The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He was a D.C. graffiti artist and spent time in prison. Now, a photo he took hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser hired Khalid Naji-Allah as her staff photographer in 2015 after being impressed with his work

Photographer Khalid Naji-Allah with his two sons and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser in front of his photo of Black Lives Matter Plaza displayed at the National Portrait Gallery. (Courtesy of the Office of the Mayor)
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D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) still remembers the picture that caught her attention.

The 2014 image captures an unlikely trio — Bowser, former NBA player Steve Francis and Virginia Ali, the owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl — sitting at the restaurant during Bowser’s first mayoral run. The group appears to be sharing a laugh, though she can’t remember why.

It remains one of the mayor’s favorite pictures years later. And on Thursday, she spent the afternoon at the National Portrait Gallery honoring the man who took it: Khalid Naji-Allah.

“I said when I got to be mayor, ‘I’m going to find that photographer and figure out if he wants to come on with us,’” Bowser recalled.

Naji-Allah, who had been a photojournalist for the Washington Informer and Washington Times, joined her staff as her chief photographer months after she was elected, placing him among the longest-serving members of her administration.

But it was a different photo that sparked Thursday’s celebration: Naji-Allah’s aerial image from last year capturing the newly minted Black Lives Matter Plaza on 16th Street NW. His picture of the plaza — conceptualized by Bowser in support of peaceful demonstrations while also sending a message to President Donald Trump — is now being featured in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It explores the origins behind some of D.C.'s most iconic streets and landmarks.

When he first published the photo and it went out on the Associated Press news wire last summer, it instantly became a symbol of the Black Lives Matter protests happening across the country after police killed George Floyd, a Black man in their custody.

Naji-Allah recalled how “people were calling me from all over saying, ‘Khalid, we saw your picture.' ”

The photo holds special significance because it captures the magnitude of the protesters’ message. The plaza’s proximity to the White House meant Trump — who went on to call the phrase Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate” — was forced to view it, said Naji-Allah.

In July, the city began transforming the plaza into a permanent art installation.

“I’ve covered … our first Black president’s hand on the Bible. I thought that was the epic moment of my career," he said. "But this one landscape picture has changed a dynamic around the world.”

As a child, she wrote to a WWII vet. He carried the letter everywhere, and 12 years later, they finally met.

For Naji-Allah, 48, the inclusion of his work at the museum he visited routinely as a child is a testament to the work he put in to turn his life around after some people wrote him off.

A native of Southwest Washington, Naji-Allah was raised by his grandmother and spent much of his youth as a graffiti artist on the streets of the District. But he was lured by drugs and other negative temptations, landing him in federal prison at just 19 years old.

“In the environment of the ’80s and ’90s, you had two options: You could’ve went to school or went to the streets,” said Naji-Allah, who earned his master’s degree from Lincoln University in 2009. “Unfortunately, I chose the second option. I just got caught up in the system.”

Once he was released in 1999, Naji-Allah says he was nearly drawn in by the same urges that had landed him behind bars. His uncle, a go-go club photographer, pushed him into a different path. Naji-Allah followed in his uncle’s footsteps to make money, shooting pictures for clubs and dabbling in wedding photography. He dreamed of one day making a career out of taking pictures.

Inspired by the work of his grandmother’s friend, Southwest Washington photographer Joseph Owen Curtis, Naji-Allah set his sights on photojournalism. He earned a gig at the Washington Informer, and some 20 years later has captured several seminal moments in D.C.'s history, including President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and Rep. John Lewis’s last public appearance at Black Lives Matter Plaza.

It hasn’t always been easy. He remembers his first visit to the White House as a photojournalist when security escorted him to the West Wing because the electronic system pulled up his criminal past. The guards told him they’d have to keep an eye on him.

“We have a saying in my family: ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,’ and I know I have to work harder because I have a background,” he said. “But what [former] felon do you know that’s in the White House covering the president, or on the Hill covering the Senate?”

America’s oldest World War II vet just turned 112. He stood from his wheelchair and danced.

Now working for Bowser, he’s maintained the instincts he curated as a photojournalist. If he’s in traffic and sees a crash or crime scene, Naji-Allah says he’ll jump out of his car and take pictures.

“He captures Washington and Washingtonians in a way I think is special,” Bowser added. “I’m proud of his journey.”

The National Portrait Gallery exhibition, called “Block by Block: Naming Washington,” features the historical namesakes of some of the District’s streets, corridors and public spaces, like Malcolm X, Charles Sumner and Joseph Gilbert Totten.

Curator Leslie Ureña said Naji-Allah’s photo is among a group of pictures that anchor the exhibit, including early mock-ups of D.C.'s potential layout. The picture of the plaza, she added, offers a modern example of how the city has transformed since it was first conceptualized.

When Naji-Allah was tasked with photographing the plaza last year, he realized he needed a higher vantage point to fully capture its significance. So he used a cherry picker to get leverage. In the days and weeks after the photo was published, he said, people in countries as far as South Africa were contacting him about the photo.

“I’ve been a photographer for quite some time,” he added. “I never knew how powerful a landscape picture could be.”

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