Photographer Russell Frederick uses his camera to change the Black American narrative
‘When I leave this earth, these images I’ve made will live on and be strong’
Over the past two decades, self-taught photographer Russell Frederick has established himself on his own terms, refusing to compromise his integrity for fortune and fame. “I wanted something more than money — I wanted purpose, happiness, legacy, make a difference in the lives of others,” said Brooklyn, New York’s, native son.
Coming of age in the 1990s, Frederick worked in health care as the crack cocaine and AIDS epidemics destroyed countless lives. Draconian Rockefeller drug laws were putting small-time sellers away for a minimum of 15 years. A generation of Black men disappeared. “I’ve been arrested, stopped and frisked 15, 20 times,” Frederick said. “Being targeted by the police impacts our families, our ability to get an education, and our self-esteem.”
Folkus is an ongoing series created with Getty images that features Black photographers who put the focus on folks like us.
Like legendary American photography and film director Gordon Parks, Frederick’s choice of weapons is the camera. After realizing he didn’t want to spend his life working a job he didn’t love, Frederick gave up a secure career to pursue his love of photography with no formal training and few industry contacts. Since 1997, he has devoted himself to crafting stories of Black life that uplift, inspire and unite. Whether photographing luminaries, including President Barack Obama, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, Academy Award-winning actress Regina King and film director Barry Jenkins, or the people of his Bedford-Stuyvesant community, Frederick is on a mission to create a repository of soul, one frame at a time.
As a member of Kamoinge, the world’s longest-running nonprofit photography collective, Frederick strives to tell Black stories from the inside and create counternarratives to mainstream media.
“The camera is a powerful tool and I saw why it was weaponized against us,” he said. “I look at my role as a photographer as an educator and visual activist to realize and redefine the way the world sees us because our greatness has been suppressed. When I leave this earth, these images I’ve made will live on and be strong.”
What was it like to grow up as a Brooklyn native of Panamanian heritage?
Shortly after my folks came to Bushwick in 1965, Malcolm X was murdered. My family immediately aligned with the civil rights movement and Black Americans. My parents and grandparents instilled in me the values they were raised with in Panama: knowledge of self, love for self, knowing your voice, because there will be a lot of resistance when you are a man who stands for something, as well as a man of faith.
Growing up in the old Bushwick was very gritty, 100% tough, and a bit raw. The block I grew up was an oasis of working-class, homeowning families. It was very diverse, with Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Haitians, Southerners, Dominicans, some Brooklynites — a little bit of everybody, just what New York is like. I was blessed to grow up in a village with like-minded individuals, and even when I left my block, the community looked out for me. There were many guardians and angels, men and women, who played a role into my development in manhood.
How did you get into photography?
When I went to school, I always had a uniform. My first time having artistic expression was going to high school, when I could dress myself. My mom just told me to be different, so I started shopping in the [Greenwich] Village. I was looking eclectic and at the same time masculine because I was living in the ’hood. I had that edge that all people from Brooklyn have. You could see that I was an artist in the making.
As I was coming into my own identity, some friends at church started a magazine called Indigo. One of my boys said, ‘You should be a fashion stylist,’ and he put me in contact with the fashion director of the magazine in 1995. She asked me to submit a portfolio and I was like, ‘What’s a portfolio?’ [Laughs.] I borrowed my mother’s camera, a Canon AE-1. I put together a portfolio, and the director brought me on as a freelance stylist.
On my first assignment, I asked, ‘When do I get the company credit card to buy clothes?’ And she said, ‘You have to use your own money.’ I was like, ‘This sucks!’ Then she said, ‘You also have to talk to the photographer, and they will tell you the vision and the theme for the shoot. I was like, ‘Oh, so I’m doing the wrong thing!’
Could you take us back to that fateful day in 1997 when you arrived at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York for a black and white photo class, and tell us how that experience helped you to understand photography was your destiny?
My mom, who has been an ER nurse for 40 years, got me a job at the hospital where she worked. I realized I have a love for helping people and humanity, but the politics of health care rubbed me the wrong way. In 1995, I was one year into nursing school and realized health care wasn’t what I wanted to do. I said, ‘God, you know what you put me here for, but I don’t know what it is.’ I felt I had an artistic purpose, but growing up as the son of immigrants I was told, ‘Art is a hobby. It’s not a career.’ My mom and grandparents were being safe and protective. At that time, there was no clear pathway to success as an artist.
