“The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.” — Susan Sontag, On Photography
Three photographers have as many differences as they do similarities. One is self taught, the other two went through academia. One always strove to be a photographer, another originally trained to be a nurse and found his passion at a later date. With all of their differences, they each share two chief similarities: their blackness and passion for visual storytelling. In the context of recent debates of the black journalists’ place in traditional media, black photojournalists give a unique point of view to discuss not only the challenges they’ve faced but also their victories and moments of triumph.
Exposing the Triangle
Gerald Seone Williams grew up loving photography. Raised throughout the Civil Rights Movement, he personally witnessed the lengths people would go for freedom and basic human dignity. With his father, former FTA administrator Harold B. Williams, he picketed, marched, and protested across the country. In 1968 at the age of 17, Gerald was arrested and tear gassed during an anti-war demonstration. At a young age he already learned the meaning of service. “I launched my photojournalism career covering those issues and learned so much from other pioneering journalists, black and white, during that period.”
Graduating High School, he was accepted into Yale. There he pursued being a doctor. Yet, Williams says, the call of photography and documenting truth never left. “I could not do both and be serious about it. I had to make a choice in what my real passion was and what I would be happy doing. I am sure I would have been a successful doctor if I had stuck with it.” Photography won. He transferred to the Rochester Institute of Technology, the nations foremost photography institution, enrolling in Photographic Illustration and starting a long, storied photography career. Graduating from RIT with Honors he would go on from interning at Newsday, to eventually freelancing at Newsweek and working as a staff photographer at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 29 years. Mr. Williams has taught photography at multiple institutions including Rowan University.
Collette V. Fournier was marinated in the black arts as a child. Her mother was a professional seamstress, homemaker, and artist. Her father was a portrait artist and made a living as a painter, designer and sculptor. As a child she gained an interest in photography amid tragedy when her step father passed. At the age of 14 and behest of her mother she inherited her step father’s camera equipment, 35mm Petri Reflexes, which he used abroad during the Korean War while on down time. Within a year she was enrolled in darkroom class at Francis Lewis High School. Photography was enjoyed by her so much so that her divorced parents chipped into buy her a darkroom. She set it up in her basement in Queens, New York. Photography, the young Collette would find, was an expensive hobby. Fournier got a part time job just to pay for her film habit. “I’ve had a darkroom in every place I’ve lived”, she states with pride.
At High School in Queens she took her art obsession to a new level. Enrolled in darkroom and graphic classes, it was there she was introduced to the work of Life Magazine’s first Black staff photographer Gordon Parks. “I loved Parks’ writing style, his humble beginnings and advice as a photographer. He was adventurous and well-traveled and I was already addicted to photography. I knew from that experience that I was going to pursue photography as a career!” This thirst for photography would lead her to a degree in Photographic Illustration at Rochester Institute of Technology where she was a classmate with Gerald Williams. Her photography would take her to the RockIand Journal News, the Bergen Record, freelancing at the NY Post, and eventually to the shores of west Africa. She is a proud member of the Kamoinge Photography Collective, a photo group of black photographers who alumnus include Louis Draper, Salimah Ali, and Eli Reed.
Unlike Ms. Fournier, for Russell Frederick, photography was far from a childhood dream. Although growing up with the realization of artistic talents, well into his early 20’s he feverishly sought his purpose in this life. As a young man he drew and did graffiti but the Panamanian immigrant family values he grew up in felt that artistic pursuits were best relegated to hobbies. “My grandfather let me know that we did not come to Brooklyn for me to take pictures.” With his artistic interests derailed he sought the healthcare industry. His mother being a nurse, he enrolled in nursing school. Yet, in his twenty-fifth year he picked up a camera for the first time and couldn’t put it down. Pushed between the pressure of his family’s wants and his own, he had a conversation with God about his future. In time, he chose to fully embrace shooting as a profession.
“Why photography? I realized that all the things that I love doing and things that were important to me I could do with the camera. I could educate, I could create art, I could create history, I could travel, I could work for myself, I would, could, work until I was literally maybe just tired, 90 years old, doing what I love.”
