Race through the lens: A photographic journey

Photojournalist Eli Reed takes a photographic journey through race in the US.

Race Through the lens - Magazine - Please do not use - A lynching

American photojournalist Eli Reed has spent decades capturing the lives of African Americans on camera. Here, he shares the photographs that have most meaning for him and reveals the stories behind them.

A wedding

[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos]
[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos]

I made this photograph of the groom, Lenell Geter, and his ring bearer in South Carolina.

Geter had been accused of robbing a fast food restaurant, in spite of evidence proving he was in the middle of a meeting at his job in Houston, Texas. The local police basically decided that they could make it stick because he was black.

They tried but failed when stories from a national magazine and a national television news programme sprang the story, and he was released.

But I could see that the experience changed him. He had obviously, in my view, always followed the letter of the law and believed in a just society. But that ship had now sailed on ….

A walk

[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos]
[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos]

A group of homeless people in Missouri walked from St. Louis to Jefferson City, led by the Reverend Larry Rice to publicise the plight of the homeless.

African Americans are usually the first in line to feel that particular sting of dislocation. But they were not the only group in trouble. There was even a man on the march who had previously been a NASA engineer, but had lost his job and been living on the streets for a while.

There were generous people in Missouri, who opened up their churches to allow the marchers a place to bed down for the night, and others who were not so generous.

I remember sharing park benches with marchers as we attempted to sleep and feeling the penetrating cold creeping up my back all through the night.

A makeshift jungle gym 

[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos] 
[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos] 

On some Mondays I would meet with my friend Budd Williams, who worked as a staff photographer for the New York Daily News newspaper.

He had grown up in Harlem, New York, and we would have breakfast at a restaurant Malcolm X used to frequent on 135th street, sitting at a table beside a plaque bearing his name. 

After a breakfast of grits, scrambled eggs, biscuits, sausage or bacon, we would walk around Harlem as Budd talked about the area.

That was when I saw the playground of these children, who were looking after each other and using an abandoned car as their jungle gym. It was a normal scene with kids making do with what they had access to, but it still felt wrong knowing what could be delivered from the wealth of a city like New York.

A lynching

[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos]
[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos]

The funeral hearse was for Yusef Hawkins, who was killed in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, because some local thugs thought he was going out with a young Italian girl in the neighbourhood. What he was actually doing was trying to buy a used car.

I was as upset and angry as the man holding onto the back door of the hearse. I was tired of African American men basically being lynched with guns, cars or sticks because they had black skin.

A funeral

[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos] 
[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos] 

I had moved along with the crowd toward the front door of the church where Yusef Hawkins’ funeral was to take place when I realised that I’d had enough of it all. Too much of what was going to happen was grossly predictable.

The politicians would be there to represent and say how this was a terrible tragedy and something should be done about it. The various news outlets would use the event to basically add to their readership or viewing audiences. The family would be captured in the deep shadow of mourning for their loved one, asking why, and why, and why.

I turned from the damned door and was given permission to not go into the church by what was behind me. The grieving woman right in front was surrounded – by a young black man behind her, a high police official on her right, district attorney Charles Hynes next to him, Governor Cuomo directly behind him, and, to the governor’s left, a New York Daily News columnist                               

A riot

[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos] 
[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos] 

The Crown Heights riots happened after a Hasidic Jewish driver had an accident that resulted in him hitting two young African American children, killing one and injuring the other, and then leaving the scene immediately without stopping to offer help.

The racial situation in the neighbourhood was already tense and everything exploded after this. African American youth were upset and this young man was courting trouble but probably felt that trouble was already there.

It was an intense time for Mayor Dinkins, who reached out to black community leaders to help calm the situation.

A movie

[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos] 
[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos] 

I was working on director John Singleton’s second movie, Poetic Justice, in Los Angeles when the verdict in the trial of the police who had beaten up Rodney King came in: innocent.

The movie company had come to Semi Valley for two nights of shooting when the Los Angeles riots broke out in response. I had expected it and I was not alone in that expectation. It seemed that no one paid attention unless you started burning up the neighbourhood.

There were people in the Hood who had worked to bring up their businesses to a certain level of success and, when the riots came, they lost it all. Events like this are never going to be fair. When enough people feel as if they have nothing to lose, all bets are off. Logic goes out the window because the tipping point was raised to fall long ago and the time to drown within the tatters of everyday life has arrived.

The men in the nice suits were the security for Singleton, hired by the studio.

I offered the idea to Singleton to give me a video camera so that I could cover the riot for footage that could go inside the movie. It was like he didn’t hear me, because as a black director (with his second feature) he was obligated to stay on point in order to keep the movie on schedule.

He directed Janet Jackson all through the night. As soon as we wrapped production in the morning, Singleton and I left individually. But we ended up at the same place, checking out what had happened during the riot. He arrived with his cousin, who was in the National Guard, and his security and I in a pickup truck with a friend.

A march

[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos] 
[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos] 

I went to the Million Man March to cover it because it was an amazing idea that the non-African Americans I met did not understand at all.

Minister Louis Farrakhan brought a million black men to Washington, DC, to take a stand – to say loudly that we will look into our hearts and our community and work to create positive changes that would serve the community.

I shot the march for Life Magazine.

There was a small group meeting, with concern expressed by some editorial staff that there was going to be a bloodbath in DC. I loudly disagreed and explained what I had witnessed as the prep work continued for the march.

I do not think that anyone who was there will ever forget the power of that gathering. It was not a time to make a lot of noise. It was a time to come, listen and contemplate the possible futures. It was a marathon intended to absorb into the system, not a sprint meant to bleed out quickly into dust or concrete streets.

Life Magazine, under the direction of David Friend, did a fantastic job of presenting the photographs made by me and David Burnett of the march.

A crossroads

[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos] 
[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos] 

Laurence (Larry) Fishburne, Ice Cube and John Singleton were at a crossroads.

Larry, who had been just 14 years old when he appeared in the movie Apocalypse Now, was no longer Larry; he had the stature of an icon – and deserved the respect due to him as a result of his talent and presence.

Ice Cube was just starting to get into movie producing.

People in the movie business were saying that John Singleton needed a hit, and he got one in the movie Higher Learning.

A president

[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos] 
[Eli Reed/Magnum Photos] 

I made this image of President Obama coming into the White House rose garden.

I am fond of the photograph for a number of reasons.

When he came into view it was like watching Gary Cooper, John Wayne and John Shaft all together in one man. He has accomplished so much when people were wanting and expecting the impossible.

Americans have passed a litmus test of sorts, twice, by electing him and he has achieved amazing things in spite of a ferocious racism –  the likes of which has never before been seen in the White House.

Perhaps that is the telling point: he has been able to accomplish all that he has in spite of all that.

About the photographer: Eli Reed was accepted into the Magnum collective by the member photographers as a nominee in 1983, an associate in 1985, and was voted in as a full member in 1988. He is the author of several books, including Black in America, and has covered wars in Central America, the civil war in Lebanon, US military action in Panama and the lives of African Americans, among other things. Eli Reed: A Long Walk Home, a retrospective about what it means to be human, featuring 261 photographs taken over 45 years and prefaced by Paul Theroux, was published in May.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

This article first appeared in a special edition of the Al Jazeera Magazine exploring race in the US. Download it for iPads and iPhones here, and for Android devices here.  

Source: Al Jazeera