Camera in hand, Harry Scales is on the move. It’s a late afternoon in mid-June, the light is cutting across Blue Hill Avenue, and demonstrators are walking in and out of the shadows as they head toward Franklin Park.
Scales, a 29-year-old from Codman Square, wants to use the light to emphasize aspects of the march, but he is behind schedule, having paused briefly to document a nearby pick-up basketball game. While trying to catch up to the protest, he stops to capture various Dorchester slices-of-life: guys at work in front of a tire shop; a man selling fruit out of the back of a van; three kids eating a snack on a bench; the cop car that is slowly following the crowd.
Scales, who was a member of the last ever graduating class from the New England School of Photography earlier this year, is among the local Black photographers who have shot a multitude of demonstrations in recent weeks. Some say they are looking to build a portfolio. Others say it’s their calling, or are chasing an iconic shot. Underpinning the various motivations is a sense of duty to chronicle this current moment, to tell their stories.
“Me being a Black man from Boston, I definitely feel responsible and obligated to contribute to the narrative, given the tool set I have,” he said.
OJ Slaughter, a 27-year-old Roxbury resident who has shot more than two dozen demonstrations in recent weeks, echoed that sentiment.
“It’s really important to me that Black history is being told by Black Americans to Black Americans,” said Slaughter, who uses they and them pronouns.
A Black, queer, nonbinary artist whose photography portfolio ranges from fashion to portraiture to concerts, Slaughter shoots the demonstrations because they’re “not sure what else I should be doing.”
“I do this because I believe it’s my gift,” they said.
Slaughter thinks civil rights-era photos of Black people being beaten by police has the effect of stripping the victims of their humanity. In those images, Slaughter sees hurt instead of triumph. They hope their coverage of the protests helps people understand the narrative of the struggle from a different place.
Slaughter tries to keep people in the crowd anonymous, unless someone gives consent to being photographed or addresses the crowd, and would never post a photo of anyone who was rioting. They don’t want anyone to get in trouble. There is a tendency in photography of protests for demonstrators to appear “out of control or unruly,” according to Slaughter.
“There’s this narrative that folks are bugging out, when in reality it’s the police officers and the press,” Slaughter said.
For Slaughter, photography and activism are not separate entities. They are fused.
Slaughter is currently selling posters showing local police in helmets and riot gear, with such messages as “Who do you protect?/ Who do you serve?” and “(Expletive) the police.” Twenty-five percent of the proceeds from the posters are given to Black Lives Matter Boston.
“When you say ‘FTP,' you’re saying destroy the things that harm us,” said Slaughter. “Destroy the system that was built to destroy our community.”
Sam Williams, a 30-year-old Allston resident who was working as a bartender before the pandemic wiped out that industry, shot more than 15 demonstrations in June. He said his focus is on showing the people and energy of the city as well as the story of a “place that is so segregated and the pain that is here.”
“For me, it’s personal because I’m from here, my racists are here, I want to make change here,” Williams said in a recent interview.
Williams typically eschews digital gear for the protests. He prefers to shoot on film, saying that it forces him to take his time and make the shots count.
“It’s almost a task that makes you forget about everything else and be present,” said Williams.
His favorite shot of the demonstrations came during the May 31 march from Nubian Square to the State House. Sometime after the crowd crossed Massachusetts Avenue, Williams saw a group of children. The resulting sun-dappled image shows four kids, three of whom have masks on. Two have fists raised to the air, another has her arm raised, and a fist resting atop her head. One of the kids has a Black Lives Matter sweatshirt. For Williams, the photograph evokes learning what it is to be a Black person in America.
“To see that being learned was heartbreaking, but also they’re built for this,” said Williams. “Us existing, being here, is just power. I saw that there.”
There have been confrontations. On Juneteenth, Williams was shooting an event in Dorchester when a group of Trump-supporting demonstrators showed up with “blue lives matter” signs. One man, who was white, wore a red “Keep America Great” hat and brandished American flags, started yelling at a crowd of Black people, saying that they were racist by not acknowledging that “all lives matter” and that he bled for their freedom, said Williams.
Williams got a photo of him and then engaged him, conveying that he did not think the man came to the Juneteenth celebration to have a conversation, but rather to elicit a response. Slaughter, who was at the event, captured the heated exchange that followed in a series of photos. During the confrontation, Williams asked the man in the Trump hat, “What response do you expect?” and said that “as a human being, I’m telling you, you are hurting me.”
“It hurt because I knew his mind hadn’t changed,” said Williams. “I spent my time explaining to deaf ears.”
Williams would see the man later in the month, when he photographed a rally that was billed as a pro-law enforcement and anti-rioting demonstration in front of the State House. The event was defined by angry antagonism. A handful of white supremacists showed up and a larger counter-rally, which had formed across the street, chanted “Go home, racists.” There were multiple scuffles that prompted Boston police to intercede.
In one nasty episode that did not trigger police intervention, a pair of white women berated Williams and Philip Keith, who was also there to take pictures of the event, calling the Black photographers a slur that refers to a woman’s genitalia.
In a phone interview later, Keith, a 34-year-old Jamaica Plain resident, said someone at the demonstration had told him to “take my indoctrinated bloodline back to where I came from.”
Keith, who spent parts of his youth in Randolph, Milton, and Hyde Park, and went to the Boston Arts Academy for high school, returned to Boston in 2017 after living in Berlin for almost two years on an artist visa. In Germany, he had been assisting fashion photographers, working for modeling agencies, and doing commercial work that did not have anything to do with a social narrative. He found that he couldn’t “really tap into my community and couldn’t tell stories relevant to me.”
When he came back to Boston, he grappled with what his work should be. He considered pursuing a different career, but found that his need to make images always brought him back to photography.
During the last several weeks, he has shot about a dozen demonstrations in the region, and took a break recently because he, like Williams, Slaughter, and Scales, indicated that covering the protests can be emotionally and mentally draining. At the demonstrations, he finds himself looking for interactions to capture. There needs to be more photos of the plight of Black and brown people, Keith said, and coldly detaching himself from the photographic task-at-hand is not possible.
“I’ve been a Black person my whole life,” he said.
At the march earlier in the month on Blue Hill Avenue, Scales said he won’t know if his photos are any good until later. His camera is digital but he turns off the feature that allows him to view photos he just took, saying he finds the process to be more meditative that way. It has no zoom function: “You got to move your feet,” he said by way of explanation.
Now, he is doing just that, breaking into a light jog to get into position to use the light.
It’s the 10th or 11th demonstration Scales has shot since protests started across the country following George Floyd’s death. He will shoot several more in the days to come. The work, Scales acknowledged, can be a grind: hot days filled with marches that sometimes stretch for miles and hours.
His loved ones have to remind him to eat on days when he’s shooting protests.
“It’s the most beautiful grind I’ve ever been a part of,” he said.