Self taught, he learned photography from the world around him — CD cover art, photography masters, and anything visual. His work has been featured in New York Times, NBC News, Wall Street Journal, and more. He has had multiple exhibits and regularly lectures at many universities including New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, and the International Center of Photography. His family are now supportive of his photography. “[My mom], she was schooled.”
He currently sits as Vice President of Kamoinge photography collective.
The challenges of a black photographer are intrinsically unique, especially when tied with media and reporting. Black journalists are often held to a different standard. It is regularly debated that they are engaging activism for merely reporting their own person-hood. This past summer at the height of demonstrations for George Floyd, a black man whom died after a police officer had his knee on his neck for nearly 8 minutes, various articles were posted in traditional media that black journalists (and other journalists of color) called tone deaf. The New York Times Opinion Section ran an Op-Ed written by Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton demanding to “Send In The Troops”. The Philadelphia Inquirer claimed,”Buildings Matter, Too.” The New York Times opinion editor that oversaw the Tom Cotton Opinion piece, James Bennet, resigned immediately in the brunt of the backlash. A number of Philadelphia Inquirer’s minority staff, a staggering 44 journalists, penned a letter to management and participated in a company-wide protest, refusing to come and calling sick. Or to be more, exact, sick and tired.
“On June 4, we’re calling in sick and tired. Sick and tired of pretending things are OK. Sick and tired of not being heard. It is an act that pains us, knowing that now more than ever it is our duty and responsibility to uplift the marginalized voices of our community. But in this moment, it is more important for us to stand alongside those who have risen up against systemic racism and inequities and call on the Inquirer to do better. To be better.”
Gerald Williams, a former photography staffer for the Inquirer contends this would have never happened with a more robust vetting process. “As the size of staffers on newspapers shrink, so do the economics. There has been a greater percentage loss of minority journalists and minority editors at places like the Philadelphia Inquirer. When that happens it is easier for a few misguided individuals to let a story like that get out. It would have never passed the scrutiny of the Inquirer editors in the past.”
“It starts with leadership, executive, managerial”, Frederick agrees. “I would also say state government and other good conscious institutions calling out and not allowing some of these publications to just do their madness, for lack of a better word.”
Through all of this, black photojournalists are uniquely placed. A news photographer isn’t like a regular writer. They send the public image and images can be powerful. Images change minds. Images craft narratives. Images curate empathy. The image is perhaps a journalists most powerful tool. This makes the photojournalist uniquely powerful. The challenges of a black photojournalist aren’t inherently the same as a standard beat journalist because photography has the ability to craft how communities are seen, heard, and thought of.
Asked on the different challenges of reporters and photographers Gerald Williams says that unlike reporters, who can have the luxury of conducting phone interviews, photographers are always face to face with the public and this comes with its own set of issues. While at Newsday, a story about a white man attacking a black man for venturing into a Long Island neighborhood reached the reporters desk. Williams’ blackness at the scene was not appreciated. “When this black photographer — me — showed up, they would become visibly upset and almost refused to let me take the photos for the story.”
Who gets to shoot the story often gets to show how this story is framed. Photography has the ability to be used against the very people they report. Photographers that are black and work within news agencies are often presented a unique power dynamic: although forced to engage with the public with their cameras, many still feel invisible in their own agencies. Frederick says,“often times photographers who happen to be black, when they are working at agencies or mainstream papers, they only really get to tell the black stories. Rarely do they get to cover national news.”
Williams agrees,”I faced huge discrimination in hiring and in getting my fair share of good assignments from many newspaper editors that saw having a black photographer as maybe necessary to fill a quota, but never placing us in the same category as the white photographers, unless they needed someone to shoot in the ghetto or inner city.”
Frederick continues,“How are communities portrayed? Who has been really the authors of our stories? Who has controlled the visual narratives of Black America and the African diaspora? Have the pictures been taken with integrity and dignity, and have they been taken with some cultural sensitivity?” Russell Frederick opines that institutions like National Geographic have misrepresented and objectified entire communities of color. “They have weaponized photography against us.”
