cover art of changes big and small profiling Bryon Summers with his camera

Shownotes

Currently, I’m focused on a special series exploring equality, justice, and anti-racism. Today, I’m speaking with Bryon Summers who lives in New Jersey to explore the role of photography in anti-racism protests. I contacted Bryon after seeing this photo on Instagram. I explained to him that this is why I contacted him. The podcast starts with his response to my confirmation.

View this post on Instagram

Honestly I don’t know how to get back. . We’ve been in the house for months due to Covid-19 and I was fine with being inside. The weather was still cold so going outside wasn’t a priority. Then we hit another race related tipping point and it felt like the world forgot about one disease / pandemic to focus on another – racism. . People are angry. The streets are hot and the Summer just started. There was no other place to go BUT outside. So we protest and social distance. All while some, like myself, worry in the back of our minds about interacting with people and COVID-19. . It reminds me of one of the points of @TheWeLoveYouProject – giving people an alternative to the traditional front line. Reinforcing the message from a digital vantage point. On top of that, I just love seeing people in the street or social media wearing a black tee with the simple comforting and sometimes disarming phrase – We Love You. . I’m still dipping my toes in the water. It’s been an adjustment for sure. I’ll probably participate in more marches in the future as long as it’s bike friendly. . 📷 x @dolo_foto . #TheWeLoveYouProject #BLM #Covid19 #Newark #GeorgeFloyd #BreannaTaylor #ahmadaubrey #blacklivesmatter

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Professional Background

Bryon Summers has honed his craft as a portrait photographer, capturing classical images of guests of the hip hop and culture podcast, “The Combat Jack Show”, in addition to hosting two of his own weekly photography based podcasts, “We’re Getting Better” and “Shooting With Shooters”.

Since moving to New York in 2013, Summers has worked on personal photography projects that eventually led to art exhibitions in New York and Washington, DC after taking the stage at a Creative Mornings New York event, Bryon was bitten by the speaking bug. Since then he has used his experiences in media, fine arts and personal life to share with audiences.

The We Love You Project

In addition to creating ‘We’re Getting Better”. Summers has held educational workshops at universities and agencies about diversity in the media. In 2016, Summers has turned his attention to helping to change the negative narrative of black men with the goal of taking 1000 photos of black men and boys with the “We Love You” project. The series was installed as a mural in DC, as well as online with the Google Cultural Institute.

Overview of the Interview

Amongst other topics, Bryon and I talk about social change movements, photos of black men, being a black man in America and racism, demonstrating and other forms of activism. We start off the conversation with the conversation talking about how I came across Brandon’s profile and contacted him.

Find more work from Bryon including his social links via the weloveyouproject.com and bryonsummers.com.


Timeline of the Chat

1:55 – Introduction
2:56 – Thoughts on marching
7:13 – The black shirt of The We Love You Project and what it means
11:36 – What Bryon does (since we skipped that earlier 🙂)
13:10 – What’s captivating about portrait photography
14:29 – How the We Love You Project started and cities involved
15:55 – Lessons learned from the project and the change we see and don’t see
20:50 – Focusing on men for the project
25:52 – The call to demonstrate
31:05 – Living as a Black man in America
35:35 – Thinking about the future
38:50 – Call to action


Quotes from the chat

If you’re washing one hand with a dirty hand, how are you going to get clean?

As long as we document what’s going on, have an accurate history that we teach the generations to follow, we cannot necessarily rest easy, but we can feel better equipped for the future. There is always going to be conflict.

If you’re a photographer or an artist or creative, definitely document the time and preserve it.

Everything’s in the cloud now They can’t burn that so just take as many pictures, be as accurate as you can and find your approach. Even if it’s not going out into the street, find your creative way to help amplify the voice and to document what’s going on so we can progress as a global society


Full Interview Transcript

Intro

Damianne: [00:00:00] Thank you for listening to this episode of Changes BIG and small. This is your host Damianne. Each week I share research or interview guests to help you make changes in your own life. Currently, I’m focused on a special series, exploring equality, justice, and anti-racism. 

Today I’m speaking with Bryon Summers who lives in New Jersey. Bryon Summers has honed his craft as a portrait photographer, capturing classical images of guests of the hip hop and culture podcast The Combat Jack Show in addition to hosting two of his own weekly photography based podcasts, We’re Getting Better and Shooting With Shooters. 

Since moving to New York in 2013, Summers has worked on personal photography projects that eventually led to art exhibitions in New York and Washington DC. After taking the stage at a Creative Mornings New York event, Bryon was bitten by the speaking bug. Since then, he has used his experiences in media, fine arts and personal life to share with audiences. In addition to creating We’re Getting Better, Summers has held educational workshops at universities and agencies about diversity in the media.

