For many photographers, the impulse to frame the world through the lens of a camera started early in life, and for others, a connection with photography is catalyzed through more substantial life experience. This latter phenomenon is the case for Kamal X, an image-maker who spent most of his life vaguely interested in photography, never feeling driven to pursue it full-time.
Thinking about this slow burn, he reflects, “Becoming a photographer has been one of the greatest surprises of my life. I was always curious about it, but never took any serious steps towards it. But in 2013, I lost my best friend to colon cancer, and with his passing, I decided to push my limits through travel and self-discovery to honor his life.”
When his friend passed, Kamal was working in real estate, and he decided to save up as much money as he would need to sustain himself on a year-long backpacking trip across the world. For those who have done this type of travelling, you know the endurance and independence required of the journeyer creates an emotional storm of the highest highs and lowest lows, but the transformative result of befriending these emotions is always worth it. For Kamal, this and more came out of his travels. “I met countless travelers who used DSLRs to capture all the beauty we were witnessing, and I quickly realized that my phone wasn’t enough to create the images I wanted,” he explains. “That led me to purchase a Nikon D3300 in 2015, sparking my beautiful relationship with photography.”
As someone who came to photography as an adult, working through the intricacies of making pictures never felt like something that was his alone. For Kamal, making photographs has always been a community-building activity—a process that feels consistently collaborative. “I am a very curious and compassionate person, and I have always had the impulse to make others feel welcome by being non-judgemental,” he reflects. “When I’m out shooting, I try to bring some of that curiosity and compassion to my subjects. Instead of just taking photos of people, I think of it as taking photos with them. Once you approach your work with this in mind, you inevitably treat people the way you would like to be treated. I believe this approach has allowed me to capture moments of honesty that I will always cherish.”
Interacting with others through photography is a practice that came to a crashing halt with the spread of COVID, as people were obligated to stay locked down in order to stifle the virus. Kamal was incredibly afraid of the pandemic, barely leaving his apartment in its initial months. But like so many others, something inside him shifted when the video of George Floyd’s murder spread like wildfire across every pocket of the Internet. “I suddenly realized that this moment was bigger than me, and I owed it to his life and the fight for justice and equality to document this moment in history.”
As many protestors pointed out during the demonstrations, there was a marked difference between the realities of the marches and what initially circulated on social media. “Although there was a lot of rage, anger, and hurt, I instantly recognized that respect and integrity were core elements of most of what was going on. After seeing so many images rooted in sensationalism and aggression, I wanted to shed light on the love and nobility that was being underrepresented. I wanted people to feel the heart of what this fight for justice and equality is really about.”
Kamal’s impulse to photograph took him on a journey from Oakland to D.C.’s March on Washington, where he was immersed in a community of loving organizers and citizens bringing light to justice. On the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech, the weather was particularly scorching, with many protestors experiencing heat stroke. The Fire Department created a hosing area for people to cool down, and Kamal noticed a young woman standing in complete stillness in the mist, surrounded by the buzz of other marchers and commotion. “At that moment, the nearby speaker was telling us about the importance of never giving up our fight, and I believe she was in deep thought as she listened in,” Kamal says.
The range of emotions expertly documented by Kamal’s camera are brought together in black and white—a technical choice that was inspired by the greats. “The decision to use black and white in this series helped me grow a lot as a photographer,” Kamal explains. “Some of my heroes, such as Gordon Parks, Eli Reed, Sebastião Salgado, and Robert Frank, all created timeless images in black and white that greatly inspire me. Hoping to honor the rich history of photography, I wanted to take it back to where it all started. I had very little experience with black and white before 2020, but I felt that it would help focus more attention on the statements expressed through these images.”
By the end of the year, Kamal experienced immense growth as both a photographer and a human being through his project, and his hope is that this might also be the case for his audience in their own self-reflection. “This experience forced me to face so many fears, inspiring me to be a better human being. I saw firsthand how amazing we can be when we come together and do the right thing. My goal with my photography is to inspire others to feel—I try not to get caught up in what a particular audience might be feeling, because that is out of my control. Believing we are separate from one another can blind us from seeing uncomfortable truths that we are obligated to face. Compassion and empathy are powerful tools that we must apply to create unity and understanding. If my work helps foster any of these emotions, I am grateful.”