A photographer’s campaign to capture positive images of Black America takes on new resonance in the pandemic
The boy looks down at the tie in his hands. He is dressed in formal wear he hasn’t quite grown into but that hints at the man he will become. Facing the boy, his own hands on his tie, a father models what to do. A striped rug and ruffled bed skirt give the scene an ordinary, homey feel while the arch over the boy’s head suggests something sacred about this most tender of male rituals.
For nearly a quarter of a century, Russell Frederick, a Brooklyn-based photographer and activist, has documented moments of quiet dignity, family love and everyday joy in the lives of Black and Brown people as part of his “Positive Images” campaign. His photos serve as a powerful rebuke to the dehumanization of Black and Brown lives. He also hopes they provide much-needed uplift during a pandemic that has disproportionately affected his community. “Almost everyone I know has lost someone or knows someone who has gotten sick with covid,” he said last month from his home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
Frederick, who grew up in Brooklyn, didn’t pick up a camera until he was 25 years old and in nursing school. After taking a class at the International Center of Photography, where he was the only Black student, he decided to pursue photography seriously. Lacking funds, he taught himself by studying album covers and visiting Barnes & Noble bookstores, where he read everything he could related to the craft. His work eventually came to the attention of Eli Reed, the first full-time Black photographer at Magnum, the respected international photo cooperative, who told him about a job opportunity there. He has since covered Hurricane Katrina and the Black Lives Matter protests, as well as photographed presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and entertainers D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, and Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, among others.
Drummers on the A train in 2005. Don Balladin in front of a mural of late rapper Notorious BIG in Bed-Stuy in 2010. Florida natives Oni and Nate at home in Tallahassee in 2010. Author, rapper and activist Supernova Slom honors his Egyptian and Native American heritage in this photo, taken in Bed-Stuy in 2006. Friends near Howard University in D.C. in 2003. Khepera Smith, an entrepreneur, vegan chef, and health and wellness coach, at her Brooklyn home in 2018.
At the heart of Frederick’s work is his commitment to correcting what he calls the “historical injustices of photography,” such as White photographers who have depicted Africans as uncivilized and Black Americans primarily through images of slavery and lynching. His “Positive Images” campaign builds on the work of Kamoinge, the New York City-based collective of Black photographers, founded in 1963, that is committed to redefining visual narratives of Black people and photographing them with humanity and dignity. “When the world has seen images of Black and Brown communities, it’s always their challenges or their troubles,” Frederick says. “The achievements of Black America, Brown America aren’t seen, and this is what has fed racism and inequality.”
Frederick captures these achievements on a quotidian, interpersonal level. In the tie photo, “Stepping Up,” featuring a man named Supreme and his stepson, Tyshaun, Frederick captures a moment of nurturing that subverts cultural depictions of Black men as irresponsible. In “Sisterhood,” shot near Howard University in D.C., Frederick challenges beauty standards through his image of three young women with different hairstyles. In “Mr. and Mrs. Brooks,” a husband and wife married for 52 years pose on a winter’s day in Bed-Stuy. As it turned out, Frederick’s portrait would be the last of the couple together, one Mrs. Brooks would treasure deeply after her husband’s death. “I look at them and see pillars of union and interdependence,” Frederick says.
Frederick’s photos depict the strength, pride and interconnectedness that enable Black and Brown families and communities to step up during hard times, a lesson for the rest of America. Or as Frederick himself puts it: “In this time of covid, in this time of Black Lives Matter, in this time of inequality, in this time of injustice, the images I’m creating of everyday people, as well as people who may not even be at their best, but they put on a brave face, show the resilience that a lot of us have just in our DNA.”
Janell Ajani in front of a former Black Panther office in Bed-Stuy in 2009. Mr. and Mrs. Brooks — married 52 years — head home after shopping for groceries in Bed-Stuy in 2003. The portrait would be the last of the couple together. The Brooklyn United Marching Band honors Notorious BIG in a performance on Nostrand Avenue in 2007. PriddytheOpp, a rapper, model and single dad from Harlem, with his daughter in 2018. Three generations of a family pause for a photo before they enter a Santeria church in Brooklyn in 2006. A crowd cools off under a spray of water at a summer concert in Central Park in 2001.
Russell Frederick is a photographer in New York. See his work at russellfrederick.com.