Local photographer Sara Renee Clark recently embarked on a project to share the stories of area Black residents who have experienced racism.
She created a portrait series titled “Black Lives Matter,” wherein she photographed 22 area men, women and children while asking them questions about their lives.
“Like anyone on social media, I had been seeing a lot about the Black Lives Matter movement and wanted to do something to elevate their voices,” Clark said. “Just posting things like [the phrase] ‘Black Lives Matter’ just didn’t seem like enough.”
Clark, who wryly describes herself as “a privileged white girl,” said she has never experienced racism firsthand, nor had she heard many stories about it before this project. However, she wanted to give people a platform to tell their stories.
She shared a post on social media inviting black people to participate in the project, and she was pleasantly surprised by how many responded.
The participants — and sometimes their loved ones — visited her personal studio to have portraits taken. While they posed for photos, she asked questions.
Clark asked about their ethnic and religious heritage; when they first realized some people look different than they do; their earliest memories of racism; and how they imagine their lives may have been different if they were of different races. She also asked how white people can be “better allies to the Black community.”
“I love hearing people’s stories, and I loved this project,” Clark said. “Some of their responses were really eye-opening for me.”
Most of the 22 project participants are originally from the United States, but some are from other countries, too. They all currently live in Cleveland, Chattanooga and the Southeast Tennessee region.
All said they are Christian or were raised in the Christian faith. Beyond that, all had different experiences.
Some said they first learned about race when they started school and noticed classmates with different shades of skin. A couple spoke about what it was like being in the racial minority.
“I don’t remember my earliest moment of noticing when someone looked different than me. However, I remember realizing that I was always actively looking for people who looked like me,” said Aleah Vassell.
“When we moved to Cleveland, Tennessee, we were the only black family attending our church for seven years. One day, there was another black family that showed up with a girl around my age, and I couldn’t stop staring. … It was in that moment that I realized I’ve always been looking for a representation of myself in those places.”
Participants also shared their first exposures to racism. Everyone had a story to tell, ranging from experiencing childhood bullying to being closely followed while shopping.
Most participants spoke of the desire to be given the same level of respect and opportunity.
“Had I been born another race I wouldn’t have to fight for anything, and everything that I strive to achieve would come a lot easier,” said participant Kyone Arnwine. “I would never have been anxious about walking in a room for a meeting, knowing I was going to be looked at strange because I was the only person attending with my pigmentation.”
Robert Alexandre said he has never wanted to be of a different race. However, he said he wonders what it would have been like to grow up in a different culture.
Some of the participants, like Lawrence Cotton, said they would not change anything about themselves.
“I would not even dream of being another race. I love the way God has wonderfully made me,” Cotton said. “If I was white, it would still be me. ... Race doesn’t make the person, but your choices in life do. God don’t make no mistakes.”
People had several perspectives on how white people can be better “allies.” Many spoke about how they personally would try to bridge the racial divide in the U.S.
Frank Walker said he would connect “by not talking about our differences but talking about our similarities.”
Lauren Swanson said she would listen to whatever white people have to say about race, “because people are allowed to have an opinion.” However, she would also share the experiences she, her friends and her family have had with racism and discrimination.
“People need to know that it's real, and it’s affecting a lot of people in a negative [way],” Swanson said.
Nathalie Alcime said she had already spoken with white people about this subject. However, she also said she would love to see more people make an effort to learn about racism and how they can combat it.
“Research the topic of racism and see how it is still relevant today. I’ve met many white people who still can’t believe racism exists because they are uninformed about the black experience,” Alcime said. “Take time to connect with more than one or two people of color, to engage in needed conversations and to love. Love is an action word, not a passive lingering thought. To love well is to truly listen, have compassion and validate the experiences of others.”
Clark, a Lee University graduate who went to photography school after graduating from Lee, said she appreciates how willing the people participating in her project were to share their thoughts.
She also said she appreciates their patience in letting her ask “politically incorrect” questions about race, because it was a great learning experience for her.
The photographer hopes her portrait project will give other people some helpful food for thought. With the 22 participants sharing everything from experiences at school to their hopes for interactions with others, there are just as many stories and opinions.
Clark also said she hopes people who view the portraits and read the participants’ responses gain new perspectives on how racism and racial bias affect the community.
There are some who deny the prevalence of racism today. However, she said one can never know another's struggles without hearing their story.
“Even if you’ve never been racist, that doesn’t mean they are not coming from a background of intensely racist situations,” Clark said.
She acknowledged there are some people who might object to her titling her project “Black Lives Matter.”
While she clarified she does not agree with all the views of the nationally-known organization called Black Lives Matter, she likes the general phrase. She said it communicates her view that more people need to act like the lives of Black individuals have value.
“I get annoyed when people come back with the phrase, ‘All Lives Matter,’” Clark said. “Of course all lives matter, but that’s not the point here. The point is to lift up Black people who have been made to feel their lives do not matter.”
This is the first time Clark has taken on a project of this kind. The photographer feels it was successful, and she is planning more projects highlighting issues about which she is passionate.