeing sheriffs, seeing people in riot gear, you got a crowd who’s definitely emotional and vocal about how they feel. Being mindful that they could throw teargas or pepper spray at any time, I’m usually in the back just so I won’t experience it. I did experience some teargas on Sunday, and it’s not fun. So I just try to be as safe as possible. But the environment—people are still vocal. People are still going out there. I’m sure they went out yesterday in the rain. People are just tired, and people are upset.
Can you describe your experience being teargassed?
So, on Sunday, when the protesters started taking items out of a construction site to build a wall to keep the police from them, it was around curfew, and the police threw teargas at us, and when you start seeing people run you automatically do the same thing, so while I’m running, you have to stop running because it’s so much stress on your eyes. It hits you like nothing I’ve ever felt before in my life, and you just have to stand there and take it. They had people out there, some of whom were protesters, who were carrying bottles of water to help you flush your eyes out, but it takes so long for it and it just stings; it stings your eyes, it stings your skin. Thankfully, I know enough people who are helpful in how to clean your skin up after those things, but if you didn’t know, you’re going to hurt yourself. For one, you shouldn’t wear contacts to a protest because of the teargas or pepper spray, you can burn your eyes. But, knowing that I needed some fresh water to pour on my eyes and to not wipe my skin to alleviate the burn, that was helpful. For anybody else who was green out there, it was probably worse for them. Definitely not fun, but that’s why I tell people, look, you don’t have to go to a protest if you don’t want to, especially not knowing what could happen. I don’t want anybody to experience pain like that.
As a black photographer, can you talk more about the importance of being able to be in the position to cover a protest that deals with injustices against black people?
If we aren’t covering our own folks, we could possibly get a skewed vision from the predominantly white photographers we already see. Also, knowing that the power of the photograph and the power of being on the ground is just as important, because I’m pretty sure those who are photographing, those white, male photographers who are photographing, they’re just probably getting their shot and they’re gone. Where the rest of us will probably stay there all night just so we can get the full story. So that is, it is important to not only be a photojournalist, but, you know, equal and equitable in what you actually photograph, you know, give the facts because we see several sides of the story. I think with that, having social media is powerful because so many things happen in real time. If we didn’t have that we would still have that skewed view of black people.
Something WIRED has been reporting on is surveillance and security around these protests. What, if any, steps have you taken to address these problems of surveillance on protesters?
That is a really good question and one that has been going around in the photojournalism community as well. Being in the editorial space, it’s pretty much an open call to be able to photograph people on the ground. I don’t agree with facial recognition, and I feel like it’s mostly used when you have instances of people who are throwing objects at people or buildings. So that’s why I have a problem when that occurs, because why just use it on people who are in the midst of the protest rather than using facial recognition on police as well? It can be one-sided. I usually try to get the side or the back of people and if someone asks me to take their photo, I will. Also, if someone was to come up to me and say, “Hey, don’t take my photo,” I most certainly would not do it because I respect that person’s decision not to be in a photo.
Were there any instances in your life that were triggered by the recent brutal killings of black people. Are you comfortable telling me any of these instances?
Yeah, I have one instance that always sticks in my mind. I want to say this happened around maybe 2014, 2015. I went to volunteer at a Christmas event to photograph families, and there were two white, male photographers there. So I introduced myself. They asked me what I did, and I said that my goal was to be a prominent photographer. Basically, the microaggressions were worse than anything else, because [one of them] assumed that I was not capable of doing any of it. So not only just racism, but the microaggression against being a woman. So we can’t ever forget that, and being a black woman, that part right there is already, you know, a hill to the climb daily. So when that happened, you know, that only made me want to do it more. Though I’ve never, you know, I’ve never been called out my name by a white person. Maybe they have and I just didn’t hear it. But that particular situation right there always sticks out to me, because not only women but black women are pretty much told we can’t do anything. And it’s sad that we have to prove folks wrong time and time again.
Where are you finding the energy to continue to put yourself out there to shoot?
