A Collection of Powerful Talent: The Kamoinge Collective
The Picture Professional caught up with Russell Frederick, vice president of Kamoinge, at last summer’s Photoville. Their allotted shipping container was filled with work from “Breaking Point,” a collection of images showing the America we all live in: in the midst of dramatic and sometimes chaotic change, with many communities at the edge of blossoming or complete destruction. We recently had a conversation with Mr. Frederick as Kamoinge, like ASPP, celebrates its 50-plus years of continuous work.
Kamoinge was formed in 1963—the year the civil rights bill was introduced into the US Senate—providing crucial support and solidarity for those vying towards artistic equality. Counteracting stereotypical media images and defining their own communities, Kamoinge gained the attention of museum and galleries, moving them to exhibit works by photographers of color for the first time. Since many of the original Kamoinge members are still active today, we have made a photographic selection that spans the past sixty years. The greater impact of their efforts may not yet be in all the art history books, but our hope is that our viewers will draw strength and inspiration from these images.
“Kamoinge exists as a forum of African-American photographers to view and critique each others’ work in an honest and understanding atmosphere, and to nurture and challenge each other in order to attain the highest creative level. The name comes from the Kikuyu language of Kenya, and means a group of people acting together. Its aim is to seek out the truth inherent in our cultural roots, and to create and communicate these truths with insight and integrity.
“For many of us, the turbulent ’60s brought into focus a deep sense of urgency to find a direction for our photographs. Seeking a spine for this direction made feedback for our efforts as critical an activity as creating the work itself.” – Miriam Romais, Editor
Roy DeCarava was a major catalyst in giving direction to the group and was voted Kamoinge’s first director.
The group’s first significant activity was to produce a portfolio of photographs, so that Kamoinge’s images could be placed in permanent collections. Since Melvin Mills worked in a print shop, he was able to print twenty portfolios at no cost, with a cover designed by DeCarava. A second portfolio was created, containing fifteen original prints. Their intention was to help make up for the absence of works by African-American artists, so history could not say that images of the Black community and images from a Black vision did not exist. Images were sent to several African-American colleges, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Kamoinge has produced group shows, and its members have had major solo gallery shows. Kamoinge member’s work has been published in collections and its members have produced their own books. Now in the global digital age, they participate in shows and host photography workshops all over the world.
“Breaking Point” includes work from all of Kamoinge’s photographers. We include it, here in its entirety:
DARRELL PERRY: I’m talking to Russell Frederick, spokesman and vice president of Kamoinge. Is it called Kamoinge Collective or Kamoinge Group or Kamoinge?
RUSSELL FREDERICK: Kamoinge Group. Kamoinge Collective. We pretty much just go by Kamoinge. “Kamoinge” is a Kikuyu word from Kenya that means “a group of people working together.”
DARRELL PERRY: There will be an intro on our site with your historical information, so I’m just going to dive in. How important was the Civil Rights Movement to the formation of Kamoinge in 1963?
RUSSELL FREDERICK: It was imperative to the time because the photographers, particularly some of the older ones—Adger Cowans, Herbert Randall, Al Fennar, Shawn Walker, Anthony Barboza and Herb Robinson—lived through the Civil Rights Movement, and were photographing during that time. We just weren’t represented. There weren’t any positive, balanced images of our communities. We were often reflected only in extreme poverty or despair. So with that, the collective came together. A lot of the men were operating, I think, on islands—by themselves. They were part of other collectives, and then they decided to come together. Al Fennar actually came up with the name Kamoinge.
The members had their life experiences in Harlem, which is why they formed as a Harlem collective. Roy DeCarava had just won the Guggenheim in the ’50s [first African-American to have done so] and published The Sweet Flypaper of Life [a photo-story collaboration between Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes]. He would help to organize and nurture a lot of the photographers and young men. So unity was very fitting for the time, for the group to come together and take a firm grasp of being the authors of our own story.
DARRELL PERRY: Do you think they were working more at that time? I know a lot of black newspapers, in towns large and small.
RUSSELL FREDERICK: I don’t think so.
DARRELL PERRY: No?
RUSSELL FREDERICK: I don’t. Shawn Walker was the only one who worked for a black newspaper in the early days. He shot for the Harlem Daily in the 60’s and Budd Williams shot for Amsterdam news in the 80’s. Opportunities to work as photographers were scarce. A lot of the men were forced to get nine to five jobs and do photography in their free time. Quite a few of the men had studios. Ray Francis, Herb Robinson, John Pinderhughes and Anthony Barboza are some who had studios doing commercial work but Lou Draper and Shawn Walker were two fine art photographers who also did photo journalistic work early on.
