As we continue our effort to amplify black voices in the photography industry, I sought to put together a list of quotes from Black photographers.
Point of fact, when you search for ‘quotes by Black photographers’ in Google, I think you get one list back (until this one starts to show up). You will, however, get dozens of lists of quotes about black & white photography.
By comparison, if you simply search for quotes by photographers, you will find hundreds of lists of quotes, and, if you’re lucky, maybe one of the quotes below will show up on those lists.
To put together the list in this post, I had to sift through articles, interviews, and book excerpts.
The quote featured below from Monetta Sleet Jr. sums up what I have tried many times to explain to other photographers about photojournalism and ‘candid’ photography. It’s brilliant! Why isn’t it featured more prominently in collections regarding photography?
For that matter, I read quotes featured in this list that are quite simply beautiful sayings about this profession/art form I love so dearly. Why have I never heard them before?
Black photographers are tragically underrepresented when we discuss the history of photography. The photographers quoted below helped shape their industry. Their names should be widely known among photographers of all backgrounds.
Before we get into the list, I would ask that you consider donating to the Gordon Parks Arts & Social Justice Fund.
“The Gordon Parks Arts & Social Justice Fund is dedicated to providing…vital support, and to championing current and future generations of artists and humanitarians whose work carries on the legacy of Gordon Parks. Through annual scholarships, prizes and fellowships, students and artists across the country receive critical financial support for work that advances social justice.”
I also recommend you check out the Center for Photographers of Color (CPOC) and their podcast. I hope you find this list of quotes by Black photographers informative not only in regards to photography, but the experience of Black photographers.
“Gordon Parks, one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century, was a humanitarian with a deep commitment to social justice. He left behind an exceptional body of work that documents American life and culture from the early 1940s into the 2000s, with a focus on race relations, poverty, civil rights, and urban life. Parks was also a distinguished composer, author, and filmmaker who interacted with many of the leading people of his era—from politicians and artists to athletes and other celebrities.“
“I suffered first as a child from discrimination, poverty … So I think it was a natural follow from that that I should use my camera to speak for people who are unable to speak for themselves.”
“I’ve known both misery and happiness, lived in so many different skins it is impossible for one skin to claim me. And I have felt like a wayfarer on an alien planet at times – walking, running, wondering about what brought me to this particular place, and why. But once I was here the dreams started moving in, and I went about devouring them as they devoured me.”
“At first I wasn’t sure that I had the talent, but I did know I had a fear of failure, and that fear compelled me to fight off anything that might abet it.”
“Enthusiasm is the electricity of life. How do you get it? You act enthusiastic until you make it a habit. Enthusiasm is natural; it is being alive, taking the initiative, seeing the importance of what you do, giving it dignity and making what you do important to yourself and to others.”
“I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, poverty. I could have just as easily picked up a knife or a gun, like many of my childhood friends did… most of whom were murdered or put in prison… but I chose not to go that way. I felt that I could somehow subdue these evils by doing something beautiful that people recognize me by, and thus make a whole different life for myself, which has proved to be so.”
“I have never known anyone important enough to consume me in anger beyond a few hours. Better to depart their existence before they poison your own.”
Carrie Mae Weems
“Carrie Mae Weems is an eclectic artist dedicated to exploring the themes of family, gender, racism, and class in America. Although she is well known in the creative community for her revolutionary photography series, she is also an award-winning artist who has worked with textiles, video, and more.”
“Despite the variety of my explorations, throughout it all it has been my contention that my responsibility as an artist is to work, to sing for my supper, to make art, beautiful and powerful, that adds and reveals; to beautify the mess of a messy world, to heal the sick and feed the helpless; to shout bravely from the roof-tops and storm barricaded doors and voice the specifics of our historic moment.”
“Photography can still be used to champion activism and change. I believe this, even while standing in the cool winds of postmodernism… Postmodernism looked radical, but it wasn’t. As a movement it was profoundly liberal and became a victim of itself. Precisely at this historical moment, when multicultural democracy is the order of the day, photography can be used as a powerful weapon toward instituting political and cultural change. I for one will continue to work toward this end.”
“It’s fair to say that black folks operate under a cloud of invisibility – this too is part of the work, is indeed central to [my photographs]… This invisibility – this erasure out of the complex history of our life and time – is the greatest source of my longing.”
“Eli Reed is a Harvard-educated photojournalist, professor, and author, and is best known for being the first black photographer to be employed by the famed Magnum Agency. He has captured everything from the everyday life of African Americans in America to major historical events worldwide.”
“One thing you have to do is not get distracted by the bullshit, by the racism or ageism or any of that crap. If you get deterred from the direction in which you’re going, the other side has already managed to throw you off stride. Over and over again, the best thing is to do the god-damn work.”
“There is always a way to cover what you want to cover, but you need to do the research and understand, as well as you can, what the situation will be when you get there. Try not to judge; try to understand the people in the country you are covering.”
“Photography allowed me to try to find out the why of things. [As an artist], I don’t just accept things, I never say: It’s good enough. I celebrate them. Art raises up everything, it raises the human condition. Everyone is elevated, everyone wants to rise to the next level of understanding.”
“I was always observing. There were moments of incredible horror, or incredible beauty, and they stick with you. I had a lust to see and understand the world, how people endure what they have to endure. I wanted to see beyond the obvious.”
“Lorna Simpson is an innovative, multimedia artist who revolutionized the art world with her introduction of photography installations featuring text. Her work continues to be exhibited worldwide.”
“Real is a contentious word. What can be considered real and or verified does not necessarily mean that it is recognized or acknowledged on a micro or macro level. There are many different ways to interrogate or locate a subject. One should take into account the lens by which we think of the idea of a subject.”
Moneta Sleet Jr.
“Moneta Sleet Jr. was the Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, best remembered for his photograph of Coretta Scott King and her daughter at the funeral of the Martin Luther King Jr. Sleet is the first African-American man to win the Pulitzer for journalism.”
“Coreen Simpson is an African-American photographer and jewelry designer focused on African-American themes. She was formerly the editor of Unique New York magazine in the 1980s and her work has been collected by the Museum of Modern Art, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.”
“Sometimes I wish that I’d not been made aware of photo history. This is a double-edged sword. It’s good to know history, but then history can suffocate you. A true artist should probably know history but then be able to transcend it or add to it. It’s probably valid for an artist to work in the mode of someone who is a great master. I think that if you want to make a statement, then you must somehow transcend. Every artist wants to go a little farther down the road.”
“I think the rhythms of recognizing an image, that’s what the masters, the older masters knew. If you study the books, look at the books, then you will see what inspired them, and it might help you in building up your own style.”
“Roy DeCarava was a New York City-based fine art photographer who mastered the documentary style of photography in the 20th century and beyond. He was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 2006.”
“But if it’s true it’s beautiful. Truth is beautiful. And so my whole work is about what amounts to a reverence for life itself.”
“A photograph is a photograph, a picture, an image, an illusion complete within itself, depending neither on words, reproductive processes or anything else for its life, its reason for being.”
“For me, photography must be visual, rather than intellectual and ideological.”
“Seeing your work on the wall is like the ultimate thing that can happen.”
What do you think of this list of quotes from black photographers?
And be sure to share this list so that these amazing quotes can become more widely known in the photography community.