I’m finding it through rest. I don’t go out there on consecutive days on purpose because I am physically, mentally drained after each one. I don’t think it’s healthy for anybody to keep returning to that trauma daily. You know, weekly is already pushing it, but daily I, I mentally can’t take it. So I’ve made a decision that if I’m not hired to cover it, then I pick and choose when and which ones I actually want to go to.
Alexis Hunley is a self-taught portrait photographer based in Los Angeles. When she was 1 year old, the city saw an uprising fueled by anger from the police beating of Rodney King, a moment her neighborhood still remembers well. Hunley’s thoughtful approach to protest photography exemplifies an answer to a question raised in the photo community: “How do we cover protests?”
Lauryn Hill: When you first heard about the death of George Floyd, can you describe where you were and what you were doing at that moment, if you can recall?
Alexis Hunley: I honestly have no idea. I barely remember what I did two days ago. But, I do know that within that day, I definitely heard about it through Twitter. I know the overwhelming feeling for the day was just exhaustion at a physical and spiritual and emotional level.
When the protests against police brutality started in LA, can you walk me through your approach for photographing it? What were your intentions when you were headed out to these protests to shoot?
When I went to the first one downtown on the 27th of May, I wasn’t 100 percent sure what to expect. There was a Black Lives Matter-slash-Build Power protest, and it was important to me to be there because I felt like I needed to do something. I needed to show my support. I needed to be a part of documenting something that is happening to black people, specifically as a black person, because too many times we are being documented by lawyers. It felt like going to photograph was my contribution and my way of supporting, and that was kind of the mindset that I went into it with: of being honest and being respectful and creating images that aren’t that sort of gross, voyeuristic, just focused solely on things like our pain and our trauma.
So in your last statement, just so I can clarify, you were trying to make sure you weren’t taking voyeuristic images that were just showing black people’s pain and trauma? You were trying to get a more fuller picture, is that what you were saying?
Let me rephrase. I am trying to say this as delicately as possible. I get frustrated seeing images only created by non-black people that concern black stories, particularly around black suffering. I think too often they can be callous, and they can be too centered on our pain and our trauma. Like, showing the whole story is important, but there is more to us than just us being killed and harassed and beaten and murdered, and I’m tired of only seeing images like that. I bring my own understanding and sensitivity as a black woman with me when I’m shooting in a way that a non-black person can’t.
So in the midst of Covid-19, did anyone push back on you going?
Yeah and it wasn’t even about me. It was my mom being a mom. She was upset, and I was getting ready to head out. She was like, “You get on me and your dad every day about going to the store, leaving the house because of this pandemic, but you’re gonna go to a protest?” We had some words back and forth. I was like, “You going to the store to get fresh fruit every other day is not the same as me going to protest and/or take photos. These are historical moments. I understand it’s risky, but I’m still going to go do it.” They’ve come to terms with it. My father will drive me and drop me off and be ready to pick me up at any point. They still support me, even though it worries them a lot. My mom is the most concerned about me being detained or injured or killed. Which makes sense. My cousin was detained. It’s all of these simple fears, but I still feel like it’s something that I need to do. So, I’m here and I’m doing it.
What was the demographic of the photographers? Were most of them black? Were they mostly non-black photographers?
It is overwhelmingly non-black photographers, and it’s a little difficult to tell sometimes, because so many people have DSLR cameras or little mirrorless cameras, and I’m not 100 percent sure if they’re photojournalists. But the protests in general, it’s been overwhelmingly non-black photographers shooting. I noticed, even when I went yesterday, the crowd was overwhelmingly not black, which I thought was very, very interesting. I am always very good at picking out brown faces, black faces in any crowd. But, I had to search a little bit, which I thought was strange, but also encouraging. It still made me uneasy. It was a weird experience, but I noticed that on Fairfax and Third, specifically, there were a lot of white, male photographers who were not wearing masks, smoking cigarettes. I have a photo of some guy smoking a cigarette without a mask on, and it infuriated me because I know that you’re not there to support and protest for black lives. You’re there for your own voyeuristic needs and wants and desires. You’re going to throw this up on your Instagram or your YouTube channel or whatever you’re going to do. It enraged me that, like, you’re willing to put more people’s lives at risk by not—you can’t even wear a mask? You are most likely creating images that are exploitative in some fashion and then you also won’t wear a mask. It’s just a double slap in the face.
