My Father Was a Black Photojournalist When There Were So Few
The writer Aisha Sabatini Sloan and her father, a photojournalist, wrote a book together, “Captioning the Archives.”,
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There is a gorgeous pink sky behind a trio of heavily clad state policemen as the journalist, Oscar Jimenez, who is Black, holds out his CNN press pass like a shield. I am showing my father a video taken during the protests last year, after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. Mr. Jimenez is calmly speaking into a microphone, explaining that he and his crew will do whatever the police want. Instead, the officers take away his microphone and handcuff his hands behind his back. They refuse to explain why they are arresting him. They arrest his producer and his cameraman. The camera is left recording on the ground.
Watching this footage gives me a newfound appreciation for the laminated press passes that I would find in junk drawers in our apartment in Los Angeles when I was growing up, with photos of my father, Lester Sloan, sporting various stages of an Afro and a vintage suit. My father began his career as a cameraman for the CBS affiliate in Detroit in the late 1960s. When the riots broke out in 1967, he brought a roll of film to the offices of the Detroit Free Press. The newspaper didn’t need the help, but the editors sent him upstairs to the offices of Newsweek. The magazine didn’t have many journalists willing to cover the uprising, so someone typed up a note for him to use in lieu of a press pass. He held it close as he ventured out that night with his camera.
After I show him the video of Mr. Jimenez’s arrest, my father recalls his first time on assignment for Newsweek. “That was a frightening night,” he said. “What was frightening about that is that there were all these guys, white, from the National Guard, from somewhere in the Upper Peninsula or somewhere like that, and they were as frightened of me as I was of them. Difference being they had guns, and I just had a camera and a note.”
I’ve always been interested in the way my father’s identity as a Black photojournalist manifested in his images. It’s as if he’s constructed like a 35 mm camera, walking around with a mirror behind his eyes, reflecting an inverted version of the society he was meant to document, with a subjectivity that was not always accounted for in the captions that accompanied his photographs. When he turned in the negatives for the 1967 uprising, Newsweek ran an image of a young Black man looking into the camera with a smirk on his face as a building burned behind him. My father worried that this man would be seen as a perpetrator. This feeling — that his lens could somehow compromise any Black subject — persisted throughout his career.
Before he was transferred to Los Angeles, he was filming a Black Panther march on Cass Avenue in downtown Detroit. “Don’t point that thing at me, you’re working for the man,” one Panther told him. “No, man, I work for the news!” he insisted. But later on, he saw three suits watching that footage at the office. When he asked who they were, a colleague said the F.B.I. was watching their outtakes.
My father pushed against his editors whenever he could. When he was asked to photograph a “typical welfare mother” during the advent of the term “welfare queen,” he presented photographs of women that a representative from a government agency had chosen for him — all of them white. The editor was furious.
“How can someone who represents a fraction of the population account for the majority of women on government assistance in this country?” he recalls, his voice raising an octave. His editor ultimately gave the assignment to another photographer.
His identity also granted him access to a particular reality that a white journalist simply wouldn’t have occasion to see. He and his friend, also a journalist, Patrick Cole, were in Berlin when the wall came down. They attended a protest, becoming emotional when a crowd sang “We Shall Overcome.” A woman insisted they join, saying, “We learned from you,” my father recalled. But that anecdote wasn’t included in any of the stories that ran with his images.
During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, my father and I began to go through his extensive archive of photographs, and I recorded him as he told story after story about them. I asked him about photos I’d never seen. We looked at photos of men with their hands raised above their heads near the U.S.-Mexico border, and at first, he spoke about how cordial the Border Patrol had been. I became a little frustrated. I asked him whether he felt complicit. “Complicit?” he asked.
There is a photograph of two little girls watching, off to the side, so tiny, the pitch black night behind them. He thought for a while. Then he became angry. He talked about all of the people from Europe living in Santa Monica, who aren’t asked for their papers. He talked about the show of strength the Border Patrol agents were making, for him, for the press, when all they were doing was punishing a group of men for having brown skin. He thought about his position, standing beside those officers, documenting these arrests, given the fact that he himself was frequently followed by the police when he drove home at night.
Through these conversations, we assembled “Captioning the Archives,” which feels like a memoir in captions. He told me about discovering National Geographic magazine at a neighbor’s house as a child and about the time that Keith Richards joked with him for wearing a suit on set in Baja, Mexico. My father was often placed in an impossible position, forced to find his place among different perceptions of the truth. He offered stories that, for me, reanimated the very definitions of history.
Aisha Sabatini Sloan is the author of “The Fluency of Light” and “Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit” and “Borealis,” and with her father, “Captioning the Archives: A Conversation in Photographs and Text.” A 2020 recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, she is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan.