One day, when Uptown resident and freelance photographer Paul Octavious was shooting in his apartment, he saw young Black children walk by his window and stare at him while he worked. As a self-taught photographer who wasn’t exposed to the art form as a child, seeing these children watch him lit a light bulb: How could he help open the door of photography to Black folks wanting an outlet to be creative and document their communities?
His idea became very real when the George Floyd protests erupted worldwide. Seeing protest documentation—and the misplaced desire from some white photographers to capitalize on capturing the movement—inspired him to start Black Archivist, a donation-based photography project designed to get cameras into the hands of Black people all over the country so Black communities can accurately tell their own stories without worrying about barriers like equipment access or formal education.
“This is for Black people living in America. They don’t have to be a photographer per se—if you have the urge, the drive to want to learn photography, that’s all you need to apply,” says Octavious, who started documenting with his first camera in 2005 and has been a full-time freelancer since 2008. He launched the project on Juneteenth, and since then, Octavious says he has received more than 50 camera donations, 300 applications from Black photographers, and more than $3,000, which will be used for shipping and purchasing new cameras if necessary. Through word of mouth and social media, the project has grown bigger than he ever thought it would.
The outpouring of community support speaks to the appetite for this kind of work in a time when protests for Black liberation are on center stage. Octavious thinks the movement reinvigorated folks to take action and see the disparity between Black and white communities in a new light. And part of that is credited to the power photography can bring to communities historically left out of the mainstream narrative.
“As a human race, we are more visual,” he says. “That’s what happened with George Floyd: People saw this Black man not breathing, with someone’s knee on his neck. I think people had to see it in order to [believe it].”
This witnessing of history and documenting the humanity of Black life is seen through the work of 18-year-old Kaleb Autman, an organizer, photographer, filmmaker, and artist from the west side who has documented Black Liberation movements since he was 12 years old. After a recent protest at Mayor Lightfoot’s house, Autman’s camera, lens, and phone were destroyed after liquid spilled onto his bag. To replace this equipment essential to his documentation and organizing work, he created a GoFundMe that raised more than $7,000 in less than 24 hours. “It felt humbling to understand that folks do see my work, and not even from the donations but from the messages of people I didn’t know who had seen my photography, to my peers saying, ‘I stand on your shoulders. You allowed me to do this and we are the same age,'” Autman says.
Octavious was one such person who reached out to the young photographer, offering a donated camera. But once the fundraiser goal was met, Autman decided to decline the offer so that the camera could go to a documenter who could not afford one. Having surpassed his goal, he paid it forward, giving $500 to five organizers on the ground to help pay for rides to and from protests, a logistical matter not often acknowledged that is just as important as the action.
The role of documenting has opened opportunities for Autman—at 13, his work photographing Black Lives Matter marches in 2014 was published online at BET and NBC, making him one of the youngest people in the U.S. to have photographs featured on a national media platform. While this fact is padded by his humility, it’s a testament to how photography can build trust with the media and the community—and hold accountability. He says stripping away the financial barrier for Black creatives is key. It took Autman seven years to raise money for his first camera. “The power of photography is narrative building, documenting history, and it is humanizing the folks on the other side of the lens, as well as humanizing yourself,” he says.
Vashon Jordan Jr., a 21-year-old photographer and Columbia College senior from West Pullman, wants more Black documenters out on the streets. The television student gained notoriety on social media as of late for covering recent unrest through an unfiltered and honest view that has allowed him to amplify Black voices, an approach which stems from his own experiences. But he doesn’t want to be put on a pedestal for his work—it should be the norm, he says.
When he was a junior in high school, he bought his first DSLR camera and taught himself how to use it. He then won a sponsorship from a photo and film rental company to produce a short film about a trans woman wrongly accused of sexual assault to highlight how the justice system disproportionately affects transgender people. Since then, he has been documenting his community and beyond for the last five years. He recently gave his first camera to a friend, also his photo assistant, whose camera was stolen. “If you give a camera or a tool to the source, magic is guaranteed to be made because our lives and our experiences are magical,” Jordan says.
That magic is what Octavious hopes to spread with Black Archivist. Aside from providing documentation access, the project is a way to uplift Black photographers, share their work, and create a network of support. Since Black Archivist began, he’s been sharing beautiful photos on Instagram to highlight the variance of Black art and give these artists a bigger audience. And it’s a reminder that anyone—regardless of race, education, or class—can do anything they want if they are drawn to it. “Not being a photographer and then becoming a photographer, I learned that I can become a photographer,” Octavious says. “You have to believe it to make other people believe it.” v