Photography has long been used strategically as a tool and method of capturing and sharing slices of truth, small morsels of reality, inherently containing the bias of the photographer. By making decisions about what to shoot, how to shoot, what to edit, how to edit, and what to share with the viewer, photographers have historically held a unique position of being able to weaponize the art of photography by crafting and even manipulating truths. In the United States of America specifically, photography played a major role in shaping cultural and political views for and against slavery and the abolitionist movement to fight injustice. Photographs can be truthful documentations just as much as they can be artistic fiction, and this dichotomy is part of the magic of the medium.
While photographing the New York City protests of police brutality and anti-Black violence across the United States, there is one thing I have learned to be true and that is being personally closer to the story affects the gaze in a way that produces and captures raw emotion unlike anything I have ever seen.Being a Black man in America holding a camera, with the genuine concern that my tool of choice may very well be mistaken for a gun, or the fact that my skin color is profiled as criminal by default is such a unique condition that I have yet to fully process.
What I see and experience while protesting is not just the observations of someone from the outside looking in, but they are unquestionably the same emotions that I carry on a daily basis informed by my lived experience. The tears in the eyes of the crowd. People walking with their children, hoping to create a better future for them to grow in, hoping that the same violence does not occur to them. Reading the signs people created. Listening to and getting lost in the chants of names, lists too long, and lives too short. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Oluwatoyin Salau, and all of the ones before, and every one after.
The images I see with my eyes are intensely emotional, given my connection and proximity to the subject matter. Capturing Black joy, beauty, pain, exhaustion, hope, happiness, sadness, and the full range of emotions in the crowd, from the police to the allies.
The portraits of this moment will be timeless historical moments, and it is my responsibility to capture as much as I can to ensure history gets the full picture. People need to see these stories told by Black photographers, who are out here working during a pandemic that is disproportionately killing Black people.
This is an opportunity to stop adding to the erasure and exploitation of Black life by the white gaze that has historically been used in photography. Everyone in the photography community has a responsibility to not repeat the same mistakes that have historically been used to silence Black voices in the framing of Black stories. I am fully aware that the violence we are protesting against is a long battle, and my weapon is an essential tool in dismantling systems of oppression and inequality through vivid and accurate storytelling. My artistry is part of my activism.
While shooting and protesting every day, I am fighting for human and civil rights, while creating images as evidence of history, trying my best not to add to the historical erasure experienced by so many Black communities, Black women, Black trans people, and those who experience vicarious trauma but whose stories get overlooked.
Being aware of history has empowered me to be a more thoughtful photographer. My camera is both my weapon and my armor. I can only show what I see, and what I see is the opportunity for history to move in a positive direction. What I see are people putting their lives on the line for what they believe is right. Proud people exercising their rights so that everyone can be free from living in fear. I do this because I have to. If telling these stories can have even the smallest effect on making the world a better place, then that is what I will continue to do.
All Images shot on ILFORD Delta 100 with Mamiya RB67 in Manhattan, NYC ©Kevin Claiborne
Kevin Claiborne (he/him, b. 1989, Washington, D.C.) is a multidisciplinary conceptual artist currently living and working in New York whose work examines and questions intersections of identity, environment, & mental health within the Black American experience. Using photography as a foundation, his work weaves poetry and video together, often using language as material. Kevin views his art as tools, primarily functioning as both weapon and armor. He is a graduate of the historically Black college North Carolina Central University (2012), Syracuse University (2016), and currently an MFA Visual Arts Candidate at Columbia University (2021).
@kevinclaiborne on IG.
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