In 2016, Summers turned his attention to helping to change the negative narrative of black men with the goal of photographing 1000 men and boys with the We Love You Project. The series was installed as a mural in DC, as well as online with the Google Cultural Institute. Find more work from Bryon via weloveyouproject.com and bryonsummers.com. 

Welcome Bryon, I’m happy that you managed to find time to chat with me so quickly.

Bryon: [00:01:56] No problem. Like I mentioned in the bio, I started the We Love You Project about four years ago and it kind of slowed momentum a little bit. And recently with the current tipping point boiling over, everybody having their own uprisings in their different cities, I was kind of hesitant to march. The very first time that I had something in me to do something, it wasn’t the march. It was like, how do I use my talents? And the same thing happened again. Add in COVID and I’m like, I’m not going out here, but it was right outside my door. So I had to go and I had to choose a shirt to wear and I was thinking, okay, well, let me just don’t want my We Love You shirt.

The project is one of those projects where it ended, but the work doesn’t stop. So people always are going to ask you, Oh, when are you going to do that again or when is phase two, phase three. So it was funny that I wore that shirt that day and then immediately afterwards, things started to pick up a little bit. So it’s just funny how it happens. 

Damianne: [00:02:51] There’s power in  those words, definitely. 

Bryon: [00:02:55] Yup. 

Damianne: [00:02:56] So what was your reluctance with marching? What were you thinking, feeling that you didn’t want to demonstrate?

The reluctance with marching and demonstrating.

Bryon: [00:03:03] Four years ago when I took the initiative to help bring people together with this photo project, my reluctance then was marching, it’s not dead, but it’s a thing of the past. We learn about Martin Luther King and his strategies. Actually we don’t even learn about the strategies; we learn about Martin Luther King marching, Martin Luther King went to jail because he demonstrated. Malcolm X was a little more extreme and he got killed for it. 

So my learning growing up in school was that, and I think I was listening to Shaun King very recently say something I’m going to paraphrase because he said the way that we learn history about these leaders is always conflict, conflict, conflict, conflict. There is no rest or how do I deal with my family? And then back then, obviously there’s no internet; it’s just newspaper so you’ve got to strategize on how to get into the paper. So I was thinking this was an old style of protesting. It still might work, but it might take longer today. Today, we have technology like my cell phone. We know about all of these present-day Emmett Tills because of everybody’s cell phone. 

But during the time of actual Emmett Till, we only knew about that one nationally because of the press that he got. Or even one of the King’s, one of his demonstrations when they were in Alabama, I believe, the famous picture that we all know from civil rights history. It looks like a black, young man being attacked by a police dog. But in reading the Malcolm Gladwell book, I realized that that was planned. We knew what the racist officers and the racist society was going to do and how they would react. But when they protested, first of all, they filled the church. So it was like a safe ground, holy ground. And then they invited kids out to this event at this church.

It was just a bunch of mess going on in Alabama. It was bait for this community to have a tipping point and then it spilled over. And then next thing you know, we got an awesome photo of racism happening with this dog being sic on this young man. So it’s a casualty, but it’s a strategy.

Or even marching, the sitting in, we did that back then so we could fill the jails so that you can’t send us nowhere else and you have to see us cause it’s power in numbers. So the people now marching, are you prepared to go to jail and fill up the jail because that was the strategy back then and how are we moving forward with it today. So I thought for myself, from my own perspective, how can I contribute if I’m already hesitant to march?

I’m not the only one, but I don’t want to go out and risk getting teargassed or being another name when I can try to strategize from where I am in my city. And that’s digitally. If I can reach people across the world faster than I can in the street, then that’s my calling. And I can aid any Black Lives Matter movement by showing the visuals or showing the people, showing the images of the Black lives that matter. 

Damianne: [00:05:59] So it sounds to me like you looked at the strategy that was used before and through reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book and your own thinking, you realized that, okay, this is not just about demonstrating. It’s also about how do we get the visibility that we need in order to indicate that there is something wrong here and create the change that we want.

So the project that you came up with was the We Love You Project. And that is a project that shows representations of black men in a way that they can portray themselves. Because so often when we see a black man who’s been killed or who’s going through the courts, in the news, it’s the worst image that they could find.

It’s like, there was already something wrong with this person. Clearly they deserve to be in trouble of some sort. And it always gives me pause because I always think these are human beings, regardless of whether or not they did something wrong. And I don’t understand why this is the only perspective that you’re showing.

So I really appreciate the project and the work that you’ve been doing with showing a different perspective. I noticed that everybody wears a black shirt. Is this the, We Love You shirt that you then gift participants in the project?

The symbolism of the black t-shirt.

