“The Birmingham Project”: Timothy Huffman and Ira Sims in 2012 (Dawoud Bey)
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Creatives across disciplines are recognized annually with a “no strings attached” grant, the MacArthur Fellowship — often referred to as the “genius grant.” Photographer Dawoud Bey, one of two photographers to win a 2017 fellowship, joining past photography fellows such as Lee Friedlander, Lynsey Addario, Uta Barth, and LaToya Ruby Frazier in the honor. The grants go to individuals who “have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits,” according to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. On receiving the grant, Bey told In Sight:

“Receiving the MacArthur Fellowship is a tremendous affirmation and validation of the work I have been doing for the past 40 years. It affirms that the things I have worked to achieve with my work have considerable value to others in the field. My ongoing project has been to make work that engages the human community in a conversation with itself through making works of young people and African Americans and then situating those photographs in museums and galleries where other significant art objects exist.

“I believe that if I can make work that begins to transcend difference while locating a common humanity that we all share, a radical reshaping of the world is possible, one person at a time.”

“The Birmingham Project”: Mathis Menefee and Cassandra Griffin in 2012 (Dawoud Bey)

“The Birmingham Project”: Braxton McKinney and LaVon Thomas in 2012 (Dawoud Bey)

Bey is known for several bodies of work, including “Harlem, USA” a 1975 series, “Harlem Redux” in which he returned to Harlem 40 years later to look at the effects of gentrification, and “The Birmingham Project.” The latter evokes the events of Sept. 15, 1963, when four black girls and two boys were killed in Birmingham, Ala., in acts of racist violence. His diptych portraits show young black children who are the ages of the young people killed on that day, and adults at the ages they would have been 50 years later.

Bey plans to use the grant money to continue working on a current project.

“I am in the midst of working on photographs in Cleveland, Ohio, as part of the FRONT Triennial. These nighttime landscapes are related to the Underground Railroad and its significant place in Cleveland’s history. Rather than focusing on the individual presence as much of my work has done in the past, this work focuses on the landscape, the space that escaping slaves were furtively moving through as they moved towards freedom under cover of darkness.

“I plan to complete a two-channel video work as part of this project, and the Fellowship will certainly help with production costs.

“I am also completing a project that visualizes the profound changes that are taking place in Harlem, N.Y., due to the effects of gentrification [Harlem Redux]. These photographs engage issues of the eroding of place memory and the disappearance of cultural memory as the landscape and demographics of the neighborhood continue to evolve.”

“Harlem, USA”: A Woman Waiting in the Doorway, 1976 (Dawoud Bey)

“Street Portraits”: A Girl with School Medals, 1988 (Dawoud Bey)

“Street Portraits”: A Man on Fulton Street and Cambridge Place, 1989 (Dawoud Bey)

“Street Portraits”: A Couple in Prospect Park, 1990 (Dawoud Bey)

“Harlem, USA”: A Boy in Front of the Loew’s 125th Street Movie Theater, 1976 (Dawoud Bey)

“Harlem, USA”: Man in Bowler Hat, 1976 (Dawoud Bey)

Bey’s work has been exhibited worldwide. He is a professor of art and a former distinguished college artist at Columbia College Chicago, where he has taught since 1998.

More on In Sight:

Two sisters pursue different lives in post-apartheid Manenberg, South Africa

Finding race and compassion in the Mississippi Delta

The transformation of New York’s Chinatown in the 1980s

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