At the onset of protests against police brutality, Joshua Rashaad McFadden, assistant professor of photography at Rochester Institute of Technology, set out to document them.
Despite the threat of COVID-19, McFadden decided to capture the historic social justice efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters—most recently in Rochester—while aiding in that narrative as a Black photographer. McFadden’s work mainly explores African American male identity, masculinity, notions of the father figure and the photographic archive.
His practice provides a frame of reference that articulates the many personalities of Black men. McFadden also focuses his lens on social justice issues such as police brutality and has documented protests across the United States. He was named one of the top emerging talents in the world by LensCulture and received the first place International Photography Award for “After Selma,” a series that conveys McFadden’s response to numerous recent incidents of police brutality.
I have been following McFadden’s journey since graduate school. We were colleagues at Savannah College of Art and Design in 2013.
I’ve spoken recently with my friend about his experience recording the Black Lives Matter protests. Here is an edited version of our conversations.
RALPH B. WATKINS: Rochester is reckoning with Daniel Prude’s death in police custody and the subsequent BLMprotests have taken a deeper meaning for Rochesterians. As you capture these moments in Rochester, as you have done across the nation, what goes through your mind? What do you see through your lens?
JOSHUA RASHAAD McFADDEN: What goes through my mind when I document these protests is sheer disbelief in the depth of both the personal and systemic racism displayed throughout the country. Here we have communities in mourning over the lives of their loved ones being taken, protesting the abuses of the powers that be. Yet, the retaliation to the justified outrage is a threat and provocation from law enforcement. What I see is a tireless effort to continue to expose the injustice in this country. I see a Black community that is tried and hurting. I see mothers who’ve lost their children; I see Joe Prude, who lost his brother, Daniel. I see racists who continue to spew hatred; I see white people walking fully and proudly within their complicity.
WATKINS: This journey started for you on May 28th or so. I recall texting you on May 29th when you were in Minneapolis. Why did you travel to Minneapolis, and what did you hope to do when you got there?
McFADDEN: After I heard the news about George Floyd, I decided to document the tragedy. I simply felt a need and a pressing to go, so I made a snap decision to do so the next morning after the first night of unrest. I even drove overnight to be there. There was no excuse, no grounds, no justification on any level for this man to be killed, and with the video to prove it; the nation realized it this time. By being there, I had hoped to be the eyes for the Black community, to reveal our story as it unfolded.
WATKINS: How did you feel when you arrived in Minneapolis? Why do your feelings matter as a photographer?
McFADDEN: There was an overwhelming sadness that covered the entire city, not only sadness but feelings of rage, confusion, frustration, and hopelessness. I felt this, too. Although I had a job to do in Minneapolis, I could identify with most, if not all, of these emotions, and it’s natural. I think to be human is to feel, and I believe these feelings matter as a photographer because it allowed me to connect with what I was capturing, to empathize and see the subject in a humanizing light.
WATKINS: What was it about Minneapolis and the murder of George Floyd that spoke to you as an African American male, and why do you think it matters?
McFADDEN: As an African American male, I know what it is like to be racially profiled. People expect the worst from you before they meet you. Most of my creative works investigate how Black men navigate this world, which many times is in the form of survival-mode as we too often endure experiences ranging from overt violence to covert microaggressions. I have four brothers, and we all have had these experiences.
WATKINS: How do you feel COVID-19 is affecting the Black Lives Matter movement’s fight against racial injustice in America? Which is the more significant threat to Black communities, in your opinion?
McFADDEN: This is such a historic moment because we are fighting two pandemics: one that has been a problem for centuries—racism—and the other being COVID-19, a virus that has blindsided the world. We are witnessing the impact of systemic racism in terms of the trajectory of COVID-19, too. Black Americans contract and die of COVID at a higher rate than anyone else due to the health disparities in the country. Black Americans see the fight for justice as more important than staying indoors because racism affects everything and everyone in this country, possibly at a deeper level—even down to the differences in how we are treated for COVID-19.
WATKINS: Working on the grounds of protest sites, what are the elements that you look for to determine a moment worth capturing?
McFADDEN: I think there is a higher power that moves within me and guides me. I try to simply live in the present and capture what I see, such as when I find particular moments within the tragedy. I look to capture raw feelings and authentic moments, whether I am holding a conversation with members of the community, interviewing participants, or making portraits.
WATKINS: As you photograph this time of national unrest, what do you think protestors are trying to communicate most to America? What do you feel is enraging Blacks more than anything, especially as a Black man yourself?
McFADDEN: Even in the face of unwelcoming actions, to say the least, I think protesters are trying to communicate that they are here to stay and not going anywhere. We have to think about the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement has been happening since 2012, and continues to be a prevalent mainstay fighting for Black communities, even when it wasn’t popular. I think it’s the constant denial of humanity that enrages Black Americans the most, which is one of the main reasons for the BLM movement: to remind the nation that even though Black bodies are frequently disregarded and disrespected, Black lives do, in fact, matter.
WATKINS: At the onset of #BlackLivesMatter, mainstream America was quite skeptical of the movement. Now, more than ever, individuals and massive corporations are onboard after the police murder of George Floyd. What about this particular case do you feel made America take notice?
McFADDEN: I think at this point, the stories surrounding George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks are so inconceivable to much of America, and yet there are videos. It’s undeniable now. People cannot sit and ignore the experiences Black Americans have every single day. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to be more aware of what is happening as well. At the time of these tragedies, people were working from home or not working at all. Students were home. All forms of entertainment were halted. In this dormant environment, social issues were brought to the forefront. People could not deny that video of a police officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, and this is after Floyd said that he couldn’t breathe and called for his mother, who was already deceased.
WATKINS: As a Black photographer, what has been your experience navigating this racially charged climate while documenting it?
McFADDEN: Take all of the terrible experiences of racial profiling that a Black man has typically daily, and combine that with documenting unrest in America. To be questioned at every point in my day, understandably slows my productivity. It is exhausting trying to continually circumvent potential issues.
WATKINS: Working on the grounds, you no doubt hear the stories of community members. What story has been the most heart wrenching, painful to hear?
McFADDEN: They all have been so heartbreaking, mainly because each person I’ve interviewed was dealing with a tragedy in their own lives. For example, one young man just lost his mother the same week George Floyd was murdered. I met him at Floyd’s memorial in front of the Closed Cup Foods store in Minneapolis. It’s easy to forget the layered tragedies people are experiencing right now, and we must remember that Black Americans always have to deal with racism amid the daily struggles in life.
Rev. Ralph B. Watkins is the Peachtree Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth at Columbia Seminary. He spoke with McFadden for the Rochester Beacon.