Before the 50 black photographers fanned out across the country last week trying to capture "the heart and soul of African American life" for an ambitious book project, they met at the Corcoran Gallery of Art to nail down the logistics.
It wasn't until a slide show of each artist's previous work, on the morning of June 2, that you could really feel the vibe. Image after powerful image. An audience of nothing but other photographers, buzzing, applauding. All morning long.
"I think we were kind of long-faced and very nervous until these folks got here," said one of the project's organizers, Eric Easter, that afternoon.
But as another organizer, D. Michael Cheers, said after the slide show: "Even if these guys go out and have their bad days, this book is going to be phenomenal."
From Martha's Vineyard to the farmlands of Mississippi, these photographers -- five of them Pulitzer Prize winners -- shot an estimated 5,000 rolls of film last week. What will come of this is a 220-page book, "Songs of My People," to be published by Little, Brown in the fall of 1991, and a traveling exhibit of 150 photographs, beginning in February 1992 at the Corcoran.
"The idea is not to cover up. We're showing everything. But it's being documented through our sensitivities," says Cheers, a veteran photographer for Ebony and Jet magazines until a few months ago. "We just bring to life a different look -- a sensitivity, an awareness, a feel, that others who have tried to document us have not been successful in doing."
"Songs of My People" is the first project of New African Visions, a not-for-profit organization created by Cheers, media consultant Easter and Washington Post photographer Dudley M. Brooks. "In smaller circles, we've always talked about, as a group of black photographers, coming together to do our project," says Cheers. "But for whatever reasons, we've just never been able to pull it off."
A year ago, the three men sketched out the idea for "Songs of My People," and Carol Randolph, lawyer and former local talk show host, shopped it around. New African Visions is currently negotiating with HBO -- which, like Little, Brown, is owned by Time-Warner -- for a possible docudrama based on the book, similar to the film "Common Threads," which used the AIDS quilt as a springboard for dramatic stories.
Underlying the entire project is the philosophy that, in the words of Newsweek's Lester Sloan, "we as black photojournalists have a responsibility that goes beyond just serving the people we work for. Working in the black community, we can't just go in and continue to take without giving something back.
"The image of blacks in the media is often a negative one," he says. "We just can't continue to feed our people this constant diet of negativity. We have to look sometimes beyond the obvious and try to see the good, even when it's surrounded by what is seemingly bad."
An example of this was the experience of freelance photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy Ashe last week in a women's prison in New York.
Ashe wanted to do a photo essay for the project on the nursery program at the Bedford Hills prison, which allows inmates to be with their children. Corrections officials told her that story has been done to death, and they suggested instead the story of Beverly Hodge, a former jazz singer in her seventies, convicted of murdering her husband.
Hodge is the oldest inmate at Bedford Hills, says Ashe, but she's "a real Lena Horne type. She doesn't look a day over 50. Everybody at the prison calls her Mother B or Miss B."
"As I walked the prison grounds with her," says Ashe, "everybody spoke to her. And everybody hugs her. She spends a lot of her day giving out hugs." As part of her prison job, Hodge admits all the new inmates. Just last Friday, says Ashe, "a girl came in who was absolutely scared to death. And Miss B just held her as she cried and said things wouldn't be so bad. She is such a stable force for those women who come in."
Although Ashe was restricted in what she was able to shoot, she says she got a story that will fit into "Songs of My People" because "a lot of black America is incarcerated, and that needs to be shown." Because of the exploding drug problem, she adds, more and more black women are being locked up.
Keith Williams of the Louisville Courier-Journal, a Pulitzer Prize winner, spent the weekend in Tyler, Tex., photographing black cowboys. Several weeks ago, he was in Boley, Okla., for a black rodeo. "It was fascinating for someone who comes from the Midwest ... to see these black cowboys lassoing calves," Williams says. "I went through 12 years of high school and college and was never told that there are black cowboys. And there are all types of things out there in America that black people are doing that we don't know about."
Veteran local freelancer Jim Wells spent last week trying to capture the flavor of black life in Washington. He came upon a feisty softball game behind Roper Junior High in Northeast, spent lunchtime in soul-food heaven at the Florida Avenue Grill and walked along with 15 members of the Benning/Marshall Heights Neighborhood Coalition on a citizens' anti-drug patrol.
"The white world never gets to see African Americans as we really are," says Wells. "They never see our neighborhoods, and they rarely see our lifestyle."
Already, New African Visions is looking beyond "Songs of My People." "We are concerned about our image in global terms," says Cheers. "We are planning book two, which would be for '94. We are going to double the number of African American photographers and work with African photographers, and document the continent of Africa. We plan to spend a month to six weeks in each country in Africa, telling our story.
"In 1997, our plan is to document black people in Europe, Asia, Central America, the Caribbean," he says. "The whole idea is, as we go into the 21st century, we will have three or four of the most definitive works on blacks in the world. Produced by black people."