Bryon: [00:07:26] So the way it initially worked out was we invited people out. It was like a regular digital call to, I want to call it the models, but you know, it called the people to come take a picture.

We used to ask people to come wearing a black t-shirt. Obviously we had to keep refining it because some folks came up with black sequinned shirts or black mesh shirts. It’s was like, okay, I need a solid black cotton t-shirt, no graphic design on it. But yes, afterwards we gifted them a We Love You shirt. But for some cities that we had a chance to go to, somebody might not come exactly in uniform; it might be a charcoal shirt. And we just say, okay, you can put the shirt on now because the design on the shirt, it wasn’t that high up so that I won’t see We Love You. I’m actually wearing one right now and you can’t see it cause the camera’s cropped. 

Damianne: [00:08:09] So how did you decide on the black t-shirt? What were you going for with the aesthetic of the style that you use for the portraits? 

Bryon: [00:08:18] All right. So I think black was just subliminal. The whole thing about the portraits really was I wanted people marching together digitally like in solidarity. Even though it’s one photo of you, it’s you next to 999 other single photos.

So I had a chance to actually install a mural in DC at Union Market. They have just a bunch of white buildings, almost like a campus of buildings, to be honest, but it’s white buildings and I have black shirts on white backgrounds. That way it’s all neutral. You can focus on the person’s face and not necessarily their color or shade of color, cause everybody was black, but it ranged from the lightest of black people to the darkest of black people, to different sizes to different heights and whatnot, different ages, but the black shirt just brought it all together as the uniform; the black shirt matched with the white background. It just helped you focus more on the face. So everybody’s centered in their photos. You can see them. It’s who you think they are.

I used to live in Brooklyn. And if you’re familiar with Brooklyn, I used to say in Bed-Stuy . Brooklyn is split up by different neighborhoods and sections. So while I was living in Bed-Stuy and the three streets over was Nostrand Avenue, right? So, you know, by gentrification, in every place in the world, it happens.

But where I was staying was the part of Brooklyn, old part of Bed-Stuy that was already being gentrified; the prices of houses were already going up higher than the rest of Brooklyn or the rest of Bed-Stuy. And as soon as you cross over Nodstern Avenue going deeper into Bed-Stuy, you start to see cops patrolling two by two on every other street. 

Bed-Stuy’s a condensed place so it’s not far to go to the next street. So it’s two by two white cops patrolling down this black neighborhood. And I doubted any of these cops lived there, but me going to see one of my friends that lives in an area I would go over and I’d see these cops all the time. And me, I don’t know if it’s me being from the South or not, but I’m a little more friendly.  I might wave more. So I acknowledge people. So when I’m walking and I see these cops  I say, hi, how are you doing, alright? But you know, these cops are doing their job. I don’t know what their life is. Like, I don’t know what’s going on, what they’re thinking, but I know they don’t recognize me because I don’t live here.

But if you see people in the area that you work every day, you should be able to know that, okay, this person, even though I have to intervene in a situation, or if I don’t, I just know when this person is walking, they’re not a suspect. I know this is David, this is Johnny, this is Keisha, this is Sarah because I see them every day.

And I know even if they’re causing a problem or are the source of something, I can go and deescalate it more effectively because I know them. And if you see these images every day, even if you don’t see that person, if you see these people that are in this neighborhood everyday or somebody that looks like them, maybe you have a little more humanity or a little more compassionate about this person, because they are a person just like you.

They have a family to go back to just like you. So that’s one of the goals. I think I was able to do that in DC with that mural, but that’s the tangent reason for why they were wearing black shirts, just to make it all about just the face.

Bryon’s work

Damianne: [00:11:36] Let’s step back because we got started and I just kind of went with it.

So tell us what’s your work and by work, I don’t necessarily mean what you’re paid for, but also the thing that you do that you think serves others as well. 

Bryon: [00:11:50] I’m an artist. I went to school for design, but I’ve always been immersed in art ever since I was a kid. So my literal work is I’m in the media and I’m a content creator.

So it’s predominantly photography. Previous jobs, I produced video content podcasts, but my work that seems to have been a calling has been portrait photography and capturing photographs of people. That’s evolved over time. I felt like I was preparing for it when I moved to New York in 2013, and I was taking portraits at a podcast called the Combat Jack Show.  It was a weekly thing, sometimes twice a week, but every week I was taking portraits and in my nine to five, I was taking portraits of guests that came through all the time too. So that evolved into me, just her finding taking closeup shots and really finding the humanity in each person that I take a picture of.

So when that first tipping point for me happened with Philando Castile, Freddie Gray and Mike Brown, that group of three deaths helped me push towards scaling up those portraits and taking it from celebrities and podcast guests to everyday people. You might not know who they are because they haven’t a black shirt, whether it’s a celebrity or actual cop that might come out in solidarity as well.

