Redefining Blackness: Tony Mobley
Mobley, a photojournalist, has been capturing the social and racial justice protest movement
Tony Mobley started his career in photography capturing the energy and action of R&B, hip-hop, and jazz concerts in his hometown of Washington. Later, he translated his gift for freezing moments of passionate performance into covering large-scale protests in and around the nation’s capital.
The Undefeated spoke to Mobley about the transition in his subject matter, the evolution he’s witnessed in the social and racial justice movement, and how he navigates the potential for danger at tension-filled protests.
How do you seek to redefine Blackness through your coverage of today’s protest movement, and do your tactics change now that racial equality protests include more white people than in the past?
We’ve been subjected to so much oppression over the last 400-plus years, and, yes, things have improved over time, but we’re still dealing with a lot of the same B.S. that’s been going on for the last 50 or 60 years. So that’s where my focus has been lately – shooting protests here in the Washington, D.C., area.
I felt called to go out and shoot our people and document our stories, and I’ve found it to be very rewarding in the process. I used to mainly shoot concerts – I was the house photographer at the historic Howard Theater for about five years – and I enjoyed it because I love music. Over time though, I felt that I had a better message to convey and I wanted to be a voice for the voiceless. To see our people endure some of the changes that we’ve had to deal with makes it really heartfelt for me, and I enjoy what I do. I enjoy telling these stories and letting the world know that we’re everyday people just like anyone else. We just want to be treated fairly. We want equity and equality.
I’m trying to show our people in the proper light as well. I’m always looking to shoot to uplift our people and not degrade them. A lot of photographers will come into a city and end up with a bunch of pictures of homeless folks and drug addicts. I’m not all about that. Those things don’t just affect our people, they affect other people as well.
As far as our white allies are concerned, if you look back in history, there were a lot of white folks that advocated for social justice reform and civil rights for not only Black and brown people, but for all races. I think that’s been consistent with what we’ve seen over time.
What was the first protest that you shot, and since then, what changes have you noticed in the protest movement?
One of the first that comes to memory was the March2Justice [an April 2015 march from New York City to Washington to protest police killings of Black people]. It was spearheaded by the late Rep. John Lewis. This was around the time of the murders of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. There’s been so many, but that’s the first that I covered that comes to mind.
The intensity of the protests has definitely ramped up. When you think about some of these earlier miscarriages of justice – Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and others – a lot of those incidents weren’t actually filmed. Fast-forward to today and we have actual footage of George Floyd being murdered in cold blood in Minneapolis. We have Breonna Taylor being murdered in her own home.
So the intensity has ramped up because what we always knew, now we’re able to actually see. You notice a lot of energy now.
A lot of people are hurting right now, not only Blacks but whites as well. They now see the injustices that we’ve had to endure as a people. To be fair, we’re not the only ones that are subjected to these injustices, there are other races that deal with it as well, but the numbers are disproportionate based on the population of Black Americans.
Are all of the images you sent us from the same protest?
These were all captured this summer. Not necessarily the same day, but all at and around Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C.
Was the wheelchair-bound man at the protest alone? Did you speak with him before the shot?
I do speak to people, though I did not speak with him that day. I had an in-depth conversation with him later. That gentleman is always down at the Plaza. I want to say his name is Andre. He’s around 60 years old and from the D.C. area.
When I saw him, he touched my spirit. He’s elderly and in a wheelchair, but he still wanted to be there to support his people and the cause. I thought it was a strong statement that he was making to be out there during a full-blown protest. I caught him on a side street that was less crowded.
As a matter of fact, this image was on BET’s Content for Change PSA that they ran during the BET Awards. I showed him the PSA with his image a few weeks ago.
Talk about the shot of the two young people with the Black Lives Matter sign. Did you interact with them?
That was a candid shot. They were walking and they stopped and looked at me and I popped off a few frames of them.
When I looked at this picture, the whole scene just kind of caught me. It felt poignant. I imagine it as one Black boy, maybe 13 or 14, and he’s carrying his little brother on his back. If you think back, we are where we are today in 2020 on the shoulders of our parents and grandparents and ancestors. This image was a direct correlation of what we’ve experienced and overcome as a Black race.
As I’ve talked to painters, illustrators, photographers, they’ve all expressed a level of care with portraying Black skin. How do you make the decision to shoot Black people in black-and-white versus color?
I prefer black-and-white, although I shoot color as well. I think black-and-white allows the viewer to drill down and focus just on the subject matter of the image. For me in shooting black-and-white, I don’t have to worry about encompassing or composing colors while I’m shooting. I just see the subject.
Normally I tend to go black-and-white when I don’t feel that there’s anything else of importance in the frame, if that makes sense. Black-and-white gets directly to a person’s spirit and soul, and that’s why I prefer it … I guess I also just like how it looks.
Do Black photographers have to be extra vigilant about always receiving proper credit for their work?
It’s definitely a struggle. To have our work protected is an issue and a concern of ours as Black creatives. There have been numerous instances where our work has been taken from us, and it’s just not right. We have to come up with ways to protect our work – legal teams and so forth, but it doesn’t always happen.
This image speaks to the tension and anger of these protests. What do you look for at an event to get a shot like this, and what would you tell a young photographer about working at protests and other unpredictable events?
I look for energy. I look for passion amongst people. I’m trying to tie together a story line as I shoot. I’m trying to paint a picture for viewers who didn’t make the protest so they can see what exactly transpired on a particular day. That could be individuals holding signs, it could be hand movements. I’m trying to survey the landscape, so to speak, and get to that energy.
When you’re shooting protests, especially nowadays, people have great signage. Some of the signage is the best storytelling that you can capture. In this image, I was immediately attracted to the people, but also to their signs. [Compositionally] the raised signs enforce the horizon. The moment is very fleeting, so you have to be able to anticipate.
This takes me back to my concert days at Howard when I used to shoot a lot of Black artists and I was familiar with their music. I’d have an idea of how the verses went or when they might vamp a line. Those segues are when you’re going to find the majority of your energy.
The same goes for protests. When you look at these people, they were marching towards the White House, and I know D.C., so I knew where they might stop and got to that spot in time to shoot a few frames.
You have to be aware of your surroundings. In today’s world, we obviously have a pandemic, so first and foremost, you have to mask up. We were out there for 40 days straight this summer, but folks were very responsible for the most part, and I haven’t heard any news of serious spread [of coronavirus] associated with those protest events in D.C. specifically.
I would tell aspiring photographers to shoot with their heart, shoot what you feel is right, and shoot for why you’re there. If you’re there to cover a protest on social justice reform, let that be your focus. Let that be the energy that guides you so that you can capture quality images. When you do that, your best work will be revealed in the results.
I think of it like basketball. I try to get out early and get my easier shots done – my layups. Then I extend my range, so to speak. But the closer shots are the ones that I find tell the story the best. They’re the stronger images.