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History Repeating: Bright Documents Gen Y Activism

by Kimberly Lawson

History Repeating: Bright Documents Gen Y Activism

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Picture by Sheila Pree Bright

May 30, 2016

For anyone who’s followed the ongoing fight for civil rights, many of the images in photographer Sheila Pree Bright’s series 1960Now are familiar. In some, protesters appear silent but resolved, holding signs that say “Black Lives Matter.” In others, there’s movement: Children lead a march, fists are raised in the air, and mouths are wide open in chant. The images are in black and white, revealing how timeless the struggle for equality is. Were these shots taken in 1960 or today?

1960Now, on display at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture through June 26, is a collection of photos from the Black Lives Matter Movement, shot by Bright in 2015. The project was a natural progression for the artist. Her previous series, 1960Who, offered portraits of young activists who made an impact during the Civil Rights Movement; Bright plastered their images on walls in downtown Atlanta to raise their profile.

When the 2012 not-guilty verdict came down for George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and the Black Lives Matter Movement started to pick up steam, Bright knew she had to take her camera to the protests and document the experience, including capturing portraits of the young leaders.

Bright says she started documenting Generation Y activists because she realized the country was starting to shift socially and politically, and she wanted to draw attention to the “young visionaries fighting the same fights their grandparents and parents fought.”

On Friday, June 3, at 6 p.m., Bright will be at the Gantt Center (ticket info here) to talk about her work photographing these young leaders of the past and present. Charlotte Viewpoint chatted with the self-described introvert (“If you take the camera away from me,” she says, “and put me in a room with a whole bunch of people, I would sit and be very observant and not talk”) about her humble beginnings in photography, her time amongst Black Lives Matter protesters and what she hopes viewers see in her work.

(This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

How did you get into photography?

My shyness and being very introverted: I was always the young child who read books and didn’t talk to people. My last year in college, in undergrad, I took a photography course and was really inspired by that. It allowed me to speak through the camera. I never knew I was going to be a photographer/artist. My undergrad degree was textile design.

The portraits in your 1960Who and 1960Now series are shot close-up from the subject’s chin to the top of the head, and there’s very little white space. Is there any reasoning behind this framing?

The reason why I did that was because it was the first body of work I produced via public art piece. I wanted you to see the faces of the people who were in the Civil Rights Movement. If you notice, what I did was [direct] your concentration on the eyes where they’re staring back at you. These were the youth leaders of the ’60s. Mr. Charles Pearson, one of the Freedom Riders, he got on the bus at 19 years old. They were saying, we just had to make a change. The whole point was to really show the public who these people are, who changed the face of the nation. They were young people just like any other generation.

During your time photographing the protests, were you equal parts observer and participant, or were you first and foremost a photographer?

That’s a great question. First of all, I want to say this: I do what comes from my heart, and I’m very passionate.

I’ll tell you a story that happened to me when I was in Baltimore. Freddie Gray passed that Sunday, and Monday is when the protests started with the young people. I don’t know anything about Baltimore. I went into West Baltimore, where you have the police station in the middle of the community, and you had all of the cop cars surrounding the police station. When I got out of my car, I don’t know why I was so dumbfounded; I felt like I was in a third world country. I said, 'oh my god, these people are living like this.' I immediately pulled out my camera to start photographing the environment, not the people. And the people saw me and they cussed me out. They went off on me and told me to get the hell out. They told me didn’t want me there. They didn’t want white people there. They didn’t want the media there. “Because the only time you come into our community is when you want to do a negative story.”

And so I said to myself, what am I going to do. I told them, “If you guys watch CNN, do you guys remember when the uprising happened in Ferguson, and Don Lemon said, ‘I think I smell marijuana in the air.’” They said yeah, that was effed up, and I said, yeah that was effed up. That’s how I was able to connect with them. I told them I was from Atlanta, and that I was an artist and I wanted to speak the truth through my camera.

One of the ladies came up to me and she said, “I’m going to tell you a story. I just got out jail, I’ve been on crack and I don’t have any money. Do you have any money?” I said, “Ma’am, I don’t have any money, but I can give you a hug.” So we hugged each other, and we cried.

So with that, I’m more of an observer. I don’t really participate in the marches with them, but I’m very observant of people.

What were you aiming to show in your photos?

Passion, even in this state … with the protests. I wanted to show the love, the passion and the frustration. It’s not anger; it’s frustration. When I say the word anger, it paints a negative picture in your mind. Black folks in these urban communities are very frustrated. That’s what you’re seeing. I saw the pain and I even saw the love there. It’s a very emotional experience. What I like to show in my work as an artist, even as a portrait or me being on the ground photographing a protest, I want to show the compassion. I want to take the negative and show the beauty and the justice that lies within all of us. 

#1960Now from sheila pree bright on Vimeo.

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Tags: photography, #blacklivesmatter, activism, Gantt Center, Civil Rights, Sheila Pree Bright, Trayvon Martin

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