Written by Jasmine Sinclair Wilson
It is a hot, humid day in Atlanta. The sun is bright and fills the WonderRoot Community Arts Center. There are a handful of artists visiting the center at this time, including Atlanta/New York-based photographer Joshua Rashaad McFadden. McFadden is widely recognized as a top emerging photographer; his works—Come to Selfhood (2015-2016) and COLORism (2012-2015)—have been featured on the Atlanta Beltline, and he was a recipient of the 2015 LensCulture Emerging Talent Award and chosen by THE FENCE as the 2017 Juror’s Choice grand prize winner for Come to Selfhood.
After taking him on a tour of the Center, Joshua and I sit down in WonderRoot’s Community Library to discuss his art practice. Our conversation begins by reflecting on Come to Selfhood and COLORism, and their individual exhibitions on the Atlanta Beltline. I first ask him about some of the feedback he received from those who saw Come to Selfhood.
“A lot of times people see it and say ‘I didn’t expect this to be here … ” He comments on how these responses seem inspired by people focusing more on the art instead of the person behind the work. When people discovered McFadden was the creator of this work, he said he received responses including “shock” and “tears,” with some viewers questioning who allowed the pieces to be installed on the Beltline. Though some viewers responded with discomfort and disapproval, Joshua finds balance in other feedback centered on the work occupying an accessible space, and he highlights one woman who emailed him to explain her conflicted feelings about the images in COLORism. He shares with me how she “wasn’t sure” about how she felt regarding the images and questioned her attitudes towards how she views skin color.
Responses like this one signify the influence of McFadden’s photographs and lead us to discuss his artistic process. “A personal relationship … it usually starts with one or multiple relationships and the stories eventually become combined … ” When creating Come to Selfhood, McFadden invited his friends and acquaintances between ages 19 and 27 to his studio where they completed a form with eight questions. This form included questions on black masculinity, identity, and on the father figures in the participants’ lives; McFadden then took their hand-written responses and added them to each participants’ portrait in the series. Read his entry in full:
“Positive role models played a major role in my development as a black man. They provided inspiration, guidance, and knowledge. I learned so many things about my history from them. Things that I wouldn’t have learned in the school systems. Growing-up with three brothers made it difficult to find my own identity. My father and grandfather always encouraged me to be unique. My mother did too. They also pushed me to get an education, they constantly told me and my brothers how it important it was. Black people will continue to face oppression in this country, but we must not let it stop us. We are powerful beyond measure. Please make an effort to be a positive role model in someone’s life.”
McFadden’s relationship with his aunt exemplifies her influence on his artistic practice. “She always pushed me to write everything down” and to “write my experiences so I could go back and review them.” When referencing his work, McFadden explains, “writing allows my participants to have a hand in the work and to have agency … it allows them to be specific when telling their stories … ” He says the handwriting, leaving scribbles or crossing through words, “helps to show their thought process.”
McFadden’s approach to storytelling and photography situates him as a creator of the photograph and also as a facilitator of healing—a process he describes as long but necessary to “come up with profound, deep personal stories.” To develop these stories, McFadden and his participants must delve deep into their memories and experiences. He tells me a number of his participants walk an unknown path throughout the writing process, often telling him, “Nobody has ever asked me these questions before.”
Response from participant Brittonius Lyle:“As a black nerd, super heroes were my ideal figures that represents black male masculinity. Given there were and still so few it really made it easier for me to choose, specifically, John Stewart as the Green Lantern, Virgil Hawkins as static. Both these men possess excellent qualities for young black males to lookup to: strong, bold, brave, resourceful, level-headed, talented and role models for their community. The fact that Static looked up to Green Lantern as a role model for black super heroes was inspiring. These characters helped shape me as a young black male today.”
When referencing Come to Selfhood, Joshua confidently states, “Healing requires confronting … it made my participants confront themselves, America, their fathers, and their family.” During the project, McFadden required all participants to find a photograph of a father figure in their life. He explains how some participants had to ship their photos from overseas, ask their grandmothers for help, and some struggled to find their photos, due to their house burning down during years prior. McFadden tells me a story about one particular participant who had not spoken to his father for months but eventually spoke with him while trying to obtain his photo for the series. While listening to this story, I can personally feel McFadden’s capacity as a healer, as well as his commitment to creating opportunities for others to grow and face the underlying issues in their lives.