DARRELL PERRY: A dollar went a lot further than it does today, but you didn’t know how good you had it then.
RUSSELL FREDERICK: Without a doubt and… and I think another important element, was that the opportunities were a bit scarce. This is why I think a lot of them came together in their work. Even hearing about Roy DeCarava’s struggles… how he worked at Sports Illustrated and what he was able [allowed] to shoot for them. So you had the same dynamic which existed in employment, in education—the same inequality, for us was present back then. But like everything else in the DNA of black people, we persevere. We fight through. We come together. You know what? We create. We pray. And we find a way. Under the leadership of Roy DeCarava they started to take ownership of their communities and to create images that reflected who we really were as opposed to how our stories were being told by others. I think Gordon Parks was on staff at Life at the time, but that was an anomaly.
DARRELL PERRY: Right. Very rare.
RUSSELL FREDERICK: There weren’t many opportunities during those early years, but they persevered. You also had other outlets like music—jazz. A lot of the musicians were black and they were very welcoming to the black photographers. You had the art scene. You had everyday life in the community. And photography was a tool to uplift. So it was one thing to record, but also to make people feel better about themselves. And to tell stories that weren’t being told or covered in the news.
DARRELL PERRY: Right. What are some of the most important functions that this, as an organization, performs and does for its members?
RUSSELL FREDERICK: Nurturing. I see Kamoinge as a kind of school, an unaccredited school. We have really tried to help develop each other. I came in in 2004; Eli Reed [member of Magnum], brought me in and I didn’t really have any formal training. That is one key element. Another is to push each other artistically, and to push boundaries to show different narratives. Show a different, more dignified image of who we are as opposed to what a lot of media may control of us.
DARRELL PERRY: To get more technical about it—are there shared spaces, shared resources? Are people still printing in a darkroom or are they getting together working with computers? What are they doing?
RUSSELL FREDERICK: Absolutely. Great questions. One example is John Pinderhughes who does a lot of commercial work. He has opened up and welcomed all of us to his darkroom, his digital darkroom. There’s Danny Dawson, a professor at Columbia University. We meet in the African-American Studies Department there. We also consult with each other, looking for direction from those who may have a specialty in a particular area. Mark Blackshear, for example, does still life—pretty much his forte. Now he’s gradually getting more comfortable with photographing people and going out into the street and doing more portraiture.
We also try to help with technology and all the different tools that are evolving. It’s a big, big change for a lot of our older members—having to embrace Instagram, Facebook, Photoshop, Lightroom. Also marketing and coming up with a new focus for the group.
Now we are moving in a different direction. Imagery is much more a part of everyday life because of technology. We don’t necessarily need media in the same way to get work out there to publishers. We can control our own images a lot more. So with that, the group is moving forward to reach a more diverse audience. Yes, to educate, work in the community, and nurture each other, but also to raise awareness and show the diversity of who we are across the world—where society is and where we are. I’m thankful for festivals like Photoville where we have the space and freedom to curate our own work and present something that may be censored in some other places.
With Kamoinge, it’s about letting the world know our voice and not just our pictures—being the editors and curators, being on panel discussions. It’s about letting those who are well-intentioned, but just lacking some sensitivity or missing the mark culturally, to see the value. And you know they want to see change. They want to see equality. They know, maybe, how a black photographer may photograph his community, and how a white photographer, not from the community, may come and do it. So, approach eand purpose are different. And even when it’s a challenging situation, it’s still to be done with respect—still to have some honor towards the people we may be photographing.
DARRELL PERRY: The photographers—are they represented individually? I don’t feel that you guys are actually like an agency, per se. Right? So you don’t actually spend time trying to sell individual work.
RUSSELL FREDERICK: Oh no. We do. Everybody has an archive and is active in their own way. The unique dynamic of the group is that we meet monthly and stay in contact, speak to each other weekly—some even daily or every other day. But we all have this as a career. We’ve built our archives, and have shows independently and collectively. We share information and jobs. Apply for grants. So it’s working. We look to employ each other, to teach each other. We want the best for everybody in the group. Now, we’re thinking more strategically. We have our fifty-year-old archive, and we can tie what’s happening now in America to the past, as well as to show that this isn’t the time to take our foot off the gas.
