Al J Thompson is a photographer who is originally from Jamaica. He migrated to the US in 1996. Thompson began his photographic career in 2007.
He was an assistant helping other photographers create their photo projects. From then on Thompson began working in portraiture, lifestyle, and fashion photography. Over time his work morphed into photojournalism and, and documentary photography.
Thompson’s work situates itself in many photographic categories but reminds me of that of Roy Decaravas’s work in the way his work tells a story.
Each image holds its own weight amongst his projects. You’ll find that Thompson’s works are not only captivating and careful but inspiring to view.
He is an intellectual photographer who makes work beyond the common narratives.
A photographic life between art and activism
Jade Rodgers: In what ways do you feel your work resides between art and activism?
Al J Thompson: Art and activism, they both work side, side by side. I’m at the point where I can’t differentiate between photography and art. Actually, I believe photography is a form of art.
Even if you’re a photojournalist, that’s also a form of art. Personally, the day that I took up a camera to photograph my community and things that reflect who I am as a person. I feel as if that in itself is activism. Activism in the way that I try to bring that forthright to the public, and have them understand what I feel at that given moment.
Whatever it is that I do, I do it from a humanitarianism point of view. With that comes art as well. That in itself, there’s a back and forth conversation between the two, actually, and it’s pretty fun.
JR: How did you get into journalism?
AJT: I will say that most of my jobs have been through word of mouth, from one editor to the next. I have a few editor friends and a lot of people found my work through Instagram.
Which is one of the main platforms that I currently utilize. I say currently because I’m on the brink of moving on from Instagram, actually. I’ve always believed in the idea of word of mouth, and because that’s more powerful than any form of advertisement anyway.
JR: Often you find that young photographers struggle with that. Some don’t have that network or sense of networking abilities. The uncertainty of being an artist, so some may be more comfortable with the idea of working for a company long-term.
How to Navigate Opportunities
AJT: It is a struggle for me because most of the time I utilize my stories to tell my story. While that may be entertaining for some, for me, I take it seriously.
“Whatever I think, is whatever I’ll output into the ether.”– Al J Thompson, Photojournalist
Most people have, I say most people, but like, a lot more people actually read my stories and then check out my posts on Instagram. So I have these dialogues in the background.
Every now and then I’ll share certain things to say ‘Hey, listen, this person says this.’ So it is almost like I’m able to push the envelope in a different way. That’s why I brought up stories because I feel like that’s one of the platforms where people get connected. I think a lot of people found a lot of truths, through my stories, and they connected very well.
Al J Thompson talks about the Omar & Abdullah’s photography project
JR: I think yeah, that’s definitely a good way to utilize the space. To get people looking at your work, but then also viewing the deeper aspects of it. Having a dialogue to get people engaged. Also, I was thinking about your work Omar & Abdullah’s.
AJT: Yeah, yeah. It’s so funny how you brought that up. That was pretty fun.
JR: Yeah, I saw that you picked two of the images that I was actually most drawn to. The image of the older gentleman standing in front of this brick wall. It reminded me of something that I’ve seen, in Roy DeCravas’ work, the blacks, and your tonal range is really beautiful. How did that project come about?
Creating the work in safe spaces
AJT: Yeah, the funny thing about three years ago, a buddy of mine invited me and several other friends to Atlantic City. He loves gambling and is into poker, me not so much, actually not at all.
Anyway, we went for the weekend, which is what we do on a yearly basis. While there, I decided to walk around the city, and it is pretty dilapidated. It’s not as nice as I had originally thought. So, for me, anything that speaks to me in various ways, emotionally at least I’ll want to get to know more about it and then photograph it.
I was passing by photographing the streets and this gentleman just ran out of this barbershop. He saw me and he called me over and said, “ ‘Oh, your photographer? A professional photographer?’ I said, yeah. He says, ‘Can you come in for a second? Would you mind photographing us?’ Then I went in and in my head, I was thinking, oh, hell yeah.
I went in and there were a lot of different characters there. Dads with their sons and barbers just doing their thing. I said, ‘Listen, what I’m going to do is photograph all you guys. Then I’ll send it to someone for them to share with you guys.’ So that’s what I did.
When your creations come full circle
AJT: I waited for the older gentleman to come out. He actually wasn’t a barber at that time. What he did do was shine shoes. I went through an entire roll of 120 film.
