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Adrian White’s photographs are a powerful reminder of Black existence

Adrian White is a photographer originally from a small town in North Carolina called Stanton’s Burg. White’s photographic process is one that mainly consists of documentary and portraiture photography.

As he moves back and forth between California and North Carolina he creates phenomenal imagery surrounding memory, family, and history and its relation to the Black experience.  

Photograph by Adrian White

Moving through his work is very much traveling through a shared experience, our practices meet where White’s use of archival imagery comes into play.

Through his film, ‘White’s Only’ you can view some of the ways White uses his family archives to explore concepts of preservation, and at times loss. Certainly, a film one should spend time with.  

White also has a way of capturing a moment that feels steady and the works that he creates will hold viewers far into the future. He regards his work as a living breathing archive that his decedents will be able to view and interact with. This act of preservation is once more a prominent concept in his practice.  

While speaking with White I felt this overwhelming sense of familiarity. Though it may be our Southern upbringings that made me feel connected to him. Nonetheless, his work calls to mind a quote I came across in 2020, “Black People exist in the future.”

White’s work exists in this space of radical remembrance. The photos we collect as Black people are connected by the oral histories we share, and his work pays homage to that tradition.  

Adrian White
Adrian White

Working in a new environment

Adrian White: Presently, I’m working on a project here in South Central LA where I do street photography and portraits on the street. Also, when I go home, I always try to document what’s going on in my small town. 

Jade Rodgers: The work that you’re doing in LA, is it random individuals that you’re working with?  

AW: Yes, I started in the Crenshaw and Inglewood area. That’s kind of what I do, I walk up to random people. There are quite a few shrines up for Nipsey Hussle. That’s almost like my base of operations and I branch out from there. 

 JR: How did you get started in photography?  

Photograph by Adrian White

AW: I went to an HBCU, North Carolina Central University. While I was there, I linked up with one of my homies from Trinidad. His name is REM, and we had a TV show together. I would say that was the start, even though it wasn’t photography, per se, it was video. The TV show was us going around and talking about what was happening on campus. There was a humorous element associated with it. Then from there, I went on to the military. I was a combat photographer, so I document documented everything that the US Navy had going on. I was in Haiti after the earthquake, that huge earthquake. So, I saw a lot of crazy things and travel the world. How I got my start in photography through the military. 

JR: It’s already stressful to be a photographer. In certain situations, especially documentaries. Did you feel as though it was hard to make images at times? Or you just were on orders? And you were doing what was asked? 

AW: They’re hard in the sense that they put you in tough situations sometimes. They’re also telling you what to go out and shoot. So, in that sense, it was easy, but yes, you’re absolutely in tough situations. How would I say it? It taught me how to problem-solve. That’s something that I carry with me now. How can I get into a particular place? How can I document this thing? You know? So, it’s a skill that I’ve carried on to the present day. 

How Adrian White found photography

JR: What was your draw to fine art photography? After the military did you think this was the best path? Where did you go from there? 

Photography by Adrian White “Dionne in Cotton Field”

AW: When I got out of the military, I went on to Brooks Institute of Photography. It was a world-renowned institute specifically for technical photography and commercial photography. I was there and I was one of the only Black faces there. One time in my class, one of my professors really challenged me. It was then when I said to myself, there are a lot of black photographers out here doing this. What would I say to the world? What would I communicate to the world? I think that’s when I decided I wanted to be a fine art photographer. I do commercial photography a little bit, but I feel like my focus is mostly on fine art. 

JR: Do you feel as though it’s easier to communicate your thoughts through fine art? 

AW: I created tension in my work, as an extension of my thought process. For me, photography is easier than talking. 

JR: When it came to learning about the history of photography, you’ve already recognized that you were the only black person in this space. Did you feel that the history itself made you want to tell black stories even further?  

Influence of Black Photographers of the past

AW: I think it was my introduction to Gordon Parks. I started to study Park’s work and I thought that he was a self-made photographer. His work was beautiful. I read a few of the books on him and saw how he just threw himself out there. He told people that he was a great photographer when he didn’t know anything about photography yet. If he could do it, I should be able to do it, too. I really don’t think I figured it out until a little bit later, from my own history.

At least when I first started photography, I was trying to take pretty pictures. I think that’s kind of played out. I tried to figure out a way where I could tell my own story. The deeper I went the more of my own story began to surface. I look at the camera as a weapon or tool. So, I’m always walking around with it. What can I say with this thing that I got in my hand? 

