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‘Worth only half that of a white man’: Race through a teenager’s camera lens

The photo “Half a Man” was taken by 17-year-old Kidus Sebil and depicts his brother, Bamlak, 16. (Kidus Sebil)
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After watching the film “Selma” for the first time, Kidus Sebil was inspired.

The movie depicts Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts to secure voting rights for black Americans, including his storied marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. And it got Kidus thinking. Thinking that sometimes, being a black man in America felt like being half a man.

So the 17-year-old photographer from Arlington, Va., grabbed his camera and asked his brother, Bamlak, to stand behind a tree, half of his face peeking out beside its trunk. The photograph Kidus took that January day, edited into a dramatic black and white, will soon hang in the U.S. Capitol.

Kidus entered the photo, titled “Half a Man,” into an art competition sponsored by his home congressional district. It won top honors.

The award was announced by the office of Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) last week, as protests against racism and police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in police custody continued to sweep the nation.

“The timing couldn’t have been better,” said Kidus, a recent graduate of Wakefield High School.

Beyer cited the demonstrations when explaining the selection of the photo by a panel of art educators from the National Art Education Association. It will be displayed in the Cannon Tunnel in the Capitol complex, but the timing and logistics are still being decided because of restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Kidus Sebil’s arresting photograph ‘Half A Man’ speaks powerfully to this moment,” Beyer said in a statement. “At a time when so many are decrying the painfully slow pace of progress toward equality, justice, and the rejection of racism, this picture is powerful and moving.”

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In an interview, Kidus said his own experiences with racism have been minimal. “Living in Arlington, I’m not going to sit here and say I’ve gotten the worst of police brutality,” he said. “I’ve been pretty well off.”

But the more he researched black Americans’ struggles for equality, the more he felt that often, their concerns go unseen. That’s why, in many of his photos, his subjects are obscured against black backgrounds.

“Some of them are almost completely dark, and you can only see figures,” he said. “That was my whole topic.”

He and some friends crossed the Potomac River into the District to participate in the Black Lives Matter protests on June 3. Naturally, he brought his camera.

“When everybody was in front of the White House, and I actually talked to some of the cops and they were just like, you know, ‘We get where these guys are coming from. We support what they do,’ ” he recalled.

“And I just kind of realized that everybody realizes the problem, but nobody’s willing to act on it.”

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Kidus first picked up a camera in the 10th grade. Early on, he would venture into Barcroft Park to practice taking photos of squirrels and leaves.

He said he’s attending Virginia Tech in the fall, and although he hasn’t decided on his major just yet, he’s planning to stick with photography.

Jina Davidson, his photography teacher at Wakefield High, said Sebil “didn’t just have talent and proficiency in photography. He was really, really showing off his voice. His voice was to capture what it means to be an African American adolescent male in today’s society.”

Davidson had long had a running joke about the Congressional Art Competition, which in past years had overlooked photographic entries or chosen them as runners-up. Photography submissions, she’d say to colleagues, were “always a bridesmaid and never a bride.”

She thought Kidus’s composition, which she dubbed “hauntingly beautiful,” was the perfect photo to break the streak.

One of the most important parts of “Half a Man” and the other photos in Kidus’s collection, which drew inspiration from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” is his use of light and shadows to tell a story, Davidson said.

“Being an African American male in America can often feel like you’re worth only half that of a white man,” Kidus wrote in his submission. “I converted this photo into black and white to highlight the details of the photo as well as symbolize the black and white division of this country.”

In one photo, a black man stands below an “Exit” sign, his shadow cast menacingly behind him. In another, a black man stands with his back to the camera, looking toward a bright, sprawling forest.

“In America, black men are often seen as a menace to society,” Kidus wrote of his portfolio. “A jacketed young boy can appear as a dark figure to stoke fear when in reality there is none.”

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