I got the contact information and emailed the photos, but they ended up not receiving them. Things got lost in translation, it seems as if they’re not really into emails. I wish they had gotten that at some point. Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow because tomorrow morning 15 of us are heading back to Atlantic City.
JR: Oh, wow that’s full circle. I was drawn to it all because images taken in those spaces like a salon, or a barbershop are sacred spaces to me.
AJT: Absolutely, this is a space where you have intimate conversations. You have conversations about football or basketball and other things.
“This is Afro-American culture if you want to see what the community is, you go inside of spaces like a barbershop.”– Al J Thompson, Photojournalist
JR: Absolutely and those were beautiful images. Also, that young boy’s gaze was so intense.
Al J Thompson tells us a secret of photography
AJT: I don’t remember the photographer that actually pointed it out several years ago. I was watching some sort of documentary. A mini-series on a particular photographer. He was showing his portfolio and he said, “Once your subject contains this striking, powerful view in the eyes, you don’t need to work for your photo.”
“You just photograph those eyes, that’s all you need.”– Al J Thompson, Photojournalist
That’s one of the secrets about some of these things, because you have these faces, and they’re very interesting with really beautiful characters. The sitters characteristics hold certain elements and it drives home that point of the various endless boundaries of the face.
Faces more often than not can tell a story with the eyes. Even when you’re older as well if you’re 60, 70, or 80 years old, man or woman. You see those landmarks within the faces and the scars as well, those are stories. Those are interesting stories and you don’t need to work too hard to photograph that, because it’s just right there staring at you.
The migration to a new world
JR: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. So moving to New York, from Jamaica, did you find that the creative community in Spring Valley? What is that like for you? Because I know it’s important as an artist to have that kind of community.
AJT: Well, when I moved here, I left my dad, my two brothers, and my grandmother, those who I grew up with, I left them in 96. I used to visit here every so often anyway, and then I settled down.
There was nothing creative and I wasn’t even thinking about art. At the time, when I moved to LA, I was just thinking about going to school, graduating, and then I’m going to get a really nice job and have opportunities.
I’m going to send money back home, and then I’m going to eventually move back to Jamaica. That was the plan. This is kind of the plan for most immigrants that moved to the United States.
Then things changed, I started to miss home as well. That was depressing for me and it took a while for me to actually embed myself within the community. I met one or two new friends and I’m trying to figure out my way around, but I couldn’t.
Eventually, just growing up through high school I started rapping with my Jamaican accent, and then friends told me ‘Oh you should add some reggae to this or whatever.’ It was still fun…
“I made this place my own.”– Al J Thompson, Photojournalist
Although, it was still a struggle because I had left so much behind. A lot of history and the island, but in high school, I still did some art but nothing crazy.
Mostly I was thinking about anything other than being an architect. That’s what I wanted originally, to major in architecture. Then I took some subjects in college and I’m good at math, but physics kicked my ass.
Then I just decided to settle with graphic design. I got a degree and started working in the city for a while. Then that’s how I got introduced to photography because graphic design is almost like its stepbrother. My first camera, I got it when it had just come out, the original Canon digital rebel XT. Yeah, so I was like, God, this is an eight-megapixel camera. Oh my god, this is so cool.
Learning the ropes
JR: That’s wild, I came in around the rebel t3.
AJT: You’re much younger. But yeah. I took a darkroom course and I wanted to take more courses but ended up not doing that. That was the only thing and some art history courses. We talked about Richard Avedon and a few other photographers out there. The moment I got my rebel I was just going nuts. I was everywhere shooting trees and leaves. I didn’t know what the hell.
JR: While you were in school, taking some of those classes. Did you feel like you were learning about photographers that looked like you? Did you see yourself in those classes at all, learning about photo history?
AJT: It was a prerequisite for my graphic design degree. I didn’t really think of it. I mean, every now and then I thought to myself, ‘Oh this is fun. I’m in a dark room. This is really fun, you know.’ Looking back at some of my work is a horrible experience. I look at an image and it’s so blurry. When I thought it was sharp.
Remnants of an Exodus… The show
JR: Well, I’m really excited to hear how your opening for your show went?
AJT: I had one in Portland, Oregon and I wanted to go but I was unable to attend. It was very unfortunate. I did have an artist’s talk that was pretty emotional for me because I wrote a lot. It included my upbringing, the shift in demographics, and where I was located.
