Their conversation explores the publication’s multilayered meanings and significance, and the lack of diversity – among its nuances – in the photography industry at large
For the artist, Rahim Fortune, an Oklahoma native who splits his time between Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn, New York, photography has become the central vehicle of his curiosity. With a life rooted in community, care and awareness of history – his story – Fortune has rendered a practice that serves as evidence of these fundamentals, contextualised within life in America as a Black man.
Something I have realised by observing Fortune’s career, specifically through his latest book, I can’t stand to see you cry, is that he is an artist deeply driven by the enquiries of his world, along with his world’s relation to others, and how he can best serve this act of study. This body of work, set in Texas and the surrounding states, lenses these enquiries, which become focused by the relationships Fortune holds with family, friends and strangers. It is a liminal space between geography and humanity, which has been vital for Fortune to explore, and for me, fruitful to witness.
Fortune’s work is consistently baked with grace, and this interview has allowed me the pleasure of understanding a little more about how he has nurtured his life and practice to reflect the aforementioned. And maybe – just maybe – it might spark the same enquiry into how and why there should be evidence of one’s history.
Mfinanga: I’ve been thinking about the past year, as have we all. For you, what did the world look like before the pandemic? And what does it look like now?
Fortune: For me, having lost a parent, [the world] is starkly different. I moved cities, so there is almost no resemblance of pre-Covid-19. Everything is new at this point. Before the pandemic I was assisting, my father was alive, and I lived in Brooklyn. Now, all of those things have changed drastically.
Mfinanga: Who or what has given you the security to adjust to this new chapter?
Fortune: My family. My little sister helped me out a lot in the process of taking care of my father. My sister, Miranda, and I all live in the same house now [in Austin]. Having my sister around helps me, and all of us, to vent and get that creativity out. We are like this little family, having fun and having the space not to feel like there is an ego when you’re talking about what opportunities you have, or what you are working on, and your frustrations.
Mfinanga: That’s important. If you don’t have the security of comfort in other people it creates tension within yourself. Speaking of clarity, what clarity did working on this body of work give you?
Fortune: The clarity came from working with Loose Joints, who helped demystify the book-making process. My scope of the project was still small. I only wanted it to be about the process of caregiving for my father, and the idea of my family and the changing nature of time. But as I sent them the contact sheets, Loose Joints pulled out other images. They found common threads through the work and asked me to send more. So I ended up going through everything I’ve ever shot in central Texas, which was, like, 400 images. They helped me see the through-line: how are we going to put this into one piece? So that was the clarity with this project.
Mfinanga: The book is beautiful, brotha. One of the things I realised was that when there are two or more people in a photograph, they are close. Was that something you observed in hindsight? Or is the proximity of touch something you always want to drive in your work?
Fortune: That is a beautiful observation. Some of it is conscious, and some subconscious. I would say it is conscious in several photographs, but particularly the image of Billie and Minsley [featured image], where Billie is holding Minsley in front of his home in Buda, Texas. That one is also a heteronormative image of a man holding a woman. And I am fully conscious of how that image functions. But I am thinking about the importance of the space of Black love. And protection, strength and vulnerability for Billie and Minsley, but also them having agency – reclaiming that, given how historically so many people and families have had that stripped from them. And how that has such a weight and effect on how we love ourselves and one another. So that is what that image, for me, represents. It represents that reclaiming of love, which systems of oppressions have complicated. There is also touch in many of the images shot with my father because caregiving for him involved embracing, bathing him, turning him over, and changing his bedding.
Mfinanga: How has it been working on the book?
Fortune: It has been good. What I wanted to make was a classic-feeling documentary book. Some of my references were Alec Soth’s Looking for Love and Robert Adams. I also wanted to achieve that quality to play on the tropes of that aesthetic. And explore how that lens has been one-sided with the legacy of white documentary photographers who have made these bodies of work, and how one has to view themself back in that lens. It’s like, if I’m not photographing my community like this, then it is not going to be accepted. So the aesthetics are intentional. Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m not going to stay on the black-and-white Walker Evans-esque photographs. That was a point to make before moving on to another idea.
Mfinanga: Are there any burning questions that you still have about your practice or the world in which your practice exists?
Fortune: Well, I’m intrigued by persistent observations, almost more than aesthetics. There are photographers who I can tell are curious, just for themselves. That’s where I like to see work made. The process [of making] is significant to how I ultimately read images, like a connection to the subject, and that end relationship when documenting a community.
