"A Journey Towards Justice": A Conversation With Photographer Joshua McFadden

Ayanna Desai

“The personal life of the photographer or the artist always seeps into the work. I decided to be conscious of that and make progress.” 

A few weeks ago during community time, when the Upper School was virtual, we listened to photographer Joshua Rashaad McFadden talk about his “Journey to Selfhood.” It was fitting, since we were, well, by ourselves. 

McFadden focused on his series, “Come to Selfhood” and “Selfhood.” In these series, the subject of his photos are men, and their photos are placed side by side with personal reflections on “father figures” who have played a big role in their lives and have allowed them to go into adulthood with a strong sense of self. 

“The idea of history is very important to me because you can learn so much about what has already been done,” Rashaad told me in an interview after his school presentation. “Grandparents and father figures depict the history of the subject, and it is a big part of who they are.

Someone who has influenced him is Debrah Harris, a historian. He also was inspired by other artists. He said that to see how rich their images were “made me feel that it was okay to continue making my work.”
His passion for photography started very early. Later, he attended Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, which he said was a historically Black university. 
After he graduated, he had an internship at the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, Georgia. He decided to move to Atlanta for two reasons: to get his master of fine arts in photography, and to be surrounded by the history of the civil rights movement.
“Photographs aren’t here to pause movements in the moment,” he said. “They are about a journey. A journey towards justice.” 

Early on, he began to think about perceptions of African American men.“I distinctly remember conversations about Black males and I began to question myself about why black men are [perceived in such a] bad light,” he said.

Mr. McFadden uses images to reflect the ordinary lives of African Americans because those types of pictures are often missing from museums. He wants to represent the everyday person with their family to capture images that are relevant to culture and that “reveal the truth and the identity that they possess.”

By doing this he can tell stories. When he is capturing a portrait of someone, he gets to know them and asks about their life experiences. He has asked clients to get pictures of their grandfathers, and after that, he talks to the participant about their experience finding the photograph of their grandfather. “When I carry all these together, you begin to see a collective story.”

Mr. McFadden said that photographs, in the past, have “been used as a weapon. For a very long time photography and photographers (have) used the photograph to solidify the stereotypes of people” and you can see this if you go back and look at archives. Mr. McFadden looked at archives at Harvard and saw images of enslaved people that were used to dehumanize them. 

Photography helps tell the story of the human experience because “the personal life of the photographer or the artist always seeps into the work. I decided to be conscious of that and make progress.” 

Curiously, Mr. McFadden said that his photographic eye hasn’t changed since he used to take photos when he was younger. He still has old photographs of his family that he took when he was young, and you can still see in the work he makes today that they are family photos. “I wanted to bring that back and dug deeper to discover that I didn’t venture off too far.” 

Of course, he still developed his craft, but the main themes of his photography have remained the same. Additionally, the theme of civil rights in his photography has remained consistent throughout his life. Notably, through photography, he discovered civil rights had a connection in his family. 

Mr. McFadden isn’t exclusively a photographer. He likes to experiment with other art forms including drawing, painting, and printmaking. “I love to include these (different art forms) into my creative bank.”

For Mr. McFadden, he appreciates the value of both portrait photography, which is set up, and candid photography that is taken out in the world. “I think for a portrait you have the relationship between the photographer and the sitter. The result of that interaction is a permanent photograph.” When he takes photos out in the world, things start to mix up a bit. He is able to capture more live-action moments.

Also, Mr. McFadden likes to capture and paint over photographs from people’s childhoods. He does this because he used to draw with paint in his childhood. 

Finally, Mr. McFadden said that art media has always been an effective method for social justice and change, and it dates back to the beginning of any type of art. He appreciates “how people are using social media to express social issues. If we didn’t have [social media], the worldwide awakening would be happening right now.” 

Art has always been used to express ideas of people in history like the civil rights movement. Photography was used to expose what was going on, and “If we didn’t have photographs of it, no one would know.” 

For one of his projects, he went back to Rochester, New York, and, inspired by Frederick Douglass, he created a newspaper. He thought it was interesting because he wanted to include the information from all of his portraits, so he published his newspaper that included all of the narratives. He had to collaborate with writers across the country. “People are able to access the newspaper for free,” he said. “They are distributed all over the city.” He wants to portray the message to “follow your hearts and what you want to do because you can follow your passion.” 

He also likes to develop young artists. He started a nonprofit organization to inspire creative collaborations with youth to allow them to use photography in different ways. 

He believes that mentoring relationships are very important. It is helpful to “have a strong community around you to support you and to guide you...It’s nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of.” He also said that the number one thing that you can do for yourself is progress and move forward. 
The Lovett School is an independent, coeducational day school where children from Kindergarten through Grade 12 find the courage to explore and the drive to discover.

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