What Liberation Looks Like: Sheila Pree Bright and Davion Alston in Conversation

By September 17, 2020
Sheila Pree Bright, #1960Now: Justice for Black Lives protest organized by Alliance for Black Lives, Atlanta, GA, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

In June, Atlanta-based artist Davion Alston published “State of Georgia” as part of Burnaway’s artist column Mood Ring, sharing a series of photographs taken at protests across the state this year. The following month, Alston was named a 2020/2021 Working Artist Project (WAP) Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia (MOCA GA). For the magazine, I asked him to speak with Sheila Pree Bright, another Atlanta-based photographic artist and a 2014/2015 MOCA WAP Fellow, whose exhibition #1960Now (on view at Jackson Fine Art through September 19) continues her series documenting protests for racial justice across the United States. The two artists discuss the history of civil rights photography, the dangers and possibilities created by the medium, and how each of them approached making photographs of recent uprisings. Their conversation took place in late August via video chat and has been edited for publication.

— Logan Lockner

Davion Alston: Can you speak a little bit about your experiences photographing protests and your exhibition #1960Now?

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Sheila Pree Bright: I’ve been photographing the Black Lives Matter movement since 2014, and this summer I’ve been photographing what I call the second half of the Black Lives Matter movement, since the murder of George Floyd. I was approached by Jackson Fine Art here in Atlanta to have a show with Steve Schapiro, who photographed the civil rights movement in the 1960s for publications such as Life magazine. I thought it would be interesting to continue with my series #1960Now, which explores how what’s going on now is related to the civil rights history of the 1960s. It may be in a different shape and form, but the young people on the ground told me they feel like they were fighting the same fights their parents and grandparents were fighting.

It was amazing to physically go to the show to look at Steve’s work, because he documented all of the celebrated figures who we know from that era—Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, Medgar Evers—and the work itself is just beautiful. But to juxtapose that with my images, what I found that is different is that I am making images of everyday people, not high-profile leaders. My work isn’t about the leaders of a movement; it’s about everyone.

Steve Schapiro, John Lewis, Clarksdale Miss, 1963. Courtesy of Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta.

It’s also important to remember that the space where Steve was shooting wasn’t accessible to Black photographers at the time, and his photographs are taken from the perspective of a white male narrative. And so, as a Black person and a woman, I feel it’s important that we image-makers are telling our visual stories through our eyes.

DA: I love how you put that. It’s no longer just photographers and photo-journalists taking photos at many of these protests; everyone else is doing it through an Instagram filter.

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SPB: Yeah, everybody is a photographer now. I consider myself to be more of an artist than a photo-journalist or documentary photographer—which a lot of people say I am—and Davion, I feel that you’re an artist too, you know what I’m saying? But now we have social media platforms where, in a matter of a second, this imagery can be dispersed globally. When Steve was shooting in the 1960s, they had TV, and it wasn’t until videos of Bloody Sunday came on TV that news of the civil rights movement traveled around the world—and now it happens in an instant.

I also believe that we have become kind of numb to these images. I mean, for me, as a Black person, and Davion, for you, as a Black person, we’re constantly seeing this trauma playing out on all social media platforms. How do you feel about that? On social media, the news, everywhere—we’re bombarded with these images. Do you think we have become numb to that?

DA: I can only really speak to what I’ve experienced from when Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012 until now. But yes, not only do I feel that we can and have become numb to these images, I’ve additionally become suspicious of how we expect photos to objectively tell the truth, or capture reality. I’m fascinated with how the developments in photographic technology play into conversations about this history, and particularly how these technologies are weaponized against Black people. Following this summer’s protests, there are concerns about photos posted on social media being used to surveil those who participated. As much as my artistic foundation is grounded in photography, I’m also extremely critical of the medium and its negative effects on our consciousness and self-perception.

SPB: When I go out on the ground, I’m actually a portrait photographer. I started in hip hop, in gangster rap, taking square black-and-white portraits. So I actually think that being on the ground around the culture of that back in the late 90s really prepared me for now. So when I go out and shoot, I’m looking for a moment, because I want you to feel the pain and the fear in the images. But I still think of them as portraits. When you go out, what is your approach?

DA: That’s a very interesting question, because I’m almost the opposite. It’s only recently that I’ve felt drawn out of the studio to be on the ground making photographs. When the Black Lives Matter movement first started around 2013, I was shooting a lot of conceptual still lifes that pertained to notions of Black identity and Black history: my grandmother’s earrings, brown bags, a spilled bag of Skittles.

What I’m interested in when I go out now is shooting the signs and symbols around the body: combining the documentary and the conceptual. There has been so much craziness this year—because of the pandemic, because of voting, because of unemployment, all these things—but I still felt a need to gather with the community (at a safe distance), whether for celebration and commemoration, religious ceremonies, or protest, and that led to making new work.

Davion Alston, From State of Georgia, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Davion Alston, From State of Georgia, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

SPB: I have a #1960Now book out, and I’ve been traveling across the country and internationally to universities to talk to students about this work, and I find myself saying, “Does this really matter?” Because people are not getting it, and we’re repeating history. We’re not learning from this. So I was initially reluctant to go shoot these protest photos. But then something in me said, You’ve got to go out. I think this was partially because when I looked at a lot of stuff that was out in the media, I always saw a Black male on top of a car on fire—constantly. So I wanted to flip that narrative if I could. One of the images at Jackson Fine Art is a closely framed, tight shot of a woman who looks very hurt. When other people have seen the photo, they’ve said she’s defiant. She’s not defiant, she’s hurt. She was holding up a Black Liberation flag and standing on an American flag. And guess what? In this situation, the journalist is going to shoot her from head to toe, standing on that American flag—so I chose not to do that. I wanted to show the pain she was going through. Those are the moments I’m looking for.

DA: Yeah, I love that: shifting the perspective to resist the sensational or conventional photographic impulse. Following this summer and this show, what new works are you considering?

SPB: At the end of last year, I got a call from one of the photo editors at the Washington Post. I didn’t know who he was, but he said, “I like your work, and we’re going to commission ten photographers to make new work about racism.” I laughed, and I said, “I’m so tired of that. I’m not shooting protests. I’m doing none of that.” I live in Stone Mountain, Georgia, not too far from that mountain: ten minutes away, to be exact. I decided that I would challenge myself to photograph landscapes, because I feel that landscapes are very static. Personally, I don’t feel nothing in landscapes, okay? I spent about a month up in Stone Mountain meditating and photographing, and I created a series called “Invisible Empire.” I got the phase from W.E.B. Du Bois, who called Georgia the “Invisible Empire State” in an essay in 1924. He talked about how Georgia was so beautiful but also disturbing and strange. He’s writing this roughly a decade after the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain in 1915. Clearly the work is rooted in an investigation of racism, but using the landscapes of Stone Mountain. The photographs are shiny and black and white, and I wanted them to look beautiful enough to engage you, to draw you in and then hit you with the real message.

I am challenging myself to continue photographing landscapes in the future, but not necessarily as an exploration of racism or racist histories. Now I’m more interested in exploring the relationships between Black people and the land as it regards Black liberation. That’s what this has always been about, really. As long as we’re in physical bodies, looking at physical bodies, we’re never going to get past it. That’s why I want to talk more about what liberation looks like.

Sheila Pree Bright’s exhibition #1960Now is on view at Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta through September 19.

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