A photographic A-Z for Black History Month

Professor Olu Oguibe discussing Yinka Shonibare's work at the Venice Biennale, Arsenale

What is doing ‘a Bedou’? Who is the ‘Igbo/Yorkshire Warrior’?  When was the first comprehensive history of African American photographers written?  (Keep ‘J’ in mind, as you dip into glimpses of a photographic diaspora, spanning from Guadeloupe to New York, the Cape to London – it awaits your input!)

A is for Autograph ABP in Rivington Place, London EC2A 3BA  ‘Autograph shares the work of artists who use photography and film to highlight issues of identity, representation, human rights and social justice.’  Current exhibitions include:  Omar Victor Diop and Zanele Muholi – see ‘D’ and ‘M’ below.

  • for Heather Agyepong:  ‘Her work is concerned with mental health & wellbeing, activism, archive and the diaspora.’

B is for Black Cultural Archives  ‘Since 1981 Black Cultural Archives (BCA) has embarked on the journey to collect and preserve materials which redress the historical balance and representation of people of African and Caribbean descent in Britain.’

  • for Black Photographers Annual  published 1973-1980 in New York City.
  • for James Presley Ball  who learnt photography from John B. Bailey in 1845 in the USA and became an itinerant daguerrotypist, opening ‘Ball’s Daguerrean Gallery of the West’ studio in 1849 in Cincinnati.  His portraits include Henry Highland Garnet, Charles Dickens,  the family of Ulysses S. Grant, Jenny Lind, and Queen Victoria.
  • for Cornelius Marion Battey who, in 1916, became official photographer of the Tuskegee Institute, Alabama.  ‘A teacher, artist, historian, and mentor to a generation of African-American photographers’, he photographed Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Presidents Calvin Coolidge and William Howard Taft.  ‘His portrait of Du Bois is now considered the iconic image of the early civil rights activist.’
  • for Arthur P. Bedou leading New Orleans photographer, whose photograph of an eclipse on 28 May 1900 gained him ‘widespread recognition’.  ‘Anyone too slow in taking a picture was often called a “Bedou” referring to the photographer’s insistence that every detail of the photograph be perfect.’
  • for Black is the New Black:  Portraits by Simon Frederick till 27 January 2019 at the National Portrait Gallery London.

C is for Florestine Perrault Collins (1895-1988)’… one of 101 African-American women photographers in the 1920 U.S. Census and the only one in New Orleans.’  Her great-niece Arthé A. Anthony has written a biography of her, Picturing Black New Orleans: A Creole Photographer’s View of the Early Twentieth Century

D is for Roy DeCarava (and Sherry Turner DeCarava) ‘renowned master photographer and pioneer in the art of photography’, the 9thphotographer to receive a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. Co-author, with Langston Hughes, of The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955).

  • for Omar Victor Diop whose exhibition Liberty/Diaspora runs till 3 November 2018 at Autograph.
  • for Durimel (Jalan and Jibril) – ‘Ones to watch 2018’ (It’s Nice That).  Jalan: ‘We grow apart from each other and then we’ll get back together and we’ve almost had the same exact day.’

E is for John Edmonds ‘the Yale MFA graduate is a rising star on the photography scene, best known for creating a series of portraits that reveal a poignant and potent sense of intimacy that occurs in the act of creating art.’ (Dazed)  Some of his work: Lightwork.

F is for James Conway Farley (1854-c.1910) ‘the first nationally recognized African-American photographer’.  Having worked for G. W. Davis for twenty years, in 1895 he set up his own firm, the Jefferson Fine Arts Gallery.  Few of his works survive.

G is for Gordon Parks  LIFE magazine staff photographer and writer for two decades, documenter and ‘tireless advocate’ of the Civil Rights Movement, who started out working for the Farm Security Administration:

‘I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs.  I knew at that point I had to have a camera.’

