Photography is often a reflection or commentary on a people or a culture. For the Black community, photographs and images taken by our own kinfolk have allowed us to take pride in our own heritage while also also allowing us to remember the full narratives that make up who we are in light of our people's disenfranchised history and fragmented collective recollection in this country.
Below are several trailblazing Black photojournalist pioneers who have shaped our history through their timeless accounts of the Black community in its many forms.
Moneta Sleet Jr.
Moneta Sleet Jr. was a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer who was an active part of the Civil Rights Movement. He was known for his work at EBONY and Jet Magazines in the 1950s and 1960s. During his time at the publications, he reported heavily on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and maintained a close relationship with him until his passing. Sleet Jr. received the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for his infamous image of Coretta Scott King grieving at Dr. King's funeral. He was the first Black man to receive this prize across all fields and the first to do so while working for a Black publication.
Gordon Parks was a multifaceted artist whose photography spoke to the soul of the Black experience. From the 1940s to the 1970s, Parks' imagery brought life to areas of society that many aimed to dismiss or chose to forget, such as the conditions of those in urban America.
Ernest Withers documented over six decades worth of images that portrayed Southern Black life. His work included significant moments of Black American history. A self-proclaimed "news photographer," the images he took provided a visual backdrop to the struggles experienced by the Black community specifically in the American South.
James Van Der Zee
James Van Der Zee was one of the most prominent photograpahers during the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Lenox, Massachusetts, Van Der Zee, at a young age, was one of the first people in the town to own a camera which allowed him to be a documentarian of the local Black community. As he continued to develop his craft outside of his locale, his work often included the likes of Marcus Garvey, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Countee Cullen. Although during his lifetime, Van Der Zee could not properly sustain himself economically from his work, his photographic legacy and genius continues to be the subject of many books and documentaries today.
Roy DeCarava was influenced by the artistic advancement that he saw birthed out of the Harlem Renaissance. He had a desire to take photos of ordinary Black folks. Throughout his career, he strived to showcase Black life in a way that would immediately be understood by the Black viewer, balancing the line of both societal commentary and a sense of regality.
Jamel Shabazz famously captured the intrinsic beauty of street style in the 1980s. Inspired by James Van Der Zee, and Gordon Parks, his portfolio includes imagery of fine art, fashion and documentary work from the vantage point of Black Americans. Shabazz was recently featured in Netflix's Strong Black Lens series on YouTube.
Ruby Washington became the first African-American female staff photographer for The New York Times. In the face of sexism and racism, she persisted and documented some of the most prolific moments in history such as an over the shoulder shot of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell reading a note following his speech at the United Nations calling for the invasion of Iraq. Her love of artistic expression also manifested itself in the way she documented stories through film.
Eli Reed was the first Black photographer to be employed by Magnum Agency full-time. His photographs spoke to the rawness found within Black life and culture. Reed is also the author of Black In America, a photo documentation of various moments that he took throughout Black history.
Ming Smith has photographed prominent Black cultural figures from Alvin Ailey to Nina Simone. Through the usage of intricate printing processes and fast shooting techniques, her work has been duly cemented as some of the most important pieces to come from the 20th century. Her work is held in New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture.
John Shearer rose to prominence for his work illuminating the experiences of "racial subjects." He famously took photos at the funerals of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and an image of Muhammad Ali before his fight with Joe Frazier. Garnering a significant amount of prestige and over 100 awards, Shearer was also exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art during his career.
Don Hogan Charles
Don Hogan Charles was one of the first Black photographers to integrate the New York Times. His many works brought attention to key moments in the Civil Rights movement. He is most known for an image of Malcolm X holding a rifle as he peered outside his window for EBONY in 1964.
Hugh Bell captured still photographs in a manner in which very few could achieve. Some of his most famous works were of famous jazz musicians, such as Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday.
Kwame Brathwaite luxuriously magnified the richness of melanated tones and experiences from a pan-African perspective. He notes one of his earliest inspirations as being David Jackson's image of Emmett Till's body during his funeral which was first published in Jet Magazine. One of his most well-known works is his Black Is Beautiful series which centered Black beauty instead of Eurocentric standards.