“Black people have been killed for directing their gaze at the wrong person. I want my subjects to reclaim their right to look, to see, to be seen.” -Dawoud Bay

Dawoud Bey began his odyssey of photographing portraits of Black people in Harlem and Brooklyn, NY. His work evolved and he became known for his portraiture. When looking at his work

Bey suggests looking at his subject’s hands rather than their faces. “Hands are very important — they are expressive,” he says. “They are a part of each of our idiosyncratic, expressive vocabulary. And to me, they are one of the things that makes an individual who they are in the performance of themselves.”

Bey’s portraits are remarkable in his ability to portray his subjects in an easy relaxed way. They look casually into his lens completely comfortable. A great example is his 1990 photograph titled “A couple in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY (opening photo, bottom row, center).

40 years of Black American historic photography

On Photography: Dawoud Bey, 1953-present
Dawoud Bey in Chicago’s Harold Washington Park by LaToya Ruby Frazier

Dawoud Bey has spent four decades making photographs of Black Americans from Harlem to Louisiana and beyond. The first museum retrospective of his work is now going around the country. It is currently on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA.

Bey does not consider himself a strict documentary photographer. He is more of a director who is willing to pose his subjects remind them of a gesture and help accessorize them. “The photographs are very much made,” Bey explains. “You know, I don’t necessarily need people to think that when they look at the photograph, I just want them to believe the experience of the thing that they’re looking at.”

He realized that something was missing in the visual story of Black history. “I like to think of myself as a white box artist who makes work about non-white box things,” he says. “I like to bring those things into spaces where folks don’t necessarily think that’s what they will encounter or they’re not used to encountering certain kinds of works about certain kinds of subject within the context of the museum.”

The Birmingham Project

The 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by members of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan on September 15, 1963. Dawoud Bey has created diptychs of people from Birmingham. In these photos, the subjects are either at the same age as were one of the four young black girls killed in the explosion or as the age they would have been had they survived. One of the images “Timothy Huffman and Ira Sims” made is in the opening photo, top row at the far right.

One of the influences that inspire Bey is a black and white photograph by Frank Dandridge, a Black photographer working for Life in the 60s of bombing victim Sarah Jean Collins. Her sister Addie Mae Collins was killed in the bombing.

Dawoud Bey on his work of visualizing history

The video below had Bey discussing his work from the Birmingham Project as well as other series on Underground Railroad routes through Ohio and work in Harlem.

Professor, award winner

Dawoud Bey is a professor of photography at the private Columbia College Chicago since 1998. He has a Master of Fine Arts from the Yale University of Art in 1993. He earned a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and one from the National Endowment for the Arts. He was the United States Artist Fellow in 2015 and received the MacArthur Fellowship in 2017.

Parting quote

People say don’t stare. Through the photos, not only do I stare, but I allow viewers to stare at the subject, to see things that they cannot see with a casual glance.”

Sources: NPR, New York Times, High Museum, Columbia College Chicago