One Artist's Journey To Photograph The Black Men Of America
One year, 16 cities, 47 portraits, and one plea: "I ask you to see us as we see ourselves."
After the death of Trayvon Martin, photographer Tesfa Alexander was moved to create the "I Am" photo project, a beautiful look at the everyday lives, struggles, and joys of black men around the country.
He explains the backstory behind the project on his website:
"In August 2013, a few weeks after the verdict for the murder of Trayvon Martin, I found myself reflecting on my life experiences as a black man and the conflict between who we are versus who people think we are. A year later with the murder of Mike Brown, I find myself in the same position. Despite how we define ourselves, we are often misunderstood and misjudged. Our identifies are too often limited by our complexions, the style of our clothes, the music we listen to, the side of the law we stand on, the mood of the cops we encounter, and the history of our struggles for citizenship in our own country. Yes, we are black men, but before that we are human.
This photo project is a year-long effort to capture the identities of black men across the country. Through the project, I share just a snippet of how we define ourselves: fathers, sons, friends, artists, teachers, men full of passion and love… the list goes on. I ask you to see us as we see ourselves."
Alexander photographed 47 men from 16 different cities through the course of one year.
Finding the subjects was simple, he tells BuzzFeed, "as long as someone was willing to participate, then I felt that their self-description should be shared." All of the participants are roughly three to four degrees removed from him. Before arriving in a new city, Alexander put out a call to anyone he knew in the city and explained the project to family and friends who could get the word out. But he also notes that he reached out to people he met on the street: "It was important to me to branch out and meet men who were outside of my circle of friends, family, and acquaintances. Overall, it was a very humbling and inspiring experience."
He asked every participant one question: "Who are you?" Here are a few of their responses:
Andre C. — Knoxville, Tennessee
"I was Trayvon Martin in 2002. At 17 years old… I had baggy clothes, cornrowed braids, often seen with no shirt… and rarely smiled. I was also an honor student, painfully shy, never suspended from school, never took drugs or alcohol, attended school almost all the time, and helped my grandfather in the yard every weekend.
By my appearance, I was a thug and up to no good. I wore those clothes because rappers wore them. I wore cornrowed braids because Allen Iverson and the group Outkast had them. What I wore was not evidence that I was a thug… it was evident that I followed popular culture."
Mike A. — South Memphis, Tennessee
"I want to be infinite. I want things to be timeless… from every aspect of me. There are things you can't buy with money. And one of those things is memories. Memories…. these memories [pointing to house], you can't get back. Memories are what define you… that's your legacy.
I remember living here and my mom was on crack… crack cocaine. My dad was an alcoholic. I was resentful of both my parents, but I realized I have to accept what it is and who they are. It made me who I am. You want what people deny you. Now I did the opposite… I have a stable life. I have a wife and kids. I have an appreciation for life because of those hardships."
Dayon G. — Bronx
"That's how I feel… trapped. I feel like I fell into a trap they set out for me. And now I'm in the hands of people who are conditioned to fear me."
John J. — Memphis
"I was doing a job [yard work] and a guy pulled up and said 'I seen you.' I asked 'do you need anything?' He says 'I see you come out of my house last night.'
Then he called the police on me and the next thing, the police came and arrested me and gave me a charge. I later found out that the guy didn't see no one. I found out it was his wife that said she saw a guy on a bicycle that looked like me with a backpack… but I ain't got no backpack.
I went to jail and they let me go after 3 months because the lady didn't show up in court. They took 3 months of my life… I lost a lot of customers after that. People I was working with for years… people that left me at their house and everything.
I work for a living. I'm an honest person."
Kwesi + Xolani J. — Whittier, California
"Being a dad is important to me. I want to be there for him… for him to understand who he is. Based on how he looks, I don't want it to get lost that he's a black man.
Being a father is about being honest with my kids and myself."
Spencer L. — Boston
"Visiting science centers is what started it all… that and my grandmother who told me when I was drawing spaceships that 'you should be an aerospace engineer'… and today that's what I am.
As a black man… my wife always tells me I beat the odds. But I don't see it that way. I see it as just standing on the shoulders of my family."
Adeshi M. + Andres O. — Little Rock, Arkansas
"The thing about love… we look at it from a divine aspect. Love is eternal… for today, for tomorrow and forever. Even as we're out here for a 6 mile run… we talk about love everyday.
We've known each other for 4 years. This is my brother."
Kenny T. + Dontrell M. — Oakland
"This is our home. We've invested our heart… our life into this. This is where we can creatively let go no matter what's going on in the world… at home. You get in a argument with a chick… go to the studio. You feeling happy… go to the studio. They elected Obama… go to the studio. They killed Oscar Grant… go to the studio.
We're at war. This is war. There's an invisible war going on everyday. Trayvon… Oscar… we're all casualties of war."
Bobby E. — Potomac, Maryland
"Manhood is defined in so many ways and it's challenged in so many ways. My father was principle in helping me define that. Growing up as a gay black boychild I always had a conflict with how manhood is defined… it's often defined by how may women you sleep with, how aggressive you can be… it's about your prowess.
My father taught me that manhood is actually about accountability, it's about responsibility… Now I'm at an age where I am confident in knowing what it means to be a man. I am a proud, black, gay, educated man."
Jesse J. — Memphis
"As a black man I always have to do twice as much as my white counter parts…. Twice as much to get a job… twice as much to get respect… twice as much to do whatever.
It's been a big struggle my whole life… fight for what's right and fighting against racism. I believe in fighting for what is right… fighting for those who can't fight for themselves."
Jayson P. — Oakland
"I feel pretty courageous… having the courage to live and know when to walk away. Knowing the deck is stacked up against me, it takes a lot of courage to still push on and fight against that."
Levon S. — Fort Myers, Florida
"There's a lot of history here in this school. This school dates back to 1942 and is an addition to the first government funded school for black students in the city. I spent 35 years as a teacher in the school system… 22 years as a high school basketball coach. I was the third black head coach in this area.
I've been in Ft. Myers all my life. I've been doing all I can to improve the community."
Antonio "2 Shay" — Memphis
"I come from humble beginnings. I've been homeless twice. I am grateful to be where I am. I am a sitting state representative for the state of Tennessee. I am thankful for having that story to tell and being in a position to help people…my people."
Adam T. — Washington, D.C.
"Everyone thought I was crazy for going into television. It was high risk. I was persistent and confident and knew I would get a job in television if I worked hard.
My mother is a hard-working Greek woman that stepped outside the box and had two children with a black man. Growing up, I was always back and forth… am I black… am I white. When I got to college I blossomed… I realized… I'm biracial. That's who I am."
Eugene R. — Roxbury, Massachusetts
"As a teacher I like to push the limits of thinking wherever possible. I often try to get my students to think, 'What's their perception of self? What's their perception of race and class? Why are things the way they are?'
A lot of what we do [as teachers] is building. I'm one of many builders of this final product… of a person."