Damianne: [00:13:10] What is it about portraits that really captivates you? I am not very good at photography, but I have some friends who are really into photography who love portraits as well. What is it about that that captivates you? 

Bryon: [00:13:22] I think a portrait is something that’s intimate. We’re taught, at least in America we’re taught not to stare at people, but you can stare at a photo and you can study a photo.

So if there’s somebody that’s interesting, in which everybody is interesting in their own way, if I can find something visually about it, that I like, whether it’s me a photographer or me the viewer, I think a portrait could be a chance to study somebody to assume possibly what they might’ve been through or how they got to this point right here.

And then you can change up a portrait with the most subtle details, even though it’s just a person’s face or maybe like shoulders up. So much in somebody’s expression, whether it’s a smile, a frown, a squint, an accessory they might have on their face, stuff like that, it is captivating to me about portrait photography.

The We Love You Project

Damianne: [00:14:09] I never thought about it that way, but as you explain it, that really makes sense because you can make time to really study a portrait and think about it and have curiosity in a way that we don’t always do. It’s an invitation, I guess, to be curious as well. So after this group of three who were killed by the police, you decided to do the We Love You Project. I think I read you went to four cities. Is that right? 

Bryon: [00:14:41] Yes. I started in Brooklyn, went from Brooklyn to DC. I come originally from the area so it was easy to just go back home. So it was Brooklyn, DC, Philly. I did a test in Norfolk with a few of my frat brothers and their family.

So I guess total is Norfolk, DC, Philly, Baltimore. And I had a chance to go out to San Jose to work with Google. So the internal, the black Googlers, the employees of Google, they call me out and we had a chance to take photos of the black workers of Google at that particular campus for one day. And it was a handful. It was one of those things where the goal of the project was to break the Internet. And I think if there’s a company to partner with to break the internet, it’s probably Google. 

Damianne: [00:15:37] Definitely

Bryon: [00:15:38] Yeah

Lessons Learned doing the We Love You Project

Damianne: [00:15:39] I love the work that you’ve been doing there. I’ve been sharing it with all my friends and saying, check this out, isn’t it great looking at all of these photos of all these different shades of black. It’s self selection, right, so people kind of being in control in some way of how they’re being portrayed. What have you learned from doing this project? 

Bryon: [00:15:58] One of the things that I’ve learned is the message. It just reinforced what I assumed it was. We are might joke about races possibly looking alike, but that’s one of those ignorant jokes. But you can’t deny it, we’re all brown. 

We’re all brown to a certain degree. Right. They might have similar hairstyles, but we’re very different. And I learned that every time I took a photo of somebody, you know, we might have photographed a hundred people in a day in some cities. I think I did 200 in DC in a day, but that means I have five minutes with everybody just to break the ice, if that.

I ask them, Hey, how you’re doing, how’d you hear about the project, what made you come out. A majority of the answers were, hey, my wife told me about it, my girlfriend brought me out or my daughter told me about it. So again, it’s reinforcing that women are the saviors and looking out for us as always.

And then I guess everyone has been different. I had a chance to photograph people on the West Coast and the East coast, people that I have no idea where they originated from. Like there was a young man that I photographed who was the son of one of the black Googlers. And I say son, but I would assume so because that’s what he looked like to me. His dad worked for Google, but his mom was there with him. And the mom mentioned that their son was about to reveal himself. So he was going through a transition. I can’t speak accurately and say that he was trans or queer or what the word that he might want to identify with is, but the person was wearing lipstick and they had a cowrie shell in the middle of their forehead.

I lived in New York for a while so I’m kind of used to seeing quote-unquote people that might come out weird, right. But at that moment, it’s like, I can’t be the one judging anybody. Cause I’m just taking your photo. I’m giving you the platform to take back your image, right? So this young person was about to transition and that was a big deal for them. It’s just like compared to a sweet 16 or whatever you want to call it, but that’s a turning point in their life and they’re going through this. So now that wasn’t the first time that somebody that was, I don’t want to say it’s more or less different, but they’re different even when it comes to what I asked for. I asked for black people to come out and you might think that that’s narrow, but it’s still super broad.

So this black person in this category, or however you want to label it, came out because they identify with overall being black and whether they’re black trans, or young black and old black from San Francisco, black from DC, it’s a very large range. And that’s only the United States. I guess it’s like that iceberg photo. We all love to reference the tip of the iceberg is whatever the issue is, but under the water, it’s so much. So the tip of it is what we look like on our outside but the iceberg in the water is everything that you don’t know until you actually get to know that person. 

Photos and change

Damianne: [00:19:04] Yeah, that’s interesting because in some ways we get used to judging people based on their photos.