DARRELL PERRY: True, but I think we’re in a time where people want to rewrite history. But we have the pictures, the documentation; we were there. I was a kid; I saw how things changed and people were telling me this was better now. We’re not interested in going back to some sort of fictionalized storybook that did not exist.
RUSSELL FREDERICK: That hasn’t been our reality.
DARRELL PERRY: Right.
RUSSELL FREDERICK: It will never be the reality. I couldn’t agree with you more Darrell. So we are definitely looking to push the boundaries artistically. A lot of photographers in the group are either painters who have done some abstract work, or mixed media artists—Shawn Walker, Adger Cowans, Anthony Barboza, Ming Smith. The list goes on and on—just amazing. It’s stuff they’ve been doing for a long time. So when Photoville approached me about doing a show and I put together the exhibit, it was crucial for me to show the timeline of when and what the group has been making.
It shows also how much we haven’t been seen by the art world, how a lot of major art institutions have just bypassed us. Why is that? I don’t know. But the work speaks for itself. That’s not arrogance; that’s honesty. But now is a new day. A lot of mindsets are changing and are excited about what we’re going to do.
DARRELL PERRY: How does one become a member?
RUSSELL FREDERICK: First, you have to be invited by one of the members. Then you come to at least two meetings and see if you’re a good fit. At the same time, the group is evaluating you. On the third meeting, you present a portfolio. So it’s not just about photography skills, because we have a lot of dynamic photographers, but there are also a lot of dynamic, selfish photographers.
DARRELL PERRY: Anyone who studied classically, went to school, or anything like that, has been sort of raised in a silo anyway. You’re almost trained to focus exclusively on your own needs.
RUSSELL FREDERICK: Without a doubt, and we see how that kind of character is only self-serving. It does not help or raise up the group, or lift up each other. We don’t want people who are going to not want to participate in meetings, or be a part of the group. And then, when we have a book or we’ve got a show…
DARRELL PERRY: “…I’m here. Here’s my work.”
RUSSELL FREDERICK: Exactly. Here’s my work. So you’re not contributing dues. You’re not contributing time. You’re not nurturing anybody else. So if it’s just all about you, then you know, not Kamoinge.
DARRELL PERRY: Right.
RUSSELL FREDERICK: So one’s character is important to Kamoinge: Who’s nurturing, who takes pride in education, who’s generous, who’s considerate. Someone who also has some other skills—someone who’s tech savvy, a good networker, a good writer, an academic. All those skills are what we look at, and for, in addition to great photography… even if the person may not be at their photographic peak. We see the work ethic, the drive, the passion, the life commitment, that this isn’t your hobby, something you’re doing, you know, on your off days. This is what you live—eat, sleep, breathe. That is what we’re looking for. Also, we want people who can help Kamoinge expand. In 2015, we did the workshop in Ethiopia, sponsored by UNESCO.
DARRELL PERRY: That’s huge. It’s awesome.
RUSSELL FREDERICK: It was. That was for one month. I did three workshops prior—two in Ethiopia and one in South Sudan. And those were a success, showing our folks how to navigate this walk in media, in publishing—the business side of things, in addition to the art form. And instilling confidence while letting them know about some trap doors that exist out there.
DARRELL PERRY: But regardless of age… to be able to bring their work to Africa. To talk about your work, talk about images of African-Americans. That’s like bringing a kid from the rural south to Carnegie Hall. Bringing an African-American to Africa just changes their whole worldview. Everything changes. It just becomes a whole different thing.
RUSSELL FREDERICK: When I went to Ethiopia in November 2014, it was my first time ever in Africa. To go to Ethiopia, the cradle of it all, was life-changing by itself. Then, to introduce them to a black America they haven’t seen. For them to meet me, a black man, very proud… They were excited to meet me, to hear my story. And then to see just how they have been miseducated about who we were. I can’t tell you how many people said to me, “So you’re from Brooklyn. Are you a gangster?” I was like…there’s more… “And you think gangsters come to Ethiopia? They can’t find the airport.”
DARRELL PERRY: [LAUGHTER] Exactly.
RUSSELL FREDERICK: I had this personal commitment that wasn’t just about work. I was personally committed to be in a position to actively help my people see that, okay, there is hope. This is real. And we want to be here. We just don’t always have the resources. It’s the politics, you know—the infrastructure, the grant acceptance. We don’t get accepted, don’t qualify, or, we find out our work isn’t…. there’s always some reason. But we don’t stop. We’re not giving up. Hey, this is a place we want to know. We’re a part of it. We’re connected. We want to learn about you. So the opportunity with UNESCO was epic.