Were there any more physical obstacles that you ran into while you were out there during the protest?
One thing I noticed was that there were far too many people bringing dogs, and not even big dogs, little dogs. I watched a French bulldog almost get trampled because the cops … a white man threw a bottle of Ciroc into the air at the police from behind. So in front of the line it was mostly black people, and he was back in the middle somewhere and he tossed it at the police. So, you know, instantly everybody’s ready. They’re ready to just start beating people, and so I don’t remember 100 percent if they started spraying pepper spray, but everybody started running and I almost ran over somebody’s dog and then witnessed another dog almost get trampled, which was a very unexpected physical obstacle. I must say, I expected police to show up and I expected to be boxed in, but I didn’t expect that to become a thing. I saw people running with kids and like, it was odd.
Yeah, I bet. Especially because I can’t imagine how big it was in LA.
I’ve never seen that, like the energy that was coming out of these hundreds of people walking from the Beverly Center to Fairfax and Third was indescribable. They just kept coming and kept coming at one intersection. There were two protesters who stopped to direct traffic so that the cross street wasn’t impeded. There were a lot of moments where I felt very hopeful, but also very emotional, seeing people handing out water bottles. I saw a woman yesterday giving out squirts of hand sanitizer throughout the crowd. People with extra masks. I saw a wagon filled with bottles of teargas neutralizer and a lot of those folks are not black. A lot of black folks were distributing supplies as well, a lot were just protesting. But it was really, really, I don’t want to say powerful—I’m trying to think of the right word here—encouraging almost, to see so many people stop what they were doing to provide direct aid and support to people who were protesting was really amazing.
What about any mental obstacles?
I know that without the anxiety and the fear that comes around contracting Covid, around being shot at and injured, blinded, killed, being teargassed, I would have some different images. Those factors make it difficult for me to approach certain situations to get shots that I want. They make it difficult for me to stay longer than a certain amount of time. Even outside of the shooting, they make it difficult to come back after and crank photos out and edit and answer emails and even just interact, not normally, but interact outside of everything that’s going on. It’s hard to just have different or normal or non-death-related conversations.
When you were out there, were there any moments that you saw with your eyes but refused to capture them with your camera or you just couldn’t emotionally take? Were there any moments like that?
I can think of one specifically downtown. There were families of victims who’ve been killed by LAPD and other LA law enforcement agencies. And this one woman was speaking, and she was crying, and after the crowd started to move and disperse to a new location, I noticed another woman, I don’t know if they were family or not, walked up and they were hugging and crying in the street together. I think it would have been a powerful image. I can still see it in my head. But it felt more important to let them just have that moment, if that makes sense. It felt wrong to try to take that moment with me. It wasn’t for me.
Why did you ultimately decide to blur or exclude faces? I’m sure there are probably maybe other outlets who wanted to show the faces?
There were, and I had to turn some of them down. It’s not something I’m willing to compromise on. I was explaining to a friend after learning about all of the deaths of different Ferguson activists and protesters that I wasn’t willing to be complicit in the demise of another black person because of a photograph for a couple hundred bucks, for some likes or some follows, for an assignment. It was a nonnegotiable for me, period. Like, I don’t ever want to knowingly have a hand in the death or the murder, the beating, the harassment of other black people. I won’t ever budge on that.
And did you use an app? What did you use to blur the faces?
I used Photoshop, and then within a few days I started learning different techniques, so I just kept adding layers of different ways to obscure. Removed all my metadata. Actually, that was one of the things I needed to do. There’s a new video about how to do it, because I’m not super technical. I taught myself how to shoot and edit and do a lot, and I know that there are gaps in my knowledge, but that’s part of what I’ll be doing today is just going online and looking at other ways to remove metadata and secure the identities of protesters, specifically black protesters, as well as I can. That’s very, very important to me.
Do you think the way you blur out these images and the way you shoot should become a standard as to how photographers start to cover these protests?