JR: Gordon Parks is also a favorite of mine. Also, in your work especially your use of the archives. I get a sense that some of the people in your photographs are family.

That it’s important to you to highlight that personal story and history. In what ways do you feel like you use the archives? Also how important is that in the work that you share. Versus work that you might do commercially? Also, for family photos do you find that you keep some to yourself? 

Photographed by Adrian White

AW: The first time I was introduced to photography was through the family photograph. My mom dusted off the family album, and she opened it up. She started to tell stories, because I mean, as photographers, that’s really, really what we are, right? We’re all just storytellers. Now I try to connect it to how can the archives and my contemporary photography work hand in hand. 

That’s how I started that project, down in North Carolina called Pickled Memory, where I put old family photographs in the jars with corn syrup and tried to get my family to interact with them. I’m not just talking about those old family photographs. They tell stories that even contemporary photography can’t duplicate, all the different layers on top of each other. 

When Dreams become reality

JR: That concept and those photos are beautiful. Pickling a photograph and trying to preserve something where maybe that person or place might not exist anymore. That was just such an intriguing body of work. Could you talk about that project more?  

Photographed by Adrian White

AW: That project started as a dream. One night, I had had a dream about what if you put photographs inside of a jar, and bury those photographs? When you’re really in touch with your entire process and trying to figure out how am I going to do this? Why am I going to do this? What am I going to do? You come up with some interesting ideas. My family probably looked at me like I was weird a little bit. Put the photograph in a jar and you want us to dig a hole and put them in it?

They did it because they believed in what I was doing. It also turned into this fun thing especially interaction between my nieces, nephew, and my sister. They still talk about it to this day. Burying the photographs in the ground and putting the eggs on top of the photograph. It looks almost like a burial site.  

JR: Watching “White’s Only” and seeing the process of burying was a bit sad for me. When I viewed the film, I was listening to your nieces talking in the video. Asking these questions like, why are we doing this? What is this for? For me, that amplifies the feeling of, we’ve already put the images into a jar. We’re already preserving them for some purpose. Now the aspect of burying that just added another layer for me. Especially the aspect of preservation. I really love your work. I really do. 

Photographed by Adrian White

AW: Thank you so much. I really appreciated it. 

JR: I was very curious about how you came up with that idea. The dream wasn’t something that you had repetitively or was it a one-off dream? 

Photographers…Keep a journal and write down all your ideas

It was just a one-time dream.

– Adrian White, Photographer

AW: Though in graduate school I walked around with a journal all the time. When you write down everything. You tend to come up with an idea. If you come up with an idea you should always write it down. It stuck out to me because of that. I still walk around with my journal, but everything is accentuated when you’re in graduate school because you’re just trying to figure things out. I ran with the idea and thought, let’s take these photo photographs to see what that looks like. 

JR: I love and respect the way you focus on black stories. Could you speak about visibility as it relates to blackness and how you engage with the history in the contemporary? I know you’ve made images that exist in the realm of creative activism. I’m curious to know your relationship to these sorts of images. 

Photograph by Adrian White

AW: I think my images do several things. I feel like I document but a lot of my images focus on my family too. I’m creating more images for the family album. I’m creating a place in history. I also feel like for so long, black people weren’t being shown in galleries. We didn’t see the stories of black people. As I said, Gordon Park was one of the first photographers, the first black photographer, anybody ever told me about. I wanted more representation; I needed more representation. 

Why were photographs that showed pictures of people like my nieces and my nephew and my sister, mom, and dad? Why weren’t they in galleries? It’s all about representation and visibility. That’s the cool thing about the camera, that the camera is all about visibility. I walk around the earth with that camera, I’m showing you what I see. So, it’s almost like an autobiographical journey. Wherever I go, you can see what I see. 

Working at a Protest…Think about ways to protect your Subjects

JR: Well, your images tell a story, and it’s clear where your focus is. The Black Lives Matter protest images that you sent over. I really love the way you address anonymity and protecting the people that are involved in these protests. Could you talk about what it’s like making images in that space? When do you decide to cover up faces or not?  

AW: I remember the dialogue that was going on at that time. We’re out there on the street and everybody is saying, you can’t show who’s at the protests because the police might come after them. That they could be arrested. I decided to add an extra element to it. By covering up everybody’s faces. The crazy thing is the people that were jumping on the cars and all that a lot of them were white people. Yes, a lot of white people. The black dots on their faces were so you couldn’t really tell who they were.