Got to give thanks to Dr. Sasha Geist Rubel, [UNESCO advisor for communication and information]. We worked together to help facilitate this three-tier workshop that we did last year in October/November, on photography, photojournalism, feature writing and filmmaking. We brought some incredible African-Americans—some of the best of the best of black media—Dr. Tamika Anderson, writer. Whitney Richardson, photo editor at the New York Times. Thomas Allen Harris, filmmaker. Robert Naylor, Hilary Beard, writers. And Kamoinge members Shawn Walker, Ruddy Roye. We went on a mission, and for one month we had over 250 people sign up. And the best part of it, Darrell, is that several students won prizes and positions because of the exposure.
DARRELL PERRY: Wow. A lot of talent.
RUSSELL FREDERICK: Exactly. The talent is there. I’ve got to give credit to one sister in Ethiopia—Aida Muluneh, who runs an organization called Desta for Africa (DFA). [DESTA stands for Developing and Educating Society Through Art.] There aren’t any photography schools there, so a lot of people are pretty much going off of passion, off of what they see—trial and error. But this one sister started this arts and culture organization. She was very helpful, giving some insight. She went to Howard University here and learned from a lot of black photographers. And then went to back to her homeland, to empower. DFA invited me out there to show my work on Brooklyn in 2014. And that was when everything started. Then I met Dr. Rubel who asked me to do some workshops. One thing led to another and the success is continuing.
DARRELL PERRY: It’s amazing. We could talk for days. But, just a couple more things. I think you already answered this, but I’m just going to dive in: How has being closely in touch with a varied group of shooters affected your work and the work of the other members? Are there varying levels of experience, varying interests, approaches? Just talk a little about that.
RUSSELL FREDERICK: I’ve learned a lot from all of them. What I love about this group is its diversity in skill set. We have excellence in every genre of photography. John Pinderhughes’s panoramic landscapes are beyond imagination. Anthony Barboza has done some incredible conceptual work. His “Black Dreams/White Sheets” series is just out of this world. Shawn Walker’s street photography, Ming Smith’s work—just brilliant. Adger Cowans’s artistic work—in the streets and studio. The New York Times just did a review of new book. I’ve got to mention Frank Stewart’s work—of jazz and the streets. And Gerald Cyrus. We have so many people from many different walks, who are available to each other. People will bring their work to show, get critiqued, get reviewed, get feedback. With that, you see where you may be lacking or you can get some questions answered. That’s guidance you probably couldn’t afford to pay for, but it’s accessible because we want to see everyone do well. We want to teach each other how to make it. With this mentoring (from people both in and out of Kamoinge) we can say, “okay, I can show you how to do this.” Jules Allen, a very notable, established photographer was helped by Anthony Barboza—taught him what he needed to know about commercial photography. Eli Reed was my mentor and welcomed me into Magnum. And John Pinderhughes, lending me his lights, bringing me on to assist him. I learned so much.
Then there are the other parts—presentation, follow-up, how to actually handle business—that a lot of us never focus on because we are so dedicated to becoming masters in the craft. Those other components get ignored and then we don’t know how to navigate, for instance, worlds where people have budgets. That is an important part. I would stress to any promising photographer to take some business and marketing classes.
DARRELL PERRY: I went to NYU for film theory and criticism. I was also taking film classes. At no point did they suggest taking a business class. NYU. It took me twenty to thirty years to figure out how to run a small business out of my house. Doing your taxes is important. Who knew? Fundraising. How to write an introductory letter to an editor. How do you get a grant? Grant writing is fundamental. I think I would’ve had a completely different trajectory had I known these things. Thank you for that little, you know, my personal diversion.
RUSSELL FREDERICK: We’re connecting, brother, we’re connecting.
DARRELL PERRY: Alright, my last question: What’s on the horizon for Kamoinge? What do you hope to do? Is there something that you can foresee that you can talk about—next year, the next six months?
RUSSELL FREDERICK: Adger Cowans’s book [Personal Vision: Photographs] came out in January 2017.
DARRELL PERRY: Will there be a show associated with that?
RUSSELL FREDERICK: I believe so. I can’t announce the date yet, but that definitely should be in the first three months of the year.