It brought back a lot of nostalgic feelings as well. This is equally traumatic because with nostalgia comes trauma as well. Not only that but the beautiful moments that you remember just come with the territory. That was kind of like the highlight of the exhibit.
After that, I had them ship my pieces directly to another gallery that had contacted me while my show was still happening in Portland. My latest exhibit was displayed in an intimate setting. There was also another artist, a traditional artist who does abstract work.
My section was to the right and the director asked if I wanted to do an artist talk. I don’t find myself to be very good at those. I couldn’t say no, so I took her up on it.
JR: Do you get nervous when you have to talk in front of people? Is that what the feeling is?
AJT: Yeah, there’s some nerves. I’m an artist, I want to talk, but my skill set lies within connecting myself with another human being. This might just be my skill set. My skill set is also through photography or writing. I consider myself a street writer, and It’s not like an official term. I grew up around hip hop, reggae, and other music genres.
In terms of freestyling, I leaned back in the day, on the streets, and just wrote lyrics that carried over into my work. You could also view my book. Which is like a musical in that way. I call it a hip-hop musical in the form of photography.
How this happened, I have no clue. It just naturally happened and naturally morphed into such an amazing book. It has a little bit of everything, aspects of dystopia, hope, and so many different storylines.
If you’re someone from the African diaspora, Latino diaspora, or anything like that, you could connect to it. It’s a book that I feel can connect with almost anyone out there because it’s about love and hope. There are so many different storylines within that book. I can’t even keep up…
JR: Could someone still go to purchase your book? Is it still available?
Remnants of an Exodus… The Book
AJT: There are a few copies left on my publisher’s website which is Gnomic. I have my own copy as well. I think I had like one box left. The original storyline speaks to gentrification and that became more of a focus. Although you look at other storylines about people in the African diaspora and everything is so dark and negative.
That particular community has been depicted in that way for a very long time. Now you have artists like myself, and other artists who are now taking up the mantle and retelling our own stories.
Whether it’s in a more positive light, or mixing it up to say:
“We have strengths as well, we have weaknesses, obviously, but why not play up with the strength?”– Al J Thompson, Photojournalist
That is why last year, through the middle of the pandemic, I stopped photographing, and I paused to pick up another project. I really wanted to finish this project, I thought that this project needed to be seen as soon as possible. I felt that it would help people and that’s what it did. I’ve gotten emails, and messages from a lot of people saying it’s a book that they will cherish forever because it’s such a personal book. They feel like they know me through that book.
“Remnants of an Exodus is also a reflection of myself.”– Al J Thompson, Photojournalist
I’m not only telling a story about gentrification, I’m telling a story about myself as well and the kind of person I am. There’s someone there in front of the camera and then I’m here. It’s almost as if there’s this connection or bond.
The lines are blurred between the sitter and the photographer. You can’t really explain it other than there’s this connection, how you shoot. I don’t take a lot of photos of one subject. Sometimes I have one chance and I’ll shoot it. I’ll just do one frame. Oftentimes, on average about maybe three frames
From one photographer to another on the process
JR: Yeah, that’s interesting. Is it just a time constraint? Or a feeling at that moment?
AJT: I think it’s a little bit of everything. Oh, also budget. I invested a whole lot in this project. It’s been on a lot of platforms, thankfully. I’m very grateful for that as well, and I’m happy with the way it came out. Regardless of whether I photograph two frames, or three frames, or seven frames.
JR: So when you’re starting a project, what is your creative process? Do you focus on a concept first, or do you just make work, and then the concept comes later?
AJT: I’m a very deep thinker, and I don’t say that in a way to make me look good. I feel I’m always thinking and that I think too much at times. There are some things that I plan for, obviously, but there are other elements that pop up.
For example, when I think this is an opportunity and I want to photograph it. In my book, Remnants of Exodus, those images were pre-planned in terms of me knowing that I wanted to walk the streets of Spring Valley. I don’t plan on a person posing a particular way the day before. Whenever I see that person or that thing or those animals, I make the images.
JR: You would much rather connect with people on a personal level. I love that. The book is a beautiful collection of powerful images. From what I’ve seen and I would like to see the book in person.
AJT: There are some surprises in the book. My buddy Shane Rocheleau, he wrote a beautiful piece in the back and I also wrote a short poem. I would like to give a shoutout to Jason Koxvold, who’s a brilliant creative director, designer, and publisher.
