Today my family and I will quietly celebrate my 22nd year as a photographer together.
To most people it might not matter, or you may even feel like why celebrate something so arbitrary? Well, let me explain.
When you know my story, my personal struggle, you understand why every moment of positivity in my life is worth celebrating. When you come from a world of gangs, drugs, alcohol, poverty, violence, death and destruction, yet you somehow manage to make it out, EVERY win counts! No matter how big or small.
Twenty two years ago digital cameras did exist, but most digital cameras back then used tech that would be considered prehistoric by todays standards. Plus, most of the more professional grade digital cameras were far beyond what the average consumer could afford. Consumer level digital cameras were underpowered and low quality, but still gave us a glimpse of what to expect in the future.
My first camera was a Polaroid instant camera gifted to me by my mother in the late 80’s. I loved it! I created many memories with it, until I decided that owning a camcorder would be a cooler decision. Fast forward a decade and now I’m taking a photography class in high school. I loved the process of working with film, and I considered the possibility of adding photography to my artistic arsenal. Unfortunately, I moved on from photography to continue with my God-given gift of traditional pencil drawings, and painting. I also fell deeper in love with writing poetry during this time. It’s something I’ve done off and on ever since I was a child. But my first true love was always music.
I wanted to be a part of the music business more than anything! So all of my other artistic endeavors took a backseat while I pursued a career in music. My friends and I came very close to signing a professional recording contract, but with music rapidly descending into negativity I started having second thoughts. After the loss of one of the founding members of our group, someone who was like a big brother to me, I decided to redirect my energy back into photography.
I had my first child and I needed something to document her growth and development. At that time I wanted to learn to use a computer, so I bought one of the first colorful iMac in hopes of making short family films. I thought about film making in the future, so once again I purchased a newly designated “digital” camcorder. The digital aspect of this device was a built in low resolution digital camera feature. I thought it was so cool because, it was 2 devices I needed wrapped up into one small package. I filmed and photographed my daughter for a few years, swapping out one device for the latest and greatest. This was also around the time my music producer gave me my very first copy of Adobe Photoshop, which I also didn’t know how to use. Yet my photographic journey would come full circle in the year 2000, as my mother would give me my first real camera. At the time she was dating a former military man that was also a professional photographer. After he passed away she gave me his beloved professional film SLR camera. I had no clue how to use it, but I was determined to learn.
After a few years of practice, the world of digital photography started to evolve rapidly. It finally evolved to a point that I felt it could be a reasonable option to shoot alongside of my film camera. Around this time my Uncle Billy, who was a photographer during his time in the U.S. military, bought a small, very expensive, fully digital camera. When he found out that I was interested in photography he reluctantly let me borrow it. I used this tiny digital camera in unison with my film camera, but the images from my film camera were far superior. Despite the low quality from the digital files, I fell in love with the immediacy of seeing my photos right away. It reminded me of my days using instant cameras. Although I loved film, I was totally hooked on digital photography.
As soon as I received my next income tax refund I decided to fully dive into digital. Against the wishes of my better half, I purchased an entire digital setup, even though I had no idea what I was getting into. My thought process was, if I can make decent pics with the film camera, surely I can learn to make them with the digital. It took years of trail and error, but eventually I started making photos that rivaled my film photos. After years of photographing with both cameras side by side, I made the tough decision to retire my film SLR. Digital was quickly taking over and I was all for it.
After a few years of using digital, my family and I moved from our home state of Illinois to Georgia. I setup shop in my new city and quickly made a name for myself. Some time in 2014 while cleaning out my closet I saw my old film SLR. It instantly brought back memories, making me realize that even my latest digital equipment just couldn’t compare. There was something about the all metal build quality and weight of the film camera that the more plastic feeling digital camera just couldn’t compete with. For fun I decided to go to the local convenient store and buy some cheap film. That decision helped me rediscover my love for film, and I’ve been shooting film again off and on ever since.
Throughout all these years I’ve encountered many issues. When I started there wasn’t a ton of young Black men interested in pursuing photography. There weren’t very many resources, so I had to get information wherever I could. Many of my family members and friends thought I was crazy for even trying. The opinion of most Black people at the time was, photography is only for old white men. Most of us hadn’t been exposed to all the great Black photographers of the world. We had no clue about all the great Black photographers making huge contributions to the world of art. Even as I dug deeper all I discovered were more white photographers. All of the photographers considered to be “masters” and “greats” were always white. Organizations like Magnum were said to be the best of the best. Unfortunately, most Black artists from the inner city hadn’t been educated on the great Black photography collectives such as, The Kamoinge Workshop. Some of us knew about Gordon Parks or a few others, but that’s it. We had no idea about the racist history of photography, or about the prominent Black photographers throughout history.
So as I went about my journey I had many people looking at me funny. A Black man walking around in the hood with a big camera around his neck was typically cause for concern. Cameras in general are frowned upon in most Black neighborhoods. People thought I was working for the police, or that I was some nerd doing something totally lame. I believed in myself and what I was trying to accomplish, so I pushed forward. Often times I would receive warnings about going out with my camera, and I put my own safety at risk many times just trying to pursue this art form. I wanted to progress so badly that I started reaching out to established professionals. I basically begged for every position from apprenticeship, to assistant, only to be rejected over and over again. I was turned away from jobs and opportunities simply because I was a young Black man interested in photography. Some of the white artists I contacted questioned why I would even apply for certain jobs. They would suggest I try something more “urban”. I could only stand by and watch as less experienced, less qualified, white people received every job opportunity that I applied for. I had to watch all of my dreams be fulfilled by someone else. Even as I built up a successful business of my own, I was still denied the chance to move up another level. That was until I reached out to a Black celebrity photographer out of Atlanta named, Shawn Dowdell. He believed in me enough to give me a chance. We quickly formed a friendship, and he was always there to offer helpful advice whenever I needed it. He was very instrumental in my early development. His motivation helped me accomplish my short term goals of being published by multiple magazines and releasing my own calendar projects. I’m forever grateful to this man for taking a chance on a complete stranger, sharing his knowledge and wisdom to help further my career.