And even when we might think that we’re taking back our image, people are still going to draw certain conclusions from what they see. So there’s a bit of a contrast here in between, on the one hand, a portrait shows a moment in time and it shows something very visual, but there is so much more to the person as well beyond that portrait.

Bryon: [00:19:35] And there’s definitely change as well. The young person I think was 15 or 16 and that was 2017, I believe, and it’s 2020 now. Who knows what they look like right now. I mean, I know their parents know but that’s three years. I’m 34 and I feel like I’ve lived three lifetimes. I’m not old, but if you think about it in seven to 10 years, it’s like a new generation. So I’m playing video games in here with my kid, knowing that I was born into video games, but she’s like really wanting to do them. So she’s going to be teaching me how to play something in a few years. So it’s all changing so a snapshot in 2016 might change drastically in four years.

We do these projects and we march and we protest when there’s a tipping point; it’s going on all the time but takes a gathering. I work in media so I’m always looking at it. Okay, we say death comes in threes. We saw this packet of three in the media, but it’s probably 300 going on, but they just packaged this and that got us to a boiling point and now we’re here. So we can’t just think this is over. We can arrest the guy, prepare for the next tipping point all the time. 

Damianne: [00:20:50] So with your project, you decided to focus on men. Why men, like you could have chosen families or any black person.

Bryon: [00:20:58] Right. And at the time I chose men because I guess first on the surface, I’m a man. So I identify with that first. And the question you asked earlier about all the black tees, I was trying to minimalize it as much as I could so that you can see this person. So the names that I heard, even though I actually saw the Sandra Bland thing happened around that time as well. So yes, for like every three males actually here being murdered in the news, just always at least one that we decide to talk about.

Even right now, it was three men, one woman, again, but I guess at the very base, I just chose men because I’m a guy and I was seeing a bunch of images of guys in the news dying. The goal was to take a thousand portraits of black men and then transition to a thousand portraits of black women. Even after me learning what I learned from taking those portraits of the black men, even though it might be my idea or visually as I spearheaded the first part of it if phase two is women, I felt like I would need a woman to do that or at least to definitely guide me or to be more involved in that. Because I know I can accurately represent a large group of men but how would you feel as a woman, if a man was photographing a bunch of women to say these are the women that came out.

Why focus on men for the We Love You Project

Damianne: [00:19:04] Yeah, that’s interesting because in some ways we get used to judging people based on their photos.

And even when we might think that we’re taking back our image, people are still going to draw certain conclusions from what they see. So there’s a bit of a contrast here in between, on the one hand, a portrait shows a moment in time and it shows something very visual, but there is so much more to the person as well beyond that portrait.

Bryon: [00:19:35] And there’s definitely change as well. The young person I think was 15 or 16 and that was 2017, I believe, and it’s 2020 now. Who knows what they look like right now. I mean, I know their parents know but that’s three years. I’m 34 and I feel like I’ve lived three lifetimes. I’m not old, but if you think about it in seven to 10 years, it’s like a new generation. So I’m playing video games in here with my kid, knowing that I was born into video games, but she’s like really wanting to do them. So she’s going to be teaching me how to play something in a few years. So it’s all changing so a snapshot in 2016 might change drastically in four years.

We do these projects and we march and we protest when there’s a tipping point; it’s going on all the time but takes a gathering. I work in media so I’m always looking at it. Okay, we say death comes in threes. We saw this packet of three in the media, but it’s probably 300 going on, but they just packaged this and that got us to a boiling point and now we’re here. So we can’t just think this is over. We can arrest the guy, prepare for the next tipping point all the time. 

Damianne: [00:20:50] So with your project, you decided to focus on men. Why men, like you could have chosen families or any black person.

Bryon: [00:20:58] Right. And at the time I chose men because I guess first on the surface, I’m a man. So I identify with that first. And the question you asked earlier about all the black tees, I was trying to minimalize it as much as I could so that you can see this person. So the names that I heard, even though I actually saw the Sandra Bland thing happened around that time as well. So yes, for like every three males actually here being murdered in the news, just always at least one that we decide to talk about.

Even right now, it was three men, one woman, again, but I guess at the very base, I just chose men because I’m a guy and I was seeing a bunch of images of guys in the news dying. The goal was to take a thousand portraits of black men and then transition to a thousand portraits of black women. Even after me learning what I learned from taking those portraits of the black men, even though it might be my idea or visually as I spearheaded the first part of it, if phase two is women, I felt like I would need a woman to do that or at least to definitely guide me or to be more involved in that. Because I know I can accurately represent a large group of men but how would you feel as a woman, if a man was photographing a bunch of women to say these are the women that came out.