He’s also a photographer too, he does it all. We all put our brains together. I felt like my book was always about love and the idea of me inviting people who are not even of African descent. It was definitely calculated and what better way to prove that you want these stories to be out. My goal was to reach as many people as possible.
Sticking to your beliefs as a creative
AJT: Actually, I’m a firm believer in walking the walk. I think that this is why I did it the way I did. When I was deciding who to invite to write for the book I had two people in mind. I selected Shane because I respect his work a lot and he’s one of my favorite photographers. If you ever go through the book, it feels like meditation in a sea of violent imagery.
“It’s very important to distinguish myself from other photographers. In the sense that I focus more on love and, this work can resonate with even the most violent of people.”– Al J Thompson, Photojournalist
The work doesn’t have to garner the attention of millions. That doesn’t matter to me because I believe in it and I stay true to who I am as a photographer and a person.
JR: I think especially as black photographers, we find ourselves leaning into recreating the trauma. I noticed that a lot especially in 2020. Although thinking about your image where you have the man holding the Black Lives Matter sign.
We know what the image is referring to and talking about. We didn’t have to see the violence to understand it.
b: Absolutely, with that photograph as well, that was me looking at myself at that moment. It wasn’t even a plan. After the protest, I had two shots in mind and wanted to cover them in a non-traditional photojournalism way.
I didn’t see any violence during the protests. Though last year, a lot of images, were being branded in a more violent way. Which is very traumatic. We already know what happened before.
“Why does the news or media have to always latch on to violent imagery, especially within the black community? Why do you want to continue feeding us trauma?”– Al J Thompson, Photojournalist
After I tried photographing these guys you could see fear, hope, and strength. I’m a very nuanced person. So I felt like my images had to represent who I am.
When I posted it on Instagram, I didn’t post the traditional stuff first. Two days afterward, I posted this image and I photographed some women as well. I realized I made my point and then a lot of different magazines started contacting me.
Asking a few different things, like is the work published anywhere else, apart from Instagram. Then a friend of mine, from The New Yorker, got in touch with me and asked, ‘Can you do me a favor and not publish this? Because we, we want exclusive rights.’
Don’t recreate the trauma
AJT: I told her, this other publication wants it. I waited to find out what they wanted to do. She got back and told me that I could do it non-exclusively. They still ran it and they also hired me to photograph the protests.
I went to three days worth of protests, and there was zero violence. I was one of maybe only a few photographers that decided to do it differently this time. To not go with what the system has taught us to do. It felt really good to have my work out there and photograph what I believed in without the endless propaganda.
JR: That’s beautiful. I know during that period, aside from photographers focused on violence and negativity, there was also conversation around showing protesters and organizers. Individuals who put protests together and how that imagery could potentially harm them. If those images get published or posted and their identity wasn’t protected. Did you ever think about those types of things while you were making that work?
AJT: I saw someone that my energy took a liking to. Then I approached them and they would oblige. Sometimes I’d have just a couple minutes, sometimes it’d be several and people loved it. Remember this was in the middle of a pandemic too. It’s interesting how that whole event happened, because something happened, the fear got put aside.
Al J. Thompson reflects on 2020
AJT: Then for the betterment of humanity, people were like, fuck it, I’m gonna go out and protest.
“I’m going to do what I believe in and stand up for what’s right.”– Al J Thompson, Photojournalist
What happened to that beautiful person, and other men and women of color should not be happening. At the time, this is 2020. It shouldn’t be happening. How many adults and kids saw that, murder in front of so many people?
JR: Yeah that was an incredibly hard year.
AJT: I’ll tell you a lot of the work that I garnered between last year and this year. I definitely directly benefited from George Floyd’s death. That’s the irony of it and also COVID which coincided with that as well. If people hadn’t been locked up in one space, then maybe some of that wouldn’t have ensued.
I felt that I needed to burst out and show my flame at that moment. Being out there with these energetic beings, that’s how I looked at it. I knew from day one that I’d have to face my fear for me to move on.
“So I faced my fear.”– Al J Thompson, Photojournalist
JR: In terms of making work and getting these stories out there. I think with your project I was reading about your hometown. I’m curious about what was going on there. What was the focus surrounding that work?
Reimagining love…The realities of gentrification and redlining
AJT: If you look at the before and after, it’s straight-up black and white. No doubt, the amount of change that happened over the years is pretty dramatic, actually.
