Photography is a powerful medium used to attract public attention and influence perceptions of current social and political issues. With a range of methods and visual techniques, artists create images that evoke an emotional response from the viewers, making them feel sympathy, fear, joy, or anger, and think deeper about the subject. The works of Joshua Rashaad McFadden, an award-winning photographer of African American origin, explore the themes of race, identity, gender, and social inequality. This paper analyzes two series of photographs by Joshua McFadden, Come to Selfhood, and After Selma. The purpose of the research is to discuss how the artist communicates with the viewer through his photographs and how his works help raise awareness about racial injustice.
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About the artist
Joshua Rashaad McFadden is a New York-based visual artist of African American origin who was born in Rochester, New York, in 1990. In 2015, he was chosen as one of the world’s top emerging talents by Lens Culture and won the International Photography Award (IPA) for his project After Selma. In 2016, he won the first-place IPA award again for his series and book Come to Selfhood. He is most known for his portraits and the use of archival materials in his projects.
After Selma is a series of black-and-white photographs shot by Joshua Rasheed McFadden during uprisings across America against police violence towards African American citizens. The title of the project alludes to the Selma to Montgomery marches held in 1965 to demonstrate the desire of African American citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Unarmed marchers were attacked by the police, and several protesters were killed. The marches resulted in the signing of the Voting Rights Act that secured the right to vote for racial minorities throughout the country.
The After Selma project documents the 50th anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery marches in a series of photos taken during 2015 protests mirroring similar scenes from the past. The project aims to attract attention to the racial struggle that unfolded in the USA fifty years ago and is still going on today and emphasize their similarities. The series includes portraits and landscapes that tell the story of social and racial injustices and the battle for civil rights.
To effectively communicate with the viewer, the author uses black and white photography. It emphasizes the project’s historical roots and establishes the connection between modern protests and the marches of the past. For the project, the artist claims to have used the photos that spoke to him the most: “I hope people will develop the same emotional connection with these photographs that I felt” (“After Selma”). For example, in the photo titled “The Beginning of Another 50 Years…” two young black men hold hands in the foreground while behind their backs, several protesters waving flags can be seen (McFadden, The Beginning of Another 50 Years…). The black and white color palette emphasizes the connection to the past, while the expressions of the men’s faces show extreme concentration and determination, evoking sympathy and understanding. The most expressive pictures of the protests are not staged, creating a live connection to the events and characters and drawing the viewers into a powerful sense of engagement (Mattoni and Teune 880). The color palette, the choice of photos, and the emotional depth of the photographs make a powerful illustration of the black rights movement that helps to change public perceptions of the protests.
Come to Selfhood
Come to Selfhood is a project that comprises a series of photographs and a book exploring the topics of black male identity, masculinity, and racial stereotypes. For the project, McFadden photographed young black men from various parts of the USA and asked them to share their personal stories. Each portrait is accompanied by the subject’s handwritten response to the questions about black male identity, and a photo of their father or father figure.
Using a combination of visual techniques, the artist aims to achieve two purposes. The first is to explore how black men perceive themselves compared to how society perceives them. Most subjects note that society sees them as aggressive and illiterate despite their background and character. Cameron Goins, one of the men photographed for the project, notes, “We are violent, we are ignorant, we are criminals, we are loud, we are aggressive, we sell drugs, we trap. These perceptions impact me every day because as a black male I am automatically stereotyped because of my skin as opposed to my character” (McFadden, Cameron Goins Left, and His Father, Keith Goins). The series shows that black people often have to live with the idea of “blackness” imposed upon them rather than created by them.
Through personal statements, McFadden demonstrates that each black man has his views on his identity based on his background, reality, memory, and experience. Raheem Pounds, another subject of the project, writes, “the qualities and characteristics that I identify as a black male in America would be my intelligence, my passion for people I love and care for and my strength to preserve through hard times” (McFadden, Raheem Pounds Left, and His Great-Great-Grandfather, David Barr). Many subjects stress that stereotypes greatly influence their lives but help them to develop a strong sense of self-identity despite the public’s racial prejudices.
The second theme raised in the project is the connection between generations and the idea of masculinity. While asking his subjects to discuss the concept of masculinity, the author pairs each portrait with a photograph of the character’s father or father figure at approximately the same age. The men often bear a strong physical resemblance to the figures that choose, and in their statements, pay tribute to the legacy of their fathers who have shaped their views and beliefs. The portrait of Raheen Pounds is paired with a photo of his great-great-grandfather, and a capture, “I was raised in a southern black home and was always taught to be proud of my blackness and accept who I am am am. They are fathers, brothers, friends, hard workers, that push through any difficult situation” (McFadden, Raheem Pounds Left, and His Great-Great-Grandfather, David Barr). The pairing of the contemporary portrait and the old photograph allows the viewer to feel the emotional connection through which the sense of proudness and dignity is passed on through generations.
The artist communicates with the audience using a combination of techniques. The complex nature of the portraits encourages viewers to thoroughly look into each piece: read the statement, examine the photo, look for the resemblance, and contemplate the subject’s character and background. The handwritten statements create a sense of intimacy, while the archival photos serve as a link between generations, and the masterfully shot portraits allow viewers to look deeper into each character’s personality.
The result is more than a simple portrait, providing a deeper understanding of who the characters are. Through abstracts from interviews, the viewers get to know the subjects, their families, values, and challenges that they face in a predominantly white society. As Roberts (para. 19) notes, “we are adept at “reading” complex text-image relations, selecting how we understand them, and providing our meaning.” The viewers are encouraged to relate to the characters, draw parallels with their own stories, look at black men from another perspective, and rethink their views on racial inequality. The author’s goal is, apart from artistic expression, to increase public awareness surrounding the problems that African American males experience in modern American society.
In his projects, Joshua Rashaad McFadden focuses on the issues of racial inequality and black identity. His photographs are a powerful illustration of the modern reality of black people in America. From protesters during the 50th anniversary of the Salma-Montgomery marches to young black people in Atlanta, his portraits aim to show the connection between generations and the constant struggle experienced by every black person in America. Raiford wrote on the photography of African American protests, “it is not just a depiction but a sample of the subject’s flesh and bone that questions the connotations of what the skin (photographic and racial) is meant to denote” (Raiford 13). This description can also be applied to Joshua McFadden’s projects. Through the use of simple but powerful techniques: color palette, a combination of media, choice of photographs, and editing, he creates emotionally expressive images that evoke a response from viewers and make them rethink their views on racial inequality.
“After Selma.” LensCulture, 2015, Web.
Mattoni, Alice, and Simon Teune. “Visions of Protest: A Media-Historic Perspective on Images in Social Movements.” Sociology Compass, vol. 8, no. 6, 2014, pp. 876–887, Web.
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McFadden, Joshua Rashaad. Cameron Goins Left, and His Father, Keith Goins. 2016. Lenscratch, Web.
McFadden, Joshua Rashaad. Raheem Pounds Left, and His Great-Great-Grandfather, David Barr. 2016. Lenscratch, Web.
McFadden, Joshua Rashaad. The Beginning of Another 50 Years… 2015. LensCulture, Web.
Raiford, Leigh. Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle. UNC Press Books, 2011.
Roberts, Brian. “Photographic Portraits: Narrative and Memory.” Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol. 12, no. 2, 2011, Web.