Why have a woman involved in any projects that will portray women

Damianne: [00:22:25] Yeah interesting. I didn’t think about it that way until you said that. I think in general, it’s always a good idea when you’re trying to tell the story of somebody to have somebody of that group represented so it seems wise. I don’t think I would necessarily have a problem with a black man taking photos of black women but I think it is wise to have a black woman involved in this project for a perspective. Maybe there is some different twist in the way that you do it. Maybe it’s, I don’t know, pink shirts. I’m being stereotypical; maybe it’s green shirts. 

Bryon: [00:23:00] It’s an attention to detail that I might not have that another woman might have when she sees another woman.

It’s like, Oh, wait before you take this, are you okay with the way this looks? Whether it’s your hair, accessory, whatever it is that you need to make sure it’s right. Do you feel like it’s right? And I might not catch that because I’m ignorant to it. Well, that’s just because 

Damianne: [00:23:22] you’re a man.

Bryon: [00:23:22] Exactly. There’s no way to explain it.

So that was something that was always in my mind and the more the project went on, I was realizing, yeah, I can’t just do this by myself. I can’t meet be the lone photographer for this because people are going to nitpick about everything. If I choose 40 images of the people that I photograph, somebody will be like you don’t have any light-skinned people, you only have black, dark-skinned people in it. And I’m like, what are you talking about? I see this person being dark skin. You don’t see it being dark skin so it’s a whole thing. So if I do something else, I mean, it’s always going to happen. It’s always going to be somebody saying, well, you should have did this, you shouldn’t do that. Yeah.

The value of multiple perspectives

Damianne: [00:24:04] Yeah, but I guess it does add some value to have another perspective. It’s actually interesting because it’s making me think of some of the stuff I’m reading about anti-racist work and how some white people don’t think that there’s anything wrong in their life if they don’t know somebody who’s black. I’m trying to think of the range of people that we have in our lives, what does it add to our lives and what does it not?

I’ve been getting a bunch of messages from friends and in some cases, I know that I’m the only friend who looks like me. It’s interesting when you think about representation and are you the only voice that represents a whole group of people and what does that mean?

Bryon: [00:24:47] Right, right, right. It’s definitely interesting. What’s the phrase that folks say, I’m only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. I’m pretty sure there’s different versions of that. That doesn’t call somebody weak, but yeah, you are a representation of your peers and if your peers are not diverse, then how can you represent, you know. You need to do some learning, I guess; you need to diversify. Or if you want to be an expert in your own community, like your own five-mile radius, 20-mile radius, I guess that’s fine if your peer group looks like that radius, but if you want to get out in the world and speak on world issues or have world friends, you need to know what that’s like, and you can’t act the same way.

Why Bryon recently attended his first demonstration

Damianne: [00:25:34] We’ve talked a bit about your thoughts about protest, but the main reason that I contacted you is from seeing a photo on Instagram, where you were out on your bike, wearing your We Love You t-shirt. I guess there’s always this tension, right? On the one hand, you feel that the one way that you can really contribute to making change and for justice, equality, anti-racism is through the We Love You Project. But you also felt compelled to get on your bike and participate in a different way. Tell us about that. 

Bryon: [00:26:08] Yeah, so that day was interesting. Obviously I know what’s going on in the world. There’s protests going on. I live in a chocolate city, Newark, New Jersey, and I actually live two blocks away from city hall. So we have a lot going on. We have a black mayor whose father has a history of civil rights, but it’s just a lot of energy over here for equality. COVID-19 has us all in the house and I can adjust being inside all the time.

I draw, I’m on a computer all the time, but I do ride bikes and the weather’s changing. To be honest that day I was on the balcony with my daughter just blowing bubbles and I see a helicopter outside and I kind of put two and two together. I figured, oh wait, it must be a protest going on. And I was planning to ride my bike anyway.

So I hop on my bike. I figured where the protest might be and I thought it was over, but I was curious how it went around. And as a photographer, I always have my camera on me. So just hopped on my bike and I rode out there and it felt like they had just gotten started. And this is me coming out there like an hour behind when they were actually supposed to be out there.

So I hopped on my bike and I was out there. And I also figured that if this thing is over with, I can just go about my ride. I throw on my mask, black We Love You shirt, black pants, my bike’s black and white. So I kind of looked the part, I guess. So I went out there. And they were demonstrating and they blocked off Market Street, the main street which city hall is on and we just marched down, back and forth. Again, my mind was like, alright, I’m testing the waters. Cause I haven’t really been out the house and around people like that since COVID started. So I’m like, alright, I want to get out and be a part of this, but also don’t want to get sick.

I do have asthma and I feel like I’m probably one of the people that they say are high risk for getting COVID. So that was the hesitance really. And then I again I never really been out in a march like that. So I didn’t know the rules. I didn’t know if you had to register or what, but the bike helped me a lot.