I do. We live in a surveillance state, and the government has shown that it will do whatever they deem necessary in any situation. I got really upset when I saw that the DEA had been authorized to do covert surveillance on protesters. It’s completely wrong, and it’s terrifying. I do believe that we should be obscuring the identities of protesters, specifically black protesters, during these protests happening right now. You know, I am not opposed to blurring the identity of protesters at any protest in the future, because our government has shown that they will find you and they will do whatever they deem necessary to quell your protests or your grievances. So it just makes me feel safer.
Known for his fashion work, Darrel Hunter is an international photographer who calls London his home. Hunter’s style of shooting fashion is seen in how he also documents events. Each of his subjects are uniquely composed to help translate the story he is trying to portray.
Lauryn Hill: Do you see any similarities between the way the US is struggling with its criminal justice system and things going on in the UK?
Darrel Hunter: I would say it’s similar. It’s not an issue to the extremity that we’re seeing. It’s not being played out in front of us, but there are still several instances where black boys will be more likely to be stopped and searched. There have been people that have been arrested for no reason. People who have been victims of police brutality, have been killed by police. It’s still something that we have to deal with. We’re not exempt at all. There’s definitely distrust out there in the criminal justice system within the black community. I don’t think we’re exempt. It’s just maybe different measures or different ways that it’s played out and addressed in the US as opposed to the UK.
When the news broke of George Floyd’s death, where were you at that time and what was your reaction to it?
I remember I was at home and I had just come back in, and someone sent me a video, and they prefaced to me,“You don’t want to watch that.” I read and understood what had happened, and, unfortunately, it’s not the first time that I’ve seen or we’ve seen something like that, but I did finally watch the video. It was heartbreaking, like I was, for most of that week afterward, I was completely unproductive. I couldn’t think about anything else. It was emotionally draining, it felt that that had happened to someone close to me. It was seeing someone that looked like me being murdered before my eyes in such a cold and inhumane way, I just, yeah, I was, I wouldn’t say broken, but it really affected me and just brought back memories of other things that I’d seen. Even recently, with like Ahmaud Aubery and Breonna Taylor, like so many other things that had happened. Then, on top of that, the fact that we were all dealing with the pandemic and everything and then to see this in the midst of that happening was just really upsetting.
Can you describe to me the atmosphere that you experienced when you were at the protest in London?
First of all, it was overwhelming. It was very emotional but also very powerful. When you first arrive, you’re not sure what to expect. You don’t know whether it’s going to be, from our side, if it’s going to be met with hostility, or if it’s going to be peaceful. Like what is happening? Being there, seeing people of all races, all ages coming together for a common cause, or people that are agreeing that not just this, but the whole system is broken and they don’t want to be a part of it, hearing people speak and rally together, it just feels, for me, different from other protests that I’ve been to. It was so different. There were so many people. It was powerful, and it was also very emotional. After I finished, I came home, and I needed to take some time just to decompress. Being a part of it and just wanting change or having the whole thing of I’m literally fed up and I’m going to use my voice; I’m going to use anything I can to act in change or to educate people or to push for this rather than just sitting back. It was an air of strength and solidarity throughout the whole protest.
Can you talk about a personal experience you’ve had dealing with racism? If so, how have these recent events triggered that?