I also think about non-Black photographers making stories about Black subjects. I think about the destructive nature of that and the lens placed on the subjects; how that affects people who view the work and see themselves represented in it. And also that, financially, it takes away an opportunity from a Black photographer who could have benefited from it. I think about that as somewhat destructive. I ask myself, as a straight male, am I taking up unnecessary space in a realm? So placing that criticality back on myself is also part of my practice. I try to keep myself in check so that the work does not function unconsciously. I am interested in having those conversations. It is not something from which I run. And that is when things get destructive, be it in a documentary context, but more in a workplace context and how that looks. Once you get to a place on the ladder, there are less and less Black and brown folks. It’s changing, but we have to dialogue about those dynamics because they are continuously shifting.
Mfinanga: Yeah, having a consistent, transparent and accessible dialogue gets us all collectively into a space of harmony because harmony is what we’re looking for, right?
Fortune: Yeah, but I’m also interested in how that standard only falls upon us. Something like white fine art photography does not have to assume that responsibility. Sometimes I have a problem with that. There should be space for Black artists to make work about leisure, or travel, you know what I mean? Until now, something I’ve been thinking about – not even so much in this book, but moving forward – is the idea of strength relating to my father’s declining health. And the experience of seeing your motif of strength dismantled in front of you; how weakness is not a bad thing, but a reality. But some of those strengths, and having to dismantle some of those things, do prepare you for the world. They give you the strength to go out on a limb and try the stuff necessary to break into these spaces.
Mfinanga: Speaking of strength, was that one of the characteristics your family embedded in you?
Fortune: Definitely. The big Southern Black family with uncles, grandmother cooking, and grandad, like, real sharp with the insults was, even visually, inspirational. My father was a black belt, so I had this kind of Black kung fu upbringing. My grandmother on my dad’s side is a painter, so that was also inspirational. And music – my family is big into music. The book’s title is I can’t stand to see you cry after a song performed by The Whatnauts. But J Dilla also sampled it. While my father was ill, I would go into his room and put on an oldies mix of The Delfonics, Earth, Wind & Fire, and all of that music. My dad was a drummer, and he played that type of music before he lost his dexterity. Sitting in the room with my dad and listening to the songs they had on CDs, there was a reflection that we didn’t have the language for. It was something you had to cherish at the moment because there was no promise of it replicating. This is my first conversation about the book. I had a lot of anxiety about talking about it because it is about my family.
Mfinanga: Is there an accidental perception of the book that you are afraid of?
Fortune: No, that’s not the issue. It’s feeling like I’m explaining the book to someone. And them feeling bad for me because of parts of the story, like losing my parents. That is missing the point. I’ve had that dynamic happen before. I leave the interview feeling crazy because they don’t understand what I’m saying and how real the psychological impacts of these wider issues are. If someone doesn’t understand when you explain the gatekeeping nature of photography is driving people crazy, you feel crazy by trying to explain it.
Mfinanga: Yeah, when I started Emmazed, every time I put out an interview, I felt crazy for years. Last year was interesting because it was the first year I didn’t feel crazy, but for the wrong reasons. It was a breaking point because there were specific issues I’d share with solutions to mobilise. But then legacy institutions started attaching social currency to them without helping fix anything.
Fortune: It’s important to have those conversations about feeling crazy because without that one’s life becomes isolating, which doesn’t help.
Mfinanga: To harp on about what we talked about earlier, it’s just making that dialogue accessible. I’m not trying to save the world here. I mean, no one can single-handedly fucking save the world. We put so many people on pedestals, and they become like tree trunks. If we all acted like individual branches of a tree, that would make the tree healthier. And I’d love to wrap up with this question: what is something that your practice doesn’t communicate as clearly as your life does?
Fortune: A lot of my work hasn’t been text-heavy because the images were a by-product of the experience. But I want to provide those little nuggets about growing up and dealing with family and all of the things I’ve dealt with. Not a self-help book, but an example. Because there are not many examples of young Black documentary photographers who make it out of the South. I want people to understand the real struggles that went into it. None of it was easy. None of it was pretty. And I think that truly speaks to us all.
Born in Detroit, Mahmoud ‘Mo’ Mfinanga is a Brooklyn and Los Angeles based artist whose practise weaves between photography, writing, among adjacent disciplines such as art direction and photo editing. Inspired by the power of community, Mo is the founder of Emmazed, an online platform that has profiled contemporary visual artists around the world.