Cause I was able to get out there and people were marching and they were on one block for a certain amount of time. And then they started to move up and down the street. And we walked around the street, at least once up and down. The bike helped me social distance, to be honest. So it was cool. I was trying not to be, you know, upon anybody cause I don’t want them to stop and me having to hit them with my bike.

And I wanted to be ahead of the pack or behind the pack just to capture photos. So I was able to move quickly with the bike. Several times I was able to just to get in front of the crowd and anticipate where they might be, actually set up a good shot. So just as me being able to get out and participate and again in my own way, the bike helped me out a lot. It helped me, I guess, get back into the community. 

Bryon’s thoughts on his first demonstration

Damianne: [00:28:51] What was the experience like for you? We’ve had some Black Lives Matter protests in Prague, and so I’ve been to a couple of them, but this was also my first time being in a protest. With, COVID-19, Czech Republic is much more open now. Stores are open, restaurants are open. But when you talk about you don’t really know the rules, I was telling my sister the same thing, like what do we do? But I actually found it a quite an exhilarating experience. I also try to remind myself that just demonstrating, especially from so far, doesn’t necessarily do very much, that there are other actions that are necessary to take, not just to demonstrate and then go home.

What are your thoughts? How are you feeling about the demonstration that you were in for the first time? 

Bryon: [00:29:40] I thought it was a good first-time demonstration; it wasn’t huge. Three days or almost a week before the protest that I went to, they had another one in Newark. And it was about 12,000 people out there.

So when I went out, I felt more like 400 people, if that. I’m not really good with estimating numbers, but it wasn’t 12,000. I can tell you that. Going out, I was looking for who might be in charge, who might be the organizers, just from who has a bullhorn in their hand, who might have a badge on or a particular uniform, who has the most neat sign. These are the things I’m looking for, like how can I identify who to talk to? 

Luckily one of my friends was out there. He’s a Newark based photographer. He’s capturing everything that’s going on and goes by the name of a dolo_foto on Instagram. He was out there I knew. He’s not the voice of the streets, but the camera of the streets, in Newark at least.

So I knew I might expect to see him. So I kind of felt confident in knowing somebody else out there. But again, I’m trying to weave in and out of people because we marching, we chanting, and I want to make sure we all have our masks and you just never know. We forget about one crisis to deal with another.

So you’re washing one hand with a dirty hand. So how are you going to get clean?  You might be free from one thing but you still go the other. 

Being a Black man in America

Damianne: [00:31:04] Could you share about your experience living as a black man in America and how it affects the choices that you make or don’t make as you go through life? 

Bryon: [00:31:13] I don’t even really honestly know unless I sit back and reflect on it because I am an American black man.

I’ve been to a few other countries for short amounts of time. I’ve seen the racial divide in other countries, especially with Australia when I was in high school and I was 14. I’m thinking as a kid, Australia is all white people, right? It’s not that at all. The original people there are Aborigines.

The people that I saw, I guess they’re probably comparable to Native Americans. The history of Native Americans pushed out of your own place. There was one situation where I was eating a bag lunch with the rest of the group in this open pavilion area. And this woman comes up to us and she’s smiling and saying something that we don’t really understand.

And when she realized that we were saying no, like we didn’t understand what she was saying. I think she was asking for food or money, but we didn’t have that. And we didn’t know how to react to her, but when she realized that she wasn’t going to get what she wanted, her face changes out from smiling to angry, and she was like, go back to you ### country just as clear as day.

And I’m like, oh, okay. I know what this is. But that situation was the first time out of the country that I felt some type of like, and it wasn’t even racism cause she was brown like me, but she had different features. But that situation, I guess, was the first out of the country experience I had with some type of conflict. 

Coming back, it’s weird it’s normalized for things like police brutality, right. When you’re growing up, my father’s and my mother’s teaching me when I get pulled over by the cops, it’s not if, it’s when you get pulled over by the cops. Don’t make any sudden moves, keep your hands on the wheel. Do all these things, you know, to abate a police officer.

Bryon: [00:33:05] I didn’t realize until I got older that these things were guidelines to stay alive. It’s not to keep you from going to jail is to stay alive. So I’m desensitized to it. 

Damianne: Like it’s a way of being. 

Bryon: [00:33:17] Exactly. You see a cop when you’re driving on the highway and you’re like, oh shoot. And start looking in the mirror. Is he coming to get me? I don’t know, was I even in the wrong? You start making up reasons for why you might’ve been wrong. When you see a cop. In New York,  it’s not even a racial thing. The first thing that I see in New York, obviously this is post 911, but when I come into New York to go to work, I’m coming through major terminals and I see military police.

