“Black & White Images That Matter” – Anita Kouassigan
“The United Colours of Black & White images that matter” is what springs to mind for Anita Kouassigan. She commissioned Tobi Karim to describe how UK-based Nigerian photographer, Misan Harriman, has chronicled the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). Recently interviewed about his current photography on Sky News and The BBC, Misan has covered different areas of London and beyond, revealing the power of community behind his lens. At the time of writing this article, he had already made five trips to London and one to Guildford, Surrey. Misan is usually known for shooting celebrities such as Rihanna, as well as members of the British Royal Family. But this time, he has taken to the streets, and is making a huge social impact on a community, as well as global level with his images making the rounds on leading social and mainstream media platforms.
“A picture is worth a thousand words”. This is an expression that currently rings so true, as people across the globe gather in tens of thousands to protest in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) in the quest to bring an end to systemic racism.
In the midst of all the marching, the chanting and the flurry of witty signs and banners, photography as activism is playing a pivotal role – translating the humanity that is often lost in the news and articles, for millions around the world. One of the people blurring the lines between art and activism is Misan Harriman, founder of the curated premium content network What We Seee
Misan’s images show more than the who, the what and the where. And in this era of misinformation, where a president can refer to peaceful protestors as terrorists, Black photographers have the responsibility to capture and communicate the narrative and the real essence of Blackness – dispelling the thuggery, violence and criminality that is often always associated with our skin colour. Compared to the ongoing negative interpretations of BLM photos, many of which are taken out of context, Misan’s photography in itself is so raw, depicting direct snapshots of reality and emotions. His shots would be difficult to be misrepresented by hearsay or negative interpretations spin-doctored by the media.
It is particularly important to document these history-making moments, where Black people are catalysts for change – and most importantly from the Black perspective – because for decades racial bias have manipulated the lens and robbed the public of an authentic depiction of historical events through the promotion of a single perspective. As mainstream media invalidates the anti-racist movement and paints protestors as reckless individuals who have no regard for public safety during a global pandemic, they willingly dismiss the determination, the hope, the solidarity and the heartbreak that radiates from Misan’s images.
True to What We Seee’s tagline, “there are two ways to win the Internet: one is with extremism, and the other is with empathy”, Misan and many other Black photographers have been able to spread the message of anti-racism, to inspire and motivate people worldwide, and to mobilise and keep the momentum for #BlackLivesMatter alive, by truthfully capturing the emotions and determination of protestors – of all colours.
These photographs and the humanity and the morality they so perfectly portray show the power of unity and mobilisation of the ordinary man. In a mere three weeks, new legislations and provisions have been introduced to protect citizens from police brutality, the glorification of racist icons is being challenged through the removal of statues across the world, George Floyd’s killers have been arrested, and Breonna Taylor’s case has now been reopened. Just imagine what more can be done in America and across Europe through consistent action.
The real beauty in these images, is in the way Misan has captured youthfulness. Youth is not silence. Youth is not ignorance. Youth is change. To be youthful is to be a visionary. To be youthful is to challenge and transform. Nigeria has youth on its side. We must tap into our youthfulness, as a young nation and in our youthful population, to aspire for more. Youthfulness is where our power and potential lie. So, out with the old and in with the new.
How does BLM impact on Nigerians?
Over the last few months, Nigerians have been confronted with anxiety and grief – stuck at home – attempting to grapple with the pandemic, sick loved ones, job insecurity and the nation’s “fiscal flu”. The BLM protests and the changes they are already igniting have fostered hope for a better future amongst Black people everywhere. Like the 1960s, the era of the civil rights’ movement and the wave of independence, the 2020s seem to be gearing up to become a decade for monumental transformation across the continent and the diaspora.