Yet behind the veil of journalistic objectivity, journalists are forced to remain neutral. But how can a black journalist remain neutral to their own discrimination? Neutral to their own place within newsrooms, even to their place within society? In recent months there has been a debate on the relationship traditional media has with neutrality and objectivity. It is being argued by critics, such as that you cannot both be objective and yet remain neutral. Even two days ago, Poynter released an article arguing to teach context rather than objectivity. Other argue that objectivity requires a neutral, impartial stance on reporting or else you’re reporting to a biased viewpoint.
Williams contends that there is no neutral media framework to begin with. “The best you can hope for is a media outlet that allows voices from all parts of its constituency to be heard on a regular basis and self-questions its every story for accuracy and honesty.”
Collette Fournier argues that it’s of great import that Black photographers speak out in news rooms so that their concerns are heard. “When it comes to matters of race. We’re not on an equal playing field.”
Legacy and Service
With widespread challenges such as these, legacy is important to the black photographer. Covering communities in a real, humane manner has a lasting effect on the groups documented. The need and ability to pass on your knowledge to the next generation of black photographers while maintaining your own legacy is at the forefront of the black photojournalists thoughts. Despite these prior challenges it doesn’t appear to have changed the job from being deeply rich and rewarding.
With many art exhibitions under her belt, Fournier has been a prolific artist within her community. She has been a recipient of many awards, including a star shaped award from the Arts Council of Rockland Visual Arts Award in 2008 and a community activism award from the MLK Multi-Purpose Center. In 2007 she was an OSI fellow and received a grant to cover New Orleans in a post-Hurricane Katrina. Fournier is also working on an upcoming memoir “Moving Through A Photographic World.” Yet among her most prized experiences laid outside of America’s borders on the numerous trips she’s taken to West Africa. In the late 80’s, while freelancing for the University of Rochester, the future Kamoinge member would take a 14 hour flight over the Atlantic to Senegal.
“I loved the African warmth, colors, feel, sunrises, sunsets, marketplaces and fabric of Africa. I loved the sound of the Imam calling the community to prayer over a scratchy sound system. We enjoyed eating African dishes together from the same large bowl, using only our right hands.”
She has returned to Africa multiple times since, recently shooting in Ghana where she experienced the ripple effect of slavery and witnessed for herself the infamous Door Of No Return, or the passage Africans took while on the journey westward to the Americas for slavery. In another article she expresses that the castle had a “spiritual yet horrific presence”.
For Gerald Williams, his legacy is typified for the people he’s helped with his photography. In one such case there was a story on a girl in the inner city who had a High School math award for the Ford Foundation. Beyond the surface story revealed the tale of a single teenage mother who hoped to go to nursing school to provide for her baby. Williams sought her out and did a dramatic silhouetted portrait of the young mother with her son at their family home. It was seen by the executives of the Pharmaceutical Smith Kline (now GlaxoSmithKline) saw the piece. Touched by her story of adversity and triumph, they gave the young student a full scholarship to nursing school.
Despite his challenges as a black photojournalist he is also a barrier breaker. “I pushed back against the notion that minority shooters couldn’t do every subject, every story. I would shoot anything and win awards, even if my bosses didn’t promote me for those awards. I fought to be the first minority staff photographer or minority writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer to garner a foreign assignment.” Eventually this push would bear fruit when Williams would be sent to photograph Nicaragua at the height of its civil war between the Contras and Sandinistas. The story, Williams says, would help end the conflict and was nominated for a Pulitzer.
A recipient of 150 photo awards including World Press Photo and National Press Photographers Association, he has had his share of victories. Yet with great humility and in the spirit of his history, he still sees what he does with a camera no different now than when he toured America with his father during the years of the Civil Rights Movement as a young boy. It’s still and always will be about service.