  • for Myles S. GoldenGolden’s work centers mediums of photography, poetry, and zine-making to dissolve binaries that exist around gender, race, and sexuality.’  (Recipient of The Gordon Parks Foundation Scholarship.)
  • for Yannis Davy Guibinga, photographer and visual artist ‘exploring the diversity of cultures and identities on the African continent and its diaspora’.

H is for Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris aka ‘One Shot Harris’: ‘His archive of nearly 80,000 images is one of the most detailed and intimate records of the black urban experience known today.’

I is for Nadine Ijewere  “I wanted to show the diversity in today’s world. Anyone can be from anywhere,” says this fast-rising Londoner’ (British Journal of Photography)

  • for the Institute for International Visual Arts (INIVA)  Iniva, founded in 1994, ‘under the leadership of renowned academic Professor Stuart Hall, has established itself as a pioneering arts organisation in the artistic environment in the UK and beyond.’

J is for Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe who ‘was introduced to her first camera at the age of 15’…  Author of Viewfinders, 1986, the first book written about black women photographers.

  • for Jot down – and send in – your suggestions. 

K is for Seydou Keïta  ‘is now universally recognized as the father of African photography…’

L is for Deana Lawson ‘It’s about setting a different standard of values and saying that everyday black lives, everyday experiences, are beautiful, and powerful, and intelligent.’

M is for Tyler Mitchell ‘Not only is an African American [Beyoncé] on the cover of the most important month for Vogue, this is the first ever Vogue cover [in its 126-year history] shot by an African American photographer.’  Tyler Mitchell on Instagram.

  • for Sipho Mpongo, South African ‘Born Free’:  ‘His photos offer a panorama of youth from all corners of South Africa’ – New York Times Lens Blog.
  • for Zanele Muholi, a visual activist and photographer born in Umlazi, Durban, and living in Johannesburg.  ‘This work needs to be shown, people need to be educated, people need to feel that there are possibilities. I always think to myself, if you don’t see your community, you have to create it.’  See Touring Exhibition, which runs till December 2018.

N is for Nii Agency and Journal founded by Campbell Addy

O is for Ruth Ossai‘An Igbo/Yorkshire warrior refers to my dual heritage’

P is for P. H. Polk (1898-1984) who, as an 18-year old, dreamed of becoming a painter ‘like Van Gogh or Rembrandt’.  His mentor was Cornelius Marion Battey (‘B’ above).  See the International Centre of Photography, New York entry.

Q is for a Question:  ‘It has been suggested that this may be the first professional photograph of a black sitter made in Britain’ – Oscar Rejlander’s ‘Artist’s Study :  Male Nude Squatting’  exhibited this year in ‘Victorian Giants’ at The National Gallery, London.  ‘The sitter was possibly an actor from a travelling tableau vivant troupe. During his time in Wolverhampton, Rejlander collaborated with a group called Madame Wharton’s Pose Plastique Troupe.’  (‘Study’, Wet-plate collodion negative, c. 1857, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum Collection.

R is for Eslanda Cardozo Goode Robeson whose husband was Paul Robeson, SOAS alumnus.  Malaika H. Kambon writes:  ‘Eslanda shot with a Cine-Kodak camera, which her husband Paul gave to her, and which she later gave to a political comrade. But in the 1940s she used the 35mm Leica as well as a Rollex camera. She was great friends with Carl van Vechten and had met Edward Steichen in 1939.  She took photos wherever she went, all over the world, from South Africa and the Soviet Union to the Great Wall of China. She took photographs as a chemist, surgical pathologist, anthropologist, scientist, and artist. She studied photography at the London University in 1928, took photographs of her family and friends, established a darkroom in her home, and soon became an accomplished photographer.  Her name was Eslanda Cardozo Goode Robeson, and she was brilliant!’

A biography, written by Barbara Ransby, Eslanda:  The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs Paul Robeson (Yale University Press, 2014).

  • for Miora Rajaonary, independent documentary photographer in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Getty Images and Array Grant Winner (July 2018)

S is for Yinka Shonibare ‘Shonibare’s work, “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” was the 2010 Fourth Plinth Commission, and was displayed in Trafalgar Square, London, until January 2012. It was the first commission by a black British artist.’