In COLORism, McFadden and his participants confront perceptions of skin color. This project began with three black women who attended school with McFadden at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina and has grown to include over 100 participants. He describes it as, “My most complicated project … Nobody understood it except black women … Nobody wanted to listen except black women … it brought up ideas of self-esteem … comparison … self-affirmation … childhood memories.” He adds how challenging it was for him to witness their healing; at various points throughout the process he was moved to tears. COLORism visualizes each participants’ vulnerability and courage in confronting their experiences related to colorism. McFadden often says his projects are works in progress, and he believes he has still has “more to do” with COLORism. He has exhibited the images in groups at various galleries, but McFadden ultimately strives to capture their power through a comprehensive exhibition including all 100+ photos.
In his series After Selma (2015), McFadden explores civil rights history and racial justice. He uses his camera to contextualize the time passed since the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, AL. His primary guiding question is “Where are we now?” and he finds answers by taking black and white photos of participants marching to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma march and Voting Rights Act of 1965. McFadden shares he did not ask any subjects questions throughout his process, mainly participating as an observer and protester through his photographic engagement.
Prior to our conversation, I discovered an interview between Callaloo editor Charles Rowell and world-renowned painter and collagist Romare Bearden. In this interview, Bearden discusses the relationship between art and protest, commenting on limitations of art and its effectiveness. “Art has other overtones, and there is nothing wrong with protest. But as I said before there are other things that do it better than art. Other ways. There is a photograph, taken during World War II, which has a little Chinese baby at a railway station. There is the bombing and all, and she’s just sitting there. Abandoned. It’s extremely moving. But to put that into painting…and people try to do that..people in the war or the platoon tried to to make you see it like that.”
In prior interviews, McFadden has openly expressed his commitment to activism and photography. Inspired by his support of these concepts working hand-in-hand, I summarized Bearden’s comments above and ask McFadden to share his thoughts.
He pauses, then explains, “When Dana Schutz painted the image of Emmett Till, it abstracted it.” The painting, he adds, “brings the photo into a fantasy,” and “degrades it.” In the context of protest art, McFadden’s point affirms his belief about photography as a truth teller. “I can link photography with the truth … link it with reality … photography is used for information … that is what drew me to it.” But its limitations, when translated into a painting, or as its own art form, are also evident to him. In reference to Bearden’s description of the WWII image, McFadden offers questions and shares his ideas regarding the limitations of photography.
“Does the image have to have tragedy? What are the in-betweens? The in-betweens of the stories leading to the bombings or the tragedy … Do people pay attention to the in-betweens?”
Each of these responses to photography’s limitations, advantages, and translation across other art forms lead McFadden to his last suggestion, “Perhaps my images are the in-between.”
We continue to process his idea, eventually leading us to consider the role of standards in art. In an interview with C4 Atlanta, McFadden emphasizes the need for there to be a standard in activism work. When I inquired about his standards, he responded with a set of guiding questions.
“Is this portrait how this person wants to be seen or viewed on a large scale?” He adds, “If they are willing to expose themselves, they should be able to control how they are viewed.”
McFadden genuinely cares for his participants—both their voices and position in front of his camera. He shares a similar concern for other artists, noting the importance for them to create their own standards. I asked him to pose guiding questions for fellow artists who might be reading this piece. He offers, “What is the goal for your work? What are you hoping to solve?” In the context of Atlanta’s art community and opportunities for arts and advocacy work, McFadden recognizes the city’s evolution. “Atlanta is rapidly changing…. Artists are trying to figure out where they fit in.”
McFadden is currently working on a new project, Notions of Freedom, and although he would not share many details, he characterizes the series as one committed to “thoughts on freedom.” With colorism, identity, history, and freedom on his agenda, McFadden continues to challenge the world’s issues through his camera. A true arts advocate, he inspires, provokes, and encourages others to see themselves, heal, and transform. We can only be patient as we anticipate the release of his next project; to read more about his work, follow him on Twitter and Instagram and also visit his website for more information about his past projects.
Jasmine Sinclair Wilson is a Communications Intern with WonderRoot. She enjoys writing about the arts and reports on a variety of topics for our Arts + Advocacy Blog. She can be reached via email.