With the face of social justice and the political landscape changing, we’ll explore the historical importance of documenting Black leaders in photos.
On August 11, 2020, California senator Kamala Harris made history when she was announced as the running mate of former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Harris became the first Black woman to get her name on a major party ticket that day, instantly cementing herself in Black, Asian, and women’s history. As a result, photographers attending rallies and debates now had a responsibility on their hands — to accurately document the historical moment playing out in front of them.
Photographers document the visual moments that people — today and tomorrow — share and identify with in both current news and historical remembrance. When a Black person, especially one in a leadership position, becomes the subject of a noteworthy event, that responsibility arguably grows twofold. Given the brushed-over, and often erased, approach taken to Black history over the centuries, capturing historic moments like Harris’ time on the campaign trail is a responsibility that can’t be taken lightly.
Capturing Black leaders as they participate in and make history is important — from activist Rosa Parks sitting at the front of a bus when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against segregated buses in 1956, to politician Shirley Chisholm paving the way for future Black female politicians during her own 1972 presidential campaign trail. With the face of social justice and politics changing, this article we will explore how photographers today can document historical moments of Black leaders in images.
Black Leadership in Photos: How Subjects Changed from 1839 to Present Day
How Black people were depicted in photos from 1839, when photography was first introduced in the United States as daguerreotypes, to the present day varies exponentially. In the 1800s, slavery was still legal and an accepted practice in the United States. So, visuals of Black people, including slavery listings at auctions, commonly featured enslaved individuals. Also common at that time? Photos of Black families and abolitionists, like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, living freely in the North, or wherever they settled away from slavery.
Photographers captured these different realities in images. The famed 1863 photo “Whipped Peter,” featuring the scarred back of a whipped slave, rang just as true to Black men and women as Sojourner Truth enjoying her life in Michigan, or everyday Black home and business owners.
While Black men and women could often be found in front of the camera, they could also be found behind it. As the decades passed, Black photographers emerged and found their passion for capturing history and everyday life. Augustus Washington, a daguerreotypist, left the U.S. in 1852 to document African presidents and merchants. Florestine Perrault Collins prided herself on depicting Black men, women, and families as joyful and sophisticated, from the 1920s on. Gordon Parks captured every walk of life — from teenage gang leaders in Harlem in 1948 to segregation in the South in 1956. Even when the subject matter was heavy, Black photographers captured it all, displaying a whole range of emotion.
The Importance of Documenting Black Leaders and Trailblazers
Just as the everyday lives of Black men, women, and families depicted history, so did the everyday lives of Black leaders and trailblazers. Photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin during the Civil Rights era, Angela Davis speaking from behind bulletproof glass at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Condoleezza Rice becoming the first Black Secretary of State, and Barack Obama placing his hand on the Bible while accepting the title of President of the United States in 2009 — all carried out decades apart — are in history books and will be for years to come. Pioneering Black leaders have their lives documented visually because they are Black history, something the Black community can experience together after centuries of collective ancestry was lost due to slavery.
Visuals of Black leaders not only told (and tell) their stories, including how they stepped into the roles we know them for — for those who have died — it carries on their legacies for years after. Pictures of singer Mahalia Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr. were staples on Black church fans. Barack Obama on the campaign trail under his “Yes we can” slogan can still appears in barber shops with largely Black clientele. These images live on in the Black community and become familiar sights for the next generation, who grow up around these storied faces and sit through the tales of their lives when they ask, “Who is that?”
Documenting People in Political Power
To successfully document a Black person in power means capturing all of their moments, those one might not think are noteworthy and those that will clearly resonate with whoever sees them. Because Black people have historically been the “other,” to see a Black vanguard making waves and adding to history means capturing their every move.
Pete Souza, who was the Chief Official White House Photographer during Barack Obama’s two terms as president, regularly shares photos from his time with Obama on social media and in his books. All depict the former president as both a charismatic, easy-going man — from interacting with kids who visited the White House to playing basketball — and a leader who spent late nights in the Oval Office and visiting deployed soldiers. Souza didn’t miss a moment, and as a result we get a better sense of who Obama was as president.
Knowing how to properly photograph Black skin, for starters, ranks high in what makes a photo with a Black subject memorable. Black people have skin that range from dark to light, but it’s the darker skin tones photographers need to learn how to properly capture. Here are a few considerations to take note of when capturing images of dark skin tones.
Four Technical Tips on Capturing Images of Dark Skin Tones
Tip #1: Be Mindful of the Background
A person with darker skin risks not appearing properly, or lacking details — like clothing or facial expressions — if the photographer takes the image with a deep or dark background.
Tip #2: Work with a Subject’s Undertones
Fair-skinned and dark-skinned Black people are going to have different undertones, which fall into the cool, warm, and neutral categories. Playing with light to determine which colors are complimentary will produce a better photo.
Tip #3: Utilize Reflective Light
To really see facial expressions, opt for utilizing reflective light. You can achieve this using both bouncing light and diffusers.
Tip #4: Underuse the Lighten Feature
You risk darker skin looking blown out or too ashy. Dark skin has also historically been seen as “less than” and comes with centuries of emotional baggage courtesy of a judgmental society. Lightening it won’t come without criticism.
The future has yet to introduce us to the Black leaders of tomorrow. When their time comes to grace a stage, address the people, give a speech, and march comes, photographers, remembering the Black leaders over the course of their lifetime, will be ready to capture their every move in just the right light.
Cover image by Kim Wilson.
Looking for more inspiration? Check out these articles:
- The Shirley Card and Racial Photographic Bias Through Skin Tone
- Documenting a Civil Rights Movement Through Photography
- Iain Campbell’s Inspiring and Inclusive Video Portraits
- Creating Diverse Summer Stock Photos with Photographer Carlos David
- Why We Need to Talk About Black Representation in Photography