One thing I was very interested in as a young artist when I first saw your work was that you showed people that often weren’t depicted at all, and you showed them not as victims. You showed the oppression that they face, but you didn’t show them as victims or helpless or broken, you showed people in full complexity, you know, as people who experience sadness and joy and strength and anger and love and you didn’t shy away from anything in talking about this.
That’s exactly what I was trying to do. With one exception. Ordinarily I am among my friends. I don’t think of them as being Black; they’re friends until somebody else tells you they’re Black. So it’s very difficult for us to discourse, without getting involved in the racial war, and the war affects us even internally. When I photograph people, even when I alluded to their Blackness, and the best part of their heritage I was looking at people as human beings, I was, looking at them at the stage before they were called Black. The color of one’s skin has been used as a device ever since it was discovered, to confuse us, to demean; and when I say us, I’m talking about EVERYBODY. It’s a sickness that touches us all, and I think we have to be careful that we don’t embrace it. My militancy was always curbed by a sense of, ‘Well, yes, it’s important that I know this, but it’s more important that I do this — that I resist.’ So that kept me quite political, in the soldier sense: committed to social change. There isn’t anything that isn’t political.
How does that affect your work?
It makes me feel like embracing the underdog. We were very poor, short of being on the street or without a home; and the funny thing, in those days, there were not any homeless. This country has become similar to India with begging on the street, the Untouchables; we’re not too far from that. What I wanted to do was to give people a reason for being alive, a reason to feel good about themselves. And that’s very deliberate on my part. More deliberate than the question of race. I mean that. Part of our problem today is there’s no hope — I know about that, I see it before my eyes everyday. I’ve lived here 25 years and I’ve watched kids grow up and its devastating. They’re not dead but some are near it; they’re walking zombies, and these are teenagers, young kids. When I work, I want to show them what’s beautiful. I know there are ugly things out there and they know too. What they don’t know is that they can be free, at least within the context of their own minds, and that they can do what they believe in their minds. That’s a form of freedom. I made a choice not to get caught in the meanness; I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the possibilities.
Your pictures are not just pretty pictures, they help people feel good but you can also sometimes show a very difficult reality.
No, its not about pretty pictures, because it’s not about pretty. It’s about truth. And truth is a many splendored thing — a multi-faceted thing. It doesn’t have to be pretty to be true, but if its true it’s beautiful. Truth is beautiful. And so my whole work is about what amounts to a reverence for life itself.
Thanks to photographer Keith Dannemiller for forwarding me this info.