In 1997, I saw an ad in Time Out New York magazine for an intro to B/W photography at ICP. I think it was $600 and I saved up my money to see what this was about. On the first day of class, the instructor, Bernard Palais, [R.I.P.] asked us to bring in our portfolios. I had my little four-by-six album. He looked at my work, looked at me, closed the book and said, ‘You will be a great photographer. It will be a shame if you don’t pursue this seriously.’ This was an 80-year-old white guy, and I was the only Black guy in the class. When he said that, it was like, God answered my prayers. I was like, ‘This is it!’ After that I never looked back. I could not afford anymore classes but I made the commitment to photography.
Could you tell us about how Magnum Photos member Eli Reed helped you embark on a photography career?
The year was 1999. Eli Reed lived across the street from me. One of my good friends lived in the same brownstone, and we set up a date to meet. I showed [Reed] my little four-by-six portfolio and said, ‘I want to learn and I want to work. I’m unpolished and raw, but my work ethic, my heart and determination can’t be measured.’ I was hungry.
At the time, I had been laid off from Beth Israel Hospital. I had just gotten engaged, and my fiancee wasn’t very supportive of my photography. We broke up. It was a really long walk through the valley. There were times I fell behind on my rent. I was living off 25-cent cookies and I slept away hunger pains. I did what I could to keep the phone and lights on because I was praying for one call that could change my life.
It was Eli who called. He told me he was having a slideshow at ICP. I will never forget that day. It was raining cats and dogs, but my intuition said, ‘Get your ass up there, Russell!’ When I walked in, the first thing I noticed was Eli and I were the only Black people in the room. Watching his slideshow, I was speechless. I couldn’t comprehend or even imagine the photos he made. Afterward, Eli told me about an opportunity at Magnum Photos. Once again, I was clueless. When he said ‘Magnum,’ I was like, ‘I know he ain’t talking about condoms!’ because that was the only Magnum I knew. [Laughs.] He told me that I would be responsible for managing the film of the photographers and assisting with the archive.
This was December 1999. I went on the interview. I had on a red blazer, a V-neck shirt, silver chain with amber around my neck and two diamond earrings! I walked in like, ‘I’m the man, what’s up! I’m Russell!’ with this health care résumé [laughs], and they offered me the job. I took off my blazer said, ‘I’m ready to work right now!’
How has being a part of Kamoinge shaped your approach to photography?
In 2004, I had been working at the Associated Press in the photo library and was being mentored by photographers Joseph Rodriguez and Clarence Williams. Joseph Rodriguez changed my life in a big way. He introduced me to The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was the first photography book to show Black people with humanity.
That same year, I had my first solo exhibition at the Empire State Building. Eli Reed came and said that I should become a member of Kamoinge [which Roy DeCarava helped found in 1963]. I didn’t know who [Kamoinge] were at the time. I went to the first meeting and met all these incredible Black photographers, including Anthony Barboza, Beuford Smith, Gerald Cyrus and Adger Cowans. I felt like I had finally met the family I always wanted and mentors who I was desperately seeking to guide me. They could relate to me as a Black man and someone who wasn’t formally trained but had a voice, a point of view and was ready to learn. These brave men and women were committed to the same mission as me: to change the stories and image of Black people through photography.
I came to three meetings and then I had to present my portfolio. I became a member in 2004. In 2006, I organized the group getting their first-ever grant, the Hurricane Katrina Fellowship through the Open Society Foundations. In 2015, I produced a workshop sponsored by UNESCO and invited fellow members Shawn Walker and Ruddy Roye to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to teach photo workshops. I was voted as vice president in 2016 and did that until 2020. What I learned with the camera was that I can do all of the things I love: tell stories, raise awareness, author and record Black history, impact lives, challenge people to think differently, make people feel good, have conversations, make books, honor people, fashion, art, culture, travel, uplift people, work for myself, create a legacy — and just have fun every day doing what brings others and me joy.
Russell Frederick is a self-taught photographer from Brooklyn, New York, using his camera to change the visual narratives of Black and brown people. Mr. Frederick is a proud member of the Kamoinge photo collective whose photos have been published in the New York Times and acquired by the Library of Congress and the Museum of Contemporary Photography. View and learn more about his work at RussellFrederick.com.
Photo of Russell by Auck Vision | Story text by Miss Rosen