As Nigeria slips closer and closer into a recession, we find ourselves at a crux – either we sink or swim. With so much energy and drive being targeted at reforming the system, our window for the change is finally opening. Think of the nation-building capacity that can arise, if we, as a melting pot of ethnicities, harness the power of unity and mobilisation. Coming together and empowering our people is the only way to holistically and successfully resolve the inadequacies, the inequalities and the injustices that are rampant in Nigeria’s socio-political system.
Our connection to BLM is founded on the notion and recognition that whether on the continent or abroad, prejudice, discrimination and racism is shackled to Blackness. The images of Black faces rallying together in a fight to overturn the status quo only confirms this. We cannot divorce ourselves from the American struggle and the widespread resurgence of BLM is an opportunity to confront the ways racism, prejudice and discrimination thrive within our borders. It is a rally for our collective liberation from a global sickness.
We must begin by asking ourselves, how does systemic oppression manifest itself in Nigerian society? We do not need to live in America or the UK to understand the pain of being subjugated to “second-class citizenship”, it is a shared experience. So, if we truly believe that Black lives matter, Black lives also need to matter in the nations we call home.
Our experience with racism is multifaceted. The recent history of the African continent – the slave trade and colonialism – was built on racist ideology which presently feeds into the distorted power dynamics between African states and the West. Till today, the trade and financial relationship between Africa and the West is constructed in a way that guarantees that Western states can continue to plunder the continent of its wealth to develop themselves.
Racism also affects Nigerians on an individual level – it became internalised through centuries of racist messaging and propaganda. For example, the message that “white is right”, which makes black synonymous with “bad” and “ugly” is the foundation of Nigeria’s skin bleaching culture. In addition, prejudice and discrimination are at the core of tribalism and the conflict and governance issues Nigeria is plagued with.
The challenges faced by Black women
People understand BLM to be a movement with the aim of ending systemic racism. What people fail to acknowledge is that Black women are the most harmed by the system, so when we talk about BLM we forget to address Black women’s rights. Malcom X stated, “the most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman”. His quote mirrors the global reality, the Black woman is oppressed wherever she goes. A Black man may find refuge in Nigeria but no matter her socio-economic status, the Black woman is a victim of a patriarchal society – she is more likely than her male counterparts to be assaulted (including sexually), to be raped, and to face gender discrimination at work and denied access to education and freedom of expression.
Despite the odds stacked against them, throughout history Black women are often the first on the frontline, yet more often than not their stories go untold. In fact, BLM was started by three Black female community organisers, Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza in 2013, in response to Trayvon Martin’s death. As part of the commitment to an authentic depiction of history, the activists that yield the lens are in a position to tell the stories of the women on the frontline. Stories, which could be used to propel the liberation of the Black woman.
This BLM moment, frozen in time, represents more than our struggle against racism. It evokes Black excellence and our need for reconciliation and comradery. It stirs up hope, determination and strength. Indeed, there is so much power behind Misan’s Leica lens. His photos scream strength and demonstrate a sense of community. They shout #BlackLivesMatter. A picture – or photo – is indeed worth a thousand words. This adage is drenched in poetry and symbolism. Using the art of photography, Misan has made a huge impact on us, addressing these moments in history in a powerful way. In a way that is a true reflection of the genuine humanity and empathy present in people – even during protests. History – even the most painful of history – can be recorded in a beautiful and artistic manner. These photos will exist long after we our gone. It is a legacy we leave for future generations. They will look upon these moments and see the strength behind our mobilisation, looking fondly at the time we fought for their freedom both at home and abroad.
About The Author
Tobi Karim is a writer and Founder of The African Feminist – www.theafricanfeminist.org. She created The African Feminist platform to change the existing narrative about Black lives in mainstream media, and to encourage the discussion of Feminism and the social, political and economic issues that affect Africa and its Diaspora. She has previously contributed to the African Journal for Security and Development and is a Director of Project HALO, a non-profit organisation that supports the development of black communities through education and training programmes, scholarships and the support of SMEs in the UK and Nigeria.
Cover Photo Credit: Samuel Churchill