Most of the military police I see look like me, but I’ll notice at least they look like me. The cops I see, they’re just like the military police, but they’re police officers and they have automatic rifles. So I’m kind of used to seeing this. Now at first, I was taken aback, seeing people just ready to shoot, not ready to shoot you per se, but the terrorists. But who’s a terrorist? I gotta be on my P’s and Q’s, I got to keep my head on a swivel, I gotta behave. This is how I act when the authority comes up. 

And it’s weird because I have that experience growing up, learning how to act around cops. And then I also have experienced growing up with cops in my family and my peers that are cops. I love and respect them as human beings, you know? And I don’t think that they’re bad cops, my friends and my peers. 

But to answer your question as far as what it’s like as a black man growing up in America, just speaking for myself. I grew up on the East coast and I was born in the eighties. So I was born learning about Rodney King in LA. So if I ever go to LA in my mind, I’m thinking, Oh man, I got to watch out for these cops because that’s an image that’s in my mind. Or  I’m from Maryland, Oh man, I can’t go to Baltimore because of Freddie Gray. Oh man, I can’t even go to Chicago because … every place has its own thing. As a kid I’m thinking, Oh, I can never go to Mississippi.  I’ll never go to Alabama, Louisiana. Those are places with the most gruesome stories about slavery, between that and the Caribbean. And then you hear how it’s evolved. As I mentioned, in the beginning, Emmett Till. These kinds of things all add up in the back of your mind. I don’t think other races that are over here necessarily think about that.

Damianne: [00:35:24] I’ve heard some psychologists talk about the trauma of being black, like the everyday trauma that’s just life. And that’s really coming home for me. 

Hope for the next generation

What gives you hope. You have a young daughter. What’s your hope for the next generation? 

Bryon: [00:35:40] I’ve been thinking about this recently. So I’m 34; I was born in the eighties. My parents were born in the fifties. They lived through a civil rights revolution and their parents lived through an industrial revolution, in America. My generation was born with hip hop, so it’s a musical evolution, it’s a technological revolution because we were born into the Internet and I started college when Facebook started. I’m born into this and I’m here to live through these different revolutions.

I know that my daughter’s just going to have her own revolution to live through. There’s always going to be some type of social or civil revolution, civil rights. There’s always going to be civil rights. Somebody always wants to feel like they’re not treated equal. So there’s always going to be that. But it’s what else is going to aid your revolution?

So technology is helping us to advance civil rights through social media, through photography and being able to show something real-time. If I was to go sci-fi with it, I would assume they’re showing like holograms of, you know, injustice or something in the future I think, not to be grim. I can only prepare her and my younger family and people in my community about the things that have happened and things that you can anticipate. Cause again, in the past four years, we’ve had two major tipping points in police brutality. Things are good for a little while. We might have a distraction, whether it’s a Black president or the NBA comes back; those things might be distractions to help people continue to do what they were doing.

But I think as long as we document what’s going on, have an accurate history that we teach the generations to follow, we cannot necessarily rest easy, but we can feel better equipped for the future. There is always going to be conflict. 

Damianne: [00:37:40] Yeah, there’s a level of vigilance that is required. We can’t just be like, Oh, the problem is solved. We always have to make sure that we’re continuing to be trustworthy, upright citizens. 

Bryon: [00:37:50] Right. And I think that’s something that we have to have to be cautious of, so you have Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. If we lumped them into civil rights era and say that that’s your sixties, you got the seventies, eighties, nineties, you got all those decades in between where people are being born, whether they’re white, black, brown, purple, blue, they’re growing up.  If they’re not being taught about ongoing history and ongoing leaders and ongoing things that needed to happen, they’re going to think, Oh, civil rights happened and we solved it in the seventies. No, we didn’t solve it. We just killed the people that were leading the fight. So people need to keep understanding and learning and preserving history so that when it comes time for something to happen again, cause it will be a time where stuff will be right on that hill about the fall over the tip, we need to have somebody that’s like, look, no, even if it does fall, we know this is how we stop this, or this is how we curb the momentum of that crazy action that’s about to happen. 

Call to Action

Damianne: [00:38:50] Do you have a call to action that you would like to share with listeners. 

Bryon: [00:38:56] Not really. If I had to give a call to action to some people, if you’re a photographer or an artist or creative, definitely document the time and preserve it. I keep thinking about history and how the library in Alexandria was burned, right?  That’s history gone, right? But everything’s in the cloud now. They can’t burn that so just take as many pictures, be as accurate as you can and find your approach. Even if it’s not going out into the street, find your creative way to help amplify the voice and to document what’s going on so we can progress as a global society.

Outro

Damianne: [00:39:38] Thank you for chatting with me today. 

Bryon: [00:39:40] Thank you. 

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