We’re also going to be working on a follow-up to Breaking Point (which was at Photoville). We’re looking to have at least two exhibits and more portfolio reviews. Some workshops. We will also open the door to some new members. We want to bring more women into the group. And also, push our image, get more visibility. Reach new audiences. Photoville was great because the audience was so diverse. We were present and authentic to who we were, and the people loved us. This is exactly what New York City and America are about—a lot of good-natured people who see a lot of injustice. They aren’t happy with it. And then, us doing the work that we’re doing, looking to create discussion, and advance some things forward. So we are still going to be teaching.
We have quite a few photographers who are doing academic work. I believe Ruddy Roye is going to have workshops on the stuff he’s doing with Instagram. And then, there’s the unexpected blessing, which always comes.
DARRELL PERRY: Thank you. One last thing: The Katrina story. I was stuck there on vacation. We were freaked out, but we got out safely. We were in the French Quarter, which was the highest point, and the fire department moved into our hotel. We were completely dry the whole time. No problem. We had power, a generator. We were watching it all on TV, and it was really scary. The fire department drove us out of there. So that was my two-second thing. But then there’s the aftermath. The thing about trauma—the aftermath is as bad ten, twelve years later. People are still suffering stress. You know, it goes on up.
Tell me a little about your Katrina project. You guys went the year after? How did that happen?
RUSSELL FREDERICK: We won a grant from the Open Society Foundation in 2006, so we documented one year after. I was there about ten days after Katrina hit. I was working at the Associated Press at the time, and I just told my boss “I got to go.” I just asked him to use my vacation time. The mission was to go to New Orleans, but it did not work out because the highway was blocked off. So I went to Mississippi and I some work down there. But Gerald Cyrus, who had family in New Orleans, went down early. Ruddy Roye went down soon after as well. We all pretty much came together to show some humanity, show some love. The struggle was real. The trauma was real. We got to peel back another layer to show the hearts of who these people were in New Orleans and Mississippi.
DARRELL PERRY: I have a picture of the woman in the 9th Ward, the white woman…
RUSSELL FREDERICK: Yeah, I think that is actually in Mississippi; she was displaced. Rose Davis. That was at a first aid, a Red Cross, emergency center and her daughters were missing. She had lost contact and she just broke down right in front of me. A gentleman I photographed, Robert Green, was holding two obituaries—one of his mother and one of his granddaughter. He lived directly behind the levies, and his home was swept away. Mother and daughter… granddaughter drowned. The love, the hearts… and then to see how all of these people were just invisible to begin with. Next thing is just how there hasn’t been enough support to really bring the people back, to restore the community to how it was.
DARRELL PERRY: An active lack of interest. We want it to be Disneyland. [LAUGHTER]
RUSSELL FREDERICK: Absolutely, and who is profiting from that? This ties into so many other factors—gentrification, real estate. Who built this community and who determined its value, and now, what’s it valued at? So the collective did a great exhibit at Calumet’s NYC gallery [Kamoinge: In the Moment]. Incredible. Great space. We were also part of the Moving Walls exhibit at the Open Society. To this day, the Open Society Foundation is actively involved with us. The group is looking to do more work of this nature like what we did with UNESCO last year—pretty much an extension of that.
This work is necessary, but we definitely need support. Many of us still shoot film. As a nonprofit organization, we can’t do it all out of our own pockets. It’s an honor to produce this work. And we are looking to have a greater, stronger, louder, more effective voice in the media—especially with this transition with how America just voted. We are about to put up a resistance and we are about to push forward with force. We will push strategically and gently too, to make sure we don’t take steps back. Not having it.
What I am happy to see is a lot of good white people out here who aren’t having it either—[LAUGHTER]—who don’t want to be associated with or connected to this government, this administration. They are all about equality, ready to take a stand for what’s right. And with that, we are calling on all people in positions of influence, whether a grant writer, fundraiser, editor, whatever—people who have skills and assets and resources that we may not have. We are open to collaborating for the greater good of mankind.
DARRELL PERRY: Thank you very much. It was an awesome conversation, and you’re a great spokesman.
RUSSELL FREDERICK: Darrell, thank you so much for having me.
Kamoinge’s current president, Adger Cowans, had a book signing and artist talk at the Schomburg Center on January 30, 2017.
Kamoinge’s first woman photographer Ming Smith just received a glowing review from the New York Times on her retrospective at the Steven Kasher Gallery.
Learn more about Kamoinge at www.kamoinge.com