I remember a conversation that I had at one protest. People would come up to us and basically say, we’ll take care of this part we’re trying to protect y’all. We don’t want you to do the nefarious thing, like, we will take care of y’all, we’ll do that part. A lot of times when I was out there, I would put headphones on, and I would listen to a soundtrack that would get me in a particular space. I felt like that opened my eyes a lot more I was able to see things that I wouldn’t typically see because of the soundtrack that was going on in my head. 

protesters photographs
Photograph by Adrian White

JR: Personally, when I go to protest, I’m usually super attentive to my surroundings. Did you feel as though the music at all hindered your awareness? 

AW: I feel like it heightened my other senses in a weird kind of way. I was paying attention to everything more. Of course, I couldn’t hear things, but I could see better. That was the whole point of me being out there to see

JR: I think a lot about the way protests are portrayed in the media. Oftentimes incredibly violent, and people running the street but it’s not always that either. We’re all there for a reason from mourning or simply annoyance and displeasure at the state of things.  

AW: Yes, every protest is different. I’ve been to some violent ones I’ve been shot by rubber bullets, but some are very calm. Some are simply us standing here together. So, every protest is different. It’s kind of weird in that way. I know exactly what you mean. It’s always the negative stuff that is portrayed in the media. 

protesters phtographers
Photograph by Adrian White

JR: It’s really frustrating at times though I would love to talk more about your image Sankofa. The woman in the water wearing a mask, I was intrigued by the title because of its meaning but also just how beautiful the image itself is.  

Creating Photographs in the Present that Reflect the Past

AW: That’s a performance artist that I worked with. Her name is ISIS and was taken off the shore of New York. What we were trying to recreate was the massacre that enslaved Nigerians committed when they were brought over from Africa (Igbo Landing Mass Suicide 1803).

They killed their slave masters, and then they all committed suicide. We went out to the water, and it was very cold it was in the winter. Sankofa is about looking forward to the future but also remembering your past. The two faces that are evident in the image are prominent.

The mask is looking in one direction and her face is looking in the opposite direction. She’s from Rwanda even though we were we were focusing on Nigeria the mask is Nigerian. 

Photograph by Adrian White

JR: Oh, wow. I’ve never heard that story before. Thank you for teaching me that.  

AW: Yes, they wanted to have control over their lives they didn’t want to be controlled by slave masters. They would prefer to just kill themselves. 

JR: You’re also a photo professor, right? 

AW: Yes, I teach at California Baptist University and Santa Ana College

JR: What are some important histories of photography that you feel your students should know about? 

Photograph by Adrian White

AW: The main thing is that photography is autobiographical in a way that people don’t quite understand. A lot of people just go around making pretty images. I think the stories that we tell are way more important than pretty images. Since we have Instagram now and Facebook, Tik Tok all these platforms have a lot of mimicking and copying. Sometimes you just need to close your eyes and figure out who you are, and what you’re trying to say to the world. I think that’s just more important. 

JR: Yes, absolutely. It’s hard for some when you’re constantly viewing images online. You may start to think, oh, maybe I should be doing that. Then I’ll get this type of recognition. I think you must ask yourself, what are you doing it for?  

AW: Absolutely. I feel like I’m trying to be in conversation with people that aren’t even born yet. More so family members that aren’t even born yet. Especially when I’m not on this earth anymore. I want them to still be able to look at my images. Oh, I didn’t know I had this relative. I didn’t know about this thing that happened here or then. That my uncle moved to California, and he was the professor. He did this and he did that project in South Central LA. These are all things that I want to happen when I’m no longer here. Where I can have this body of work that even though I’m not here, I want my legacy to persist. I want my images to persist. 

JR: I feel like they will. I really do. I’m so drawn to this image titled matriarch. Her powerful gaze and being situated in nature and in all black. I really fell in love with that image when I saw it. Could you talk about what it was like making that and who that is to you? Also thinking about women as being head of households in our community. 

Photograph by Adrian White

AW: Yeah, I think women have quite a bit of power. That’s my mother. She is a God-fearing woman, who is deeply religious and she’s a mother of the church. We put her in her church clothes, and the photo was taken in our backyard. It’s a body against space and it’s also talking about the history of black people in North Carolina. Which isn’t always that pleasant. I did protest. My mother talked about some of the protests that she was involved in, growing up.

I wanted to make her look powerful. Against that backdrop of the trees, the acres of land that we now have. She certainly looked powerful with that gaze that she’s given me; as I’m looking at her. She’s looking at me. As if to say, yes, I am, who I am. Something else to add to that is, in our front yard. There’s a sign that says 40 acres (about twice the area of Chicago’s Millennium Park) of land for sale.  