Russel Frederick has photographed many high profile people: President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and more. He will be featured in an upcoming exhibit ‘We Wear the Mask’ curated by D’Angelo Lovell Williams opening on December 21st at the Higher Pictures Generation Gallery in Dumbo, Brooklyn. The exhibit will close February 2021. He has gained innumerable awards from top vetted organizations ranging from Open Society Foundation to the US Embassy of Ethiopia and the New York Foundation of the Arts, yet his most valued moment of his career was going on a trip to Africa for a month in a cultural exchange in 2015. There, with the help of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), he taught photography to a multitude of students. Along with him, he traveled with an assortment of black photographers, filmmakers, and writers to Ethiopia serving over 250 people in a series of workshops.
“Ethiopian photographers are now shooting for CNN. They have gallery representation. They won grants from Instagram, at exhibits in New York. In Europe some of my students and protégées have won the Edie Adams Nikon Award or they participate in New York Times Portfolio Review. Every year since 2016 I’ve had at least two students participate and come over here to the New York Times portfolio review. They are working full time and I must say women, women are at the forefront of it.” He bristles with personal fulfillment as he recounts the struggles of Ethiopian women’s place in their male dominated society and how he’s actively help contribute to giving each of his female students a voice.
Through tears of his shared experience he continues,”Going to Africa, I could have never imagined that the guy who did not finish college, did not go to school for photography would be going to Africa, educating and teaching people, showing them the value of documenting your community.”
For all three individuals education and passing down knowledge has been some of their most prized experiences in photography. Service is baked into each of their lenses and what they can do to foster a new generation of Black visual talent.
Fournier, who teaches at Rockland Community College in the Art and Photography department has always found education to be important. Her advice to the next generation of black photographers is to be open to many avenues within the business and diversify your talents. “Today’s young people seeking photography degrees are very talented. Your path into photography should be a varied one. Be serious about your future in photography and be prepared to run your own photo business. Take as many courses that will prepare you for your future especially technology and business…Don’t be frivolous about your time and try not to hang with people who deter your direction. Hang with friends who support your goals. Believe in yourself and don’t quit.”
“What is the legacy you would like to have for yourself? What is the legacy you would like to stand on and be ready for the hills and valleys? This industry is full of hills and valleys.” For the next generation of black photographers Frederick suggests the emerging talent to become multi-disciplined and to pursue Business Administration courses to supplement their technical and creative knowledge of the business. Further more, he suggests communication (graphic design) and contract writing courses.
“You got to be strong. You gotta develop, you have to have your faith. You have to believe in yourself. Even when you know that you’re in the tunnel, you may not see no light at the end of it. But you know, if this is what you feel you’ve been put here to do, this is what you want to do. You keep your head down, you keep going forward, no matter what. And that to be of service. This is photography, which is visual anthropology. And, you know, we have to take control of leading our industry in the pursuit of our humanity. Because this is even some healing work we have to do for ourselves, for all the indignities that we have been assaulted with, and even some things we’ve done to ourselves and not really knowing ourselves, and all of the systems that are in place to divide and conquer us. We cannot fall victim.”
For Gerald Williams, who taught photojournalism at Rowan University and Philadelphia College of Art (now Philadelphia University of the Arts) the fruits of his labor are all the other photographers that he helped as a teacher and mentor. “The victories are all the stories that I did, whether assigned or proposed by myself where my photos helped improve someone’s life, or helped save lives, or helped illuminate a social problem or need to be addressed.”
His advice for the next generation of black photographers beyond honing their creative skills is to “find a cause or causes that you believe in, something that you can illuminate with your passion and vision.” His most crucial advice is stay true to yourself and the truth. “Be bold and unafraid to speak out with your words and images. Help lead us into the light and do your part by lending a hand to help someone along the way.”
Williams concludes,“I’ll never retire in my life as a photographer.”
Service, it seems, never comes to an end.
©Naomi Daniels, 2020
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Gerald Seone Williams can be reached at Facebook for business inquiries. https://www.facebook.com/GSWilliamsPhotography
Collette V. Fournier’s personal website is https://www.collettefournierphotography.com/
- Incorrectly wrote that Gerald Williams interned at Newsweek. He interned at Newsday and worked freelance for Newsweek.