With the advancement of social media platforms I’ve watched young people with little to no experience go from unknown to celebrity status. From unheard of to influencer. I’ve watched the whole art world change. I see more young Black people receive opportunities that I’ve been denied for years. And honestly it’s bittersweet. On one hand, I’m overwhelmed with happiness for any Black person that can achieve any form of success, but I can’t help but feel left out. It’s like, people like me have suffered so others can make it, but we’re still here too! I’ve never asked for any handouts, I’ve always been proactive in my artistic pursuits. I’ve always jumped out ahead and put myself out there when everyone else was afraid. I’ve always worked hard for the things I want in life. I endured all of the criticism, racism, classism, and discrimination while finding my way. All this because, I was trying to fit into an art form not designed for Black people, at a time when it wasn’t acceptable to do so. Back when being a photographer wasn’t cool at all. Making pictures wasn’t something a Black person would seriously consider a legitimate career choice. And it certainly wasn’t encouraged or celebrated like it is now. I know many of the OG Black photographers, such as my mentor, feel the exact same way.
In a world dominated by numbers and popularity, I can’t count how many real life people I’ve influenced over the years? I don’t have the largest social media following, I’m not well known all over the world, but I have had a very real impact on those around me. I paid for a website before it was the thing to do. I started a blog, which I still update even though they’re no longer popular. I used an iPhone to challenge myself in my spare time before Apple started rewarding people for it. I schooled plenty of people on film photography when digital was taking over. I know people who started their career based on my influence. People nowadays get life twisted. They forget all about the real world. They believe that in order to reach people or do anything of any real significance you must do it online. You have to have the numbers to back up your work. And if you don’t, then in their delusional world you’re worthless. I’m living proof that’s not true! For twenty two years I’ve been influential in the lives of real people. Not just to pursue a career in photography, but in many other areas of life. I’ve helped people discover their passion in life. I’ve helped people chase their dreams. I’ve helped people realize their capabilities. I’ve given people confidence and made them recognize their own beauty. I’ve helped people acquire new skills. I even helped people find success in areas they never thought of for themselves. I still help people try harder to push forward despite the obstacles they face. And honestly, I’ve done all this without so much as a simple “thank you” the majority of the time.
I’ve alway been a big proponent of giving credit where it’s due. In my eyes, it’s all about being fair. I’m just one of MANY Black people who has put in the work for years only to be largely ignored. This story isn’t about sympathy, it’s not about entitlement. It’s about real people, like myself, dedicating themselves to something they believe in despite the odds set against them. It’s about perseverance, passion, belief, and love. I love what I do even if nobody else cares. But of course we all want some form of recognition for the time, work and effort we commit to our craft.
I’ve lost so many loved ones during this journey, it’s hard to even comprehend. I’ve faced so many hardships, setbacks, and struggles along the way. More than I’m willing to even share in this particular post. But throughout all the pain, all the bad days, my immediate family has always been there for me. My team of 4 has always had my back. They always encourage me when I’m weak. They keep me motivated and focused. They never let me quit or give up. They show me unconditional love and support. When the rest of the world says, “you can’t” they say, “yes you can!” And “you will”. Even if I never receive any credit for all I’ve done, I’ve already won by having such an amazing group of people by my side. A group that has allowed me to explore my art for as long as it takes, without judgment or negativity. I’m so thankful for my family that it’s difficult to express my appreciation in words. I’m content knowing that even if no-one ever publicly acknowledges my influence, the positive influence I’ve had on my kids will always sustain me. They know the real me. They know what I’ve done and for who. My family and God know my heart and my intentions. If I never make a lasting impact outside of my home, at least I’ll be happy knowing I was given the opportunity to follow my dreams. That in itself is a precious gift. I cherish this gift with my whole heart. I was born an artist, and I’ll always be one, whether the world notices me or not.
This is why my accomplishment of twenty two years means so much to me, as well as my family. We know not very many people get to actually do something they love in this life. And we know most of the people where we’re from never even have the opportunity to simply live. The fact I’ve made it this far in life is a sad, but very true, miracle.
As I’ve done in the past, I will dedicate this anniversary to all the Black people who were never given a chance. To all my people that never made it out, that are still a part of the struggle, I’m right there with you. Don’t ever let anyone, especially someone that hasn’t lived your experience, tell you what you can or can’t celebrate. Celebrate every win! Celebrate every moment, every accomplishment, every move you make towards evolution and progression. Keep your dreams alive, and always believe in yourself! Even if no one gives you your flowers. Let your belief in the Most High along with the belief in yourself carry you forward with peace and love. Do what you love out of love and you will NEVER lose!
As for my foreseeable future, I will continue putting in the work. I’ve accomplished many of the goals I initially set for myself, but there’s definitely more I want to achieve. Early on I wanted to work with celebrity clients, and I’ve reached some of those goals. But over the years my priorities have shifted along with my personal interests. I’ve switched my style over time to reflect those changes. My mission now is, simply to do what I love to support myself and my family. I want to be granted the same opportunity to succeed as any talented white artist. I to want spend the rest of my journey traveling, making new work, making books, prints, and having my art exhibited in galleries. That’s all.
Until then, the story continues…
You Can Never Know What It’s Like To Live On These Streets Until You’re Forced To Survive On Them!
-Robert N. Jones
One of my favorite iPhone 5 pics so far. Taken in downtown Columbus at the river-walk.