There are several. I’d fully be here all day trying to think of all the times. And I’m not saying that I, personally, am the only person that’s been oppressed by my personal experiences with comments that people have made. It’s a lot. Even just recently, I had a nephew who is now 19, and earlier last year he was with his friends, they were just outside of their friend’s house, and a police van came and basically just searched them all and said that they had reports of somebody with a knife fitting his description or one of their friends’ descriptions. Of course there was no such thing. Handcuffed them all. Told them to get on the ground. When they refused, they basically threatened them with batons and basically put them on the ground, and one of the police officers was actually kneeling on my nephew’s neck and he was struggling and saying, “Look, I can’t breathe.” Like, this was uncomfortable. I mean, fortunately, thank God, it didn’t end the same way, but for me it was like how different that story could have been. How many times has this happened? How many times have I been driving and been stopped for no reason? “Oh, someone fits your description” or “Well, we heard about cars like this being stolen.” It’s frustrating, because you know that they’re only doing it because of the color of your skin. You have that anger and you want to react but then you basically don’t want to end up, unfortunately, like George Floyd. But then you have a situation where things turn into death and it makes you think yes, I’m grateful that my situation didn’t turn out that way, but why do we have this where they can just treat you like you don’t matter, like you have no importance, and can just kill you? And you feel so powerless. You think about all of the other instances where people have made even comments which they think are fine about the color of your skin or about your hair. I remember when I was quite young out of school using house phones at one time and I was speaking to this girl. I think we went to school together or something, but it was a friend and she was a white girl, and one day I called her house and her mom answered the phone and asked me if I was a black man. And I’m like, yeah, I’m black. And her response was, well, basically, “We don’t want any blacks in the UK so you should go back where you come from” and then hung up the phone. Just things like that, even as a kid. All of these things start to come back to you when situations like this happen.
When you were out in the protest, you had a camera, so people probably could have easily regarded you as a person of the media—and you’re also black. If there were police officers out there monitoring, did the protests ever get dangerous? And if they did get dangerous, did you find yourself in a dangerous position because of who you were or how you looked?
You know, I mean, there was a police presence out there, but I didn’t feel in any danger at any point. I didn’t see anyone being violent. There were a lot of people out there, and they did cover a large area, but I didn’t see any form of vandalism or abuse or anyone clashing with the police or anything like that. It was basically controlled for the most part.
Were there any moments that you saw before taking the photo that you actually didn’t proceed on taking the photo because it seemed too sensitive or too invasive? Were there any moments like that where you refrained from taking a particular photo?
I think there was probably one moment. I don’t know if the news reached the US, but there was also recently a transport worker. She works for the railways, named Belly Mujinga, and she died after someone who had coronavirus spat on her while she was at work, and then the courts came back and ruled that they weren’t able to charge the person. The person got away, whereas before that, there was somebody who had done a similar act with a police officer and they ended up with 12 months in jail. So, one of her relatives was there, and while the protest was going on a lot of people were also holding signs of her while [the relative] was sitting down, and she was really distraught, crying and looking really broken. I saw other people taking pictures, but I didn’t feel comfortable in that moment, like pressing a camera in her face, so I waited until later, until there was a different time to try and capture a picture of her. But to me, it’s not also about “Hey, I want to get a great photo, this is an opportunity,” it’s also respecting the space that people are in, because different people, you have no idea what they’ve been through.
As a black photographer, can you talk more about the importance of being in the position to cover protests like these that revolve around black people?
I think it’s extremely important. And, I mean, I’m not saying that other photographers can’t cover it, but I feel that as a black photographer, you can then control the narrative and show a different side. Like I said, most of the black photographers that I know who are covering it, even if they weren’t photographers, they would be at the protest, they would be involved. If it’s a subject that is close to their heart. It will give you a different perspective on it. If you’re just there as a job, as an assignment, and you have no connection, you will photograph it in a different way, and you would help to spread a different narrative. So whereas a black photographer may be looking at pictures of solidarity, of people marching or shouting out, holding signs, trying to document moments where the police have been over-forceful, someone else may just be looking at, Oh, hey, look! This person was doing graffiti or they threw something at the police. It creates a completely different narrative. For example, there was a picture that I took, and I know a few other black photographers took, of the man who had a white van which he had spray-painted with Black Lives Matter on it, drove it to the protest, and was standing in the middle and allowing other people to climb up his van. And he was part of the protest, and we took that picture and then someone else took that picture, and the tagline for the article was “Violence and Vandalism at the March” and how protesters vandalized this van. The guy was like, “What are you talking about? That’s not even true. That’s not what happened.” This guy did it to his own van. I do feel like as a black photographer, it’s very important for black photographers to be the ones telling this story and to document this so that they can control the narrative and present a real image of what is happening.
I’m from Birmingham, Alabama, so we often talk about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four girls and how that event has been passed down through generations and it still shudders through our soul. Is there any moment in history like that that you grew up learning and has been triggered because of these events?