JR: That is amazing that you all have land to call your own. Personally, my immediate family hadn’t owned any land until 2015. We still don’t have much, but it’s enough. It’s a great feeling when you and your family can have a space to be. That is a beautiful idea to photograph her in a space. Also, I love the church hat. It reminds me of the days my family and I attended church with our grandmother in Washington D.C. 

AW: Another reason she’s wearing that hat is that she was battling cancer at the time and trying to cover that up as well.  

JR: I’m sorry to hear that, but she looks so beautiful in that photograph I’m glad you were able to capture that moment. Also, I love to hear more about this image of the young boys. (Titled, Four Boys) 

black kids photographs
Photograph by Adrian White

AW: There’s a video installation associated with that project. I was in Harlem when I was at Parsons, right there on Lenox Avenue, and I went to the store, and I got these boys some water guns. I had them shooting at each other. After they finished playing around and I photographed them sitting down. There’s this posture that black men learn at an early age. As if you must communicate that you’re not one to be messed with.

Whether you’re talking about Europeans or talking about outsiders, you got to show people that they can’t mess around with you. There was a lot of posturing going on like the boys are trying to be tough in the image. They did that all on their own. I didn’t even direct them to do it. It’s just this kind of natural thing that happens with young black boys and black men. I mean, you’ve even seen the prison photographs where they try to do the same thing. It’s all about displaying toughness, displaying your dominance. 

JR: Yes, absolutely. I see it. You know, my little brother every day is getting older. I always ask him what are you doing? They’re watching older Black men and men in general. My father has always been one of those men of men. Very macho, and the men the young boys are looking to are from a different era. I see it in that photo, and especially the boy in the middle.  

JR: What projects are you currently working on? Things that you might hope to create in the future.  

black and white photography
Photograph by Adrian White

AW: I’m trying to get deep into the project here in South Central LA. The biggest thing right now is that I’m a black man from North Carolina. When I’m here, I’m black but I’m considered an outsider. I didn’t grow up in Inglewood, Crenshaw, or South-Central LA. 

I’m trying to figure out diverse ways to infiltrate the community. I know that sounds like a weird word choice. Though to create more images that’s what I need to do. So, I can tell more stories. There’s nothing nefarious about that but I want to tell the stories of black people.

To tell stories of people that look like me. A lot of times people will say they can tell when you’re not from their areas. Then they’re questioning what you’re doing here bro? Or why do you want to take photos of me? That’s the biggest thing right now. 

JR: Yes, that is tough. I relate to that so much because I was raised in Georgia. I moved back to Maryland where I was born, and a lot of people thought I wasn’t from there or they could tell. It’s tough to integrate into a community and sometimes to really connect with that community if you aren’t rooter there in some way. Though I always believe it’s important to try and build a community as you make work. It can be challenging. 

AW: You walk around with the camera; talking to people. That’s how you start to tear down some of these walls. After a while, they know who you are.  

JR: Could you talk about these archival images that you have here? What is their relationship to your work? 

AW: I took this class when I was in graduate school called History, Memory, and Trauma. One of the things that I gleaned from that class was how you need to really talk to people while they’re still here on Earth. I feel as though those archival images can be a launching point. If I show a photograph of something or play a song and it makes people talk about their memories.

I saw a photograph and my brother might say, oh, I remember this happened right here. Then my sister might have a completely different story and I’d have a completely different story. It’s almost like we’re comparing notes in a way. That’s one of the beautiful things about those archival images. It shows how perspectival memory is. How I remember isn’t the way that someone else will remember. Which gets us to talk to one another and reminisce  

JR: Absolutely. The archival image as an entry point to memory and history is an important aspect of the photograph. I love that you brought that up and you should certainly add that to your journal if you haven’t already. 

AW: Oh, for sure. I really appreciate you interviewing me. There’s this song called grandma’s hands. Have you ever heard of this before? 

JR: No, I haven’t actually.  

AW: It’s by Bill Withers. In a lot of ways that song works kind of like an archival image. I sent that song to my family’s group chat, and we just began telling stories about our grandmother who passed away years ago. Where I mean, it’s this kind of beautiful, archival image and music that works hand in hand.  

 JR: I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me. I saw your photos previously and I really want to emphasize this because the way you work with your family archive is beautiful. Thank you again, when I saw your work, I knew I had to hear more about it.