  • for Malick Sidibé whose portraits ‘captured the energy of post-independence Mali’.
  • for Addison N. Scurlock (1883-1964) who with his sons spent much of the twentieth century photographing leaders, luminaries, and local Washingtonians.  Scurlock’s great-nephew is Hakeem Khaaliq
  • for Sory Sanlé  owner of the Volta Photo Studio.  ‘Capturing the people of Burkina Faso in the first decades of African independence, Sanlé’s portraits are finally winning international recognition.’
  • for Beuford Smith  member of the Kamoinge Workshop (see the Black Photographers’ Annual)

T is for Shawn Theodore (see ‘X’)

U is for David Uzochukwu, ‘an artist currently based in Berlin’.

V is for the Black Victorians:  astonishing portraits unseen for 120 years

W is for Augustus Washington (1820/21 – 7 June 1875), who opened a Daguerreotype Studio in Monrovia, Liberia.  Portraits include of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first and seventh president of Liberia in 1851 and John Brown, American abolitionist c. 1846.

  • for Kamau Wainaina  ‘In Nairobi, finding film is like unicorn hunting… And developing it is near-impossible.’
  • for Carrie Mae Weems  ‘…when I feel as though women through my own experience are not being taken as seriously as others, then I think it’s necessary to speak up. I’m not always the most popular girl in the room [laughs], but I think that it’s important.’  (WM Magazine)

All we can really do, as Weems does again and again with breadth and poetry, is shine a light.’
(Cate McQuaid, The Boston Globe)

X is for _xST (‘whose real name is Shawn Theodore’) ‘… his overarching goal is to center black individuals and their communities as trans-historical, transnational, and metaphysical entities mobilizing against erasure in all forms.’

Y is for the ‘Two Yoruba students from Nigeria dancing at a Christmas party in Waterloo, London’, 1967 (photograph in):

Z is for James Van Der Zee – photographer and leading Harlem Renaissance figure.  More photographs:  The Smithsonian and the Howard Greenberg Gallery.


Publications by Deborah Willis, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and Paul Gilroy; Black History Month listings; articles (British Journal of Photography, BBC, The Guardian, The Independent); online magazine listings (TIME, DAZED, i-D); US and UK archives (see links for sources).

Further information


Degree programme

Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded Project

  • Re-Entanglements Project (Professor Paul Basu) funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, which is re-engaging with a remarkable ethnographic archive – including objects, photographs, sound recordings, botanical specimens, published work and fieldnotes – assembled by the colonial anthropologist, N. W. Thomas, in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915


  • Richard Fardon & Joy Onyejiako, Baroness Valerie Amos (Foreword), From an African Score:  Art, Artists, Events and Exhibitions in the Brunei Gallery, SOAS 1995-2015 (SOAS, 2017)

– a celebratory brochure of ‘one strand of programming … concerned with Africa South of the Sahara’ and ‘… curated materials that, in varying degrees, have been from Africa, or by Africans, or about Africa, or inspired by Africa.’  Exhibitions have included work by Akintunde Akinleye (Nigeria), James Akena (Ugandan photojournalist), Josep-Antoni Garí, Godfried Donker (Ghanaian-born SOAS alumnus) and by Magnum photographers George Rodger and Ian Berry.

SOAS Brunei Gallery has hosted African events for twenty years since its opening.  Milestones include the Royal African Society’s Mediums of Change in Africa95, with speakers Stuart Hall, Nadine Gordimer and Wole Soyinka; the first European Conference of African Studies (biennial event); and in 2015 the Centre of African Studies 50thAnniversary Annual Lecture 25 Years in the Career of  Yinka Shonibare MBA RA.  Brunei Gallery – previous exhibitions

  • Dr Julie Crooks, SOAS alumna has published an article Alphonso Lisk-Carew: Imaging Sierra Leone through His Lens (MIT Journals), the subject of her PhD dissertation a copy of which is available in SOAS Library, here.

Main photograph

SOAS Students 

Degree Programmes

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