A lot of what I witnessed in Spring Valley, was a lot of people moving on. People who owned homes sold their homes to businesses mainly religious, Jewish folks. Everything’s changed and zoning laws have changed over the years as well. They wanted to build higher and have more homes, and less space. A lot of condos were built and part of the park got sold illegally to business developers by the mayor, Darden.
Darden was someone I had a run-in with when I was in high school. They sent me to the dean’s office, Darden was dean at the time. He let me off because I was never a troublemaker.
While he was running for mayor, I was actually rooting for him. I didn’t know what he was like or what was in store at the time. While that happened the moment actually he took office, he made a lot of changes. The original blueprints for the redevelopment of storefronts got changed.
Spring Valley became even more segregated. They sold a plot of land that belonged to housing development. Also, that got sold to business developers as well to build condos. They didn’t allow any person of other descent to rent their properties. It’s redlining that’s what is happening right now.
JR: Were you documenting this change as it was happening?
Al J Thompson talks pivoting
AJT: I started documenting this in 2018. I documented it in a more traditional photojournalistic way. I would go to town halls or just go and various events, photographing families. That that was the original idea.
Originally, I was doing it in color, Matt Eich, who is still one of my favorite photographers. And so I wanted to take a page out of his book, I wanted to actually photograph the different demographics in Rockland County, which Spring Valley is located in.
I started doing that shifting the work to try and figure out how to present a story. I just kept on photographing and then I hit a dead end. Switching it up and I started to photograph in Black and white. The changes happened before that and I don’t remember when he came into office. Though I do know they happened as soon as he came.
There was a park that I used to play soccer and basketball at. That park and everything changed. It took them months to redevelop and we couldn’t even turn on the floodlights at night anymore to play ball. The whole experience was disgusting.
I felt a lot of anger and then through the combination of this book, the images at least, I found love, hope, and other things outside of just anger, right? That morphed into something different when I actually took the time to sit down and photograph. As well as talking to people getting to know them.
Adapting to change
JR: These are people that are experiencing the same changes, like you. Did you find that comforting, in a way? The removal of historical places that are predominantly black, or predominantly Latino, or anything of that nature. I find that sometimes the only thing that makes us feel positive energy is when negative things around us are happening.
It seems that talking to each other about it with those people often helps. When you were photographing these individuals were the conversations along those lines of finding comfort in one another?
AJT: I usually initiate those conversations, because I feel some connection with that person, too. Sometimes it is nice to have these conversations. A lot of the guys they’re lost as well, you know? I feel a lot of sadness, and that they’re in a place of loss.
“By injecting myself within that space, I was hoping that I’m in a sense injecting them with some form of hope.”– Al J Thompson, Photojournalist
I’ve lived to tell those stories, and I enjoy just watching them smile, and saying I love your book. Now, because I know I’ve reached them in a way. A lot of the guys signed my books and I just thought to myself, this is for you.
It’s all about giving back for Al J Thompson
JR: What is something that you would like to do for your community?
AJT: My book isn’t enough, you know. I wish there was a way for me to give back more. I’m always wanting to do that. I’m in the process of moving for good.
Though before I move my last wish here is to have a frickin party and invite a lot of people over. Something outdoors obviously maybe in the summer. Possibly getting the local police department involved as well. The budget needs to be there and I don’t have the budget.
JR: Maybe something for younger kids to get involved in art.
AJT: Maybe you know, it’s endless, you know, you can do a lot of different things. I would need to find out, like, budget-wise, like what can I do? How much can I afford to spend on this and now you know, and then also, like, there would be other organizations that could lend themselves to making this a success.
JR: What do you think you are going to work on next?
AJT: I have my kids and I love them. I’m taking a long break from photographing them, but I’ve been photographing my kids for years. I still don’t know, the storyline there. There are many different storylines that I can craft for sure. Being black in the suburbs has interesting moments. It’s very catchy as well, but it might be completed and I’ve been at that for a while.
I’m not planning on releasing anything of my kids for the next seven years. Then I’m photographing other projects in between other long-term projects. Also photographing nature because I love that type of work more than anything. I gravitate more towards nature and that’s when I feel at home. When I’m in the middle of the woods. Those are projects I’m thinking about.
JR: I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I really love your work and your thinking behind it.
AJT: Yeah absolutely, it’s decades of planning, and also for me, I grew up differently. I think on an esoteric level.
I just feel like the world is such a complicated place. It’s equally ugly and beautiful.– Al J Thompson, Photojournalist