I mean, again, there were so many, but even over here, we had when I was younger, there was a young black boy by the name of Stephen Lawrence who was killed by these four or five racist guys. The parents were fighting for years for justice. There were marches, there were campaigns and so many people that tried to fight to this day for justice for Stephen Lawrence. There’s another black boy, Mark Duggan. Basically, he was in a car and the police stopped him and literally just opened fire on him and killed him. Things that you’ve seen with like the civil rights movement during like church bombings, people walking into church and shooting people. All of these instances make you feel that we haven’t gotten anywhere. That we’re now still dealing with this, and not only dealing with it, having to explain to people why it’s an issue and how it affects us. It’s traumatic. Growing up, we’re watching it or it happens in our area, but imagine being one of these people actually videoing it or who were on the street when it happened. That is literally going to cause so much trauma within the community that is not dealt with, and we are kind of just expected to be strong and continue and just go on until something else happens. I feel like, for me, and I’m sure for the majority of black people, all of these things are so traumatic in a way that it touches all of us in some way.
Here in the US, there’s been a big conversation in the photo community about surveillance, and it’s something that WIRED has been reporting on throughout the protests. I don’t know if surveillance is a big issue in London, but does the issue of surveillance affect how you shoot or how you manage your photographs after you shoot them in terms of erasing metadata?
With the majority of my images, especially if somebody is doing something that was deemed illegal or something that was controversial, I wouldn’t capture it. If it was something that I did capture, I would never put that out there. So for me, the majority of the images that I captured, it was people that had face coverings. The people that you can see their face, I would ask for their permission. The whole point of me capturing images is not to put people out there or to get them in trouble. The minute I arrived at the protest, I did put my phone straight on airplane mode. I turned off my Face ID, turned off my location services. I feel that it’s a duty. Because I feel like the protests here have been slightly different. I haven’t had to worry about people being incriminated or people being investigated afterward for being at a protest. But, yes, definitely, I do think it is a duty of all photographers, should they be capturing something in an area where people are, say, jumping a barrier that they shouldn’t or they are breaking down the security camera. If you’re capturing that moment, yes definitely scrub your metadata and take a screenshot of the image after you’ve taken it so that it’s now a fresh image, or make sure their faces are blurred out. It’s not about incriminating anyone just for a sake of a photo.
Throughout all of this, coronavirus is still considered a global pandemic, and I was just wondering, did you have any reservations about catching coronavirus before going out to the protest?
Honestly, I didn’t. I spoke to friends and family. And I said I’m going to the protest. I just let them know, since obviously I may interact with them in the future. I said I’m going to take every precaution. I’m going to wear a mask while I’m out there. I had hand sanitizer with me. The minute I got back home, I took off all of my clothes, showered immediately, put everything in the wash. So my thing was I was going to take precautions. I don’t think I could let that hinder me from going to the protest. Yes, it is serious. Yes, it has affected many people. However, this issue is also very serious, and this predates coronavirus. We could make several excuses, say coronavirus wasn’t around and it was raining. People could say, “I’m not going to protest today because it was raining.” I feel that if they only did it because it was convenient or because it felt safe, there would be no point in doing it. The whole point of a protest is to go against the grain. So, yes, I wasn’t worried. I took all the precautions I could and made up my mind that I was still going to go.
Was there anything that you felt that I should have asked you that I didn’t or anything else you want to say?
The thing that I did like about this was the majority of the people protesting were black. However, people that were there from other nationalities, it was supportive. Sometimes I’ve been to or seen protests where it becomes an issue and it’s been led by someone else. The thing I liked was that it was being led by black people. It’d be black people speaking, and then people from other nationalities were there supporting. So whether they were Asian, whether they were white, whether they were Arab, they were there, and it was more of “we’re here to support you, not try to make this about us … we’re here to support.” That’s how I feel it should be. It’s just like if it’s a cause that’s for women, I can’t be the one leading it. I can support and I can speak out, and I can help in any way I can, but I can’t be the one standing at the forefront telling women what to do or telling people what to do for women.
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