#51: Black Lives Matter, Walking and a Reckoning in Photoland

#51: Black Lives Matter, Walking and a Reckoning in Photoland

Canceling the Humble Arts Walking show and a few reads about Racism in public spaces

I was born in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and lived in Minneapolis for several years at the beginning of the 2000s, so the George Floyd murder and protests hit me emotionally in a way I didn’t know was possible. After the first few days I knew my best course of action was to listen, learn, march and recalibrate. So I put this newsletter on pause. It wasn’t important.

What I know for certain is that Black Lives Matter. There is no debating basic human rights. After that declaration, the course of action starts to get more complicated, and requires a long term, sustained plan, personally, culturally and politically.

The easiest action I found to take was to simply show up and march. Walking in these protests has been transformative, but I haven’t found a way to articulate what that means for me going forward, and I’m not sure I have any relevant insights at this point. I was content to simply physically show up in solidarity. I wasn’t there in the first few days, where courageous activists put their bodies on the line when confronted with police brutality. I regret I was not one of them, and will probably examine why I was paralyzed from acting those first few days for the rest of my life. No time for regrets today though.

I know I need to do more than show up. I have plenty to learn, and more action to take to ally myself with the movement. It’s imperative we dismantle the pernicious evil of white supremacy.

The emergent activism in the streets, and on social media has been inspiring, educational and gives me hope we’re on the right path toward racial justice and a more equitable country.

I knew when I started researching, thinking and writing about walking that it would be an educational journey which would lead me to topics and challenges that I would need to learn more about and reflect on before attempting to write about insightfully.

From the beginning, the issue of accessibility to public spaces weighed heavily on my mind. I knew my privileges allowed me to safely walk places that others could not, that I could pursue art and leisure, when others were not as fortunate. The death of Ahmaud Arbery who was murdered while jogging was a tragic example of how Black people put their lives at risk while participating in activities people such as myself would never consider dangerous. Anyone with a social conscience can see the inherent injustice and inequality.

I have a long way to to go in taking more action to be anti-racist. I’ve made a plan for myself that I hope goes beyond the performative aspects of social media (like this newsletter). If I’m to stay true to my intention to learn in public by writing, and sharing with others, then I’ll need to take some risks, make mistakes, embrace being uncomfortable, and apologize when I fall short. I hope you’ll hold me accountable and feel comfortable pointing out areas where I can improve.

I’m open to feedback and ideas. Drop me a line info@bryanformhals.com

When my friend Jon Feinstein of Humble Arts invited me to co-curate an online photography show about walking I was excited, but also apprehensive. Walking as an art practice has a long history, especially in photography, and while I’ve been studying, I wouldn’t call myself an expert yet.

As the BLM protest movement unfolded this past month, we decided that our original theme of the show, ‘Easy Spirit: New Photography on Walking,’ did not meet the current moment, especially as walking in the form of protest took on such significance. We had a productive, open conversation, and decided to put the show on hold. Here’s more on our thinking:

Despite receiving hundreds of profound, culturally diverse, thoughtful, and inspiring submissions, we have made the decision to put the online exhibition on hold until further notice. This is the first time in Humble's history we have postponed an exhibition. Here’s a bit about what we’re thinking:

George Floyd's murder by racist police officers, as well as the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Amadou Diallo, David McAtee, Trayvon Martin, Riah Milton, Dominique “Rem'Mie” Fells, and so many others have illuminated the dramatic shortcomings of our original call in its positioning of walking as freedom, liberation, a privilege and a form of self-care.

We cannot think of walking without thinking of systemic racism. Of marching. Of communities moving together in solidarity. Of the role it plays in protest movements. As Rebecca Solnit, an inspiration for our original exhibition concept discusses in her book Wanderlust, something powerful happens when people walk together for a cause. There are critical issues of who can walk and where, as well as race and accessibility to public space in the United States.

As curators, we know that producing the exhibition in its current form is a critical and avoidable misstep.

It’s a learning experience, and if we do revisit, we’re going to make sure we step back and try to eliminate our blindspots. It’s a topic that can lead to an interesting exhibition.

During our conversation about the show, I shared a few articles that I found covering racism in urbanism and public spaces. Urban planner Amina Yasin writes in The Tyeeabout how planners and urbanists need to reckon with racism in city building.

Spatial anti-Blackness — such as those areas or neighbourhoods that have in the past explicitly excluded Black people — anti-poor policies and an over-reliance on CPTED “eye on the streets” doctrine (often advanced by retired police in consultant roles) have historically criminalized Black, Indigenous and poor people in public space by rendering these groups as “out of place.”

We’ve seen this happen repeatedly where Black people asserting their rights in “white spaces” are policed at their homes or the common areas of their condominiums by predominantly white neighbours. Neighbours define and enforce belonging through policing, building design and bringing the white gaze to approaches to “optimize visual oversight” and asserting “ownership and intended use, along with intended users.”

Writer Brentin Mock picks up on the topic in CityLab, in a piece titled ‘The Toxic Intersection of Racism and Public Space.’

The Jane Jacobian idea of “eyes on the street” very easily becomes “eyes on the black people” — which is why some African Americans disengage from public spaces like parks altogether. These peaceful green spaces just as easily induce anxiety and trauma for black and brown people, especially when they know the cops can be unleashed at any moment.  

White people can weaponize the police against people who aren’t white, and that power only flows in one direction.

In The Atlantic, sociologist Patrick Sharkey writes on how ‘Urban inequality didn’t happen by accident.’

When the black population swelled in cities north and south, those municipalities didn’t undertake a large-scale effort to make integration work, improve housing conditions, or protect the rights of black Americans. Instead, authorities razed entire neighborhoods and strategically placed highways, as well as public-housing projects and office buildings, in locations that would solidify the boundary between black and white neighborhoods. The interstates became one more type of barricade. When the federal government invested in highways rather than public-transit systems, it gave white Americans a way to flee central-city neighborhoods while continuing to reap the economic benefits of the city.

In Sierra, Hop Hopkins, director of strategic partnerships for the Sierra Club, writes about how racism and white supremacy intersect with the climate crisis. It’s forceful piece worthy of your time.

You can choose—we as a society can choose—to live a different way. Indeed, we must. If our society valued all people’s lives equally, there wouldn’t be any sacrifice zones to put the pollution in. If every place was sacred, there wouldn’t be a Cancer Alley. We would find other ways to advance science and create shared wealth without poisoning anyone. We would find a way to share equally both the benefits and the burdens of prosperity.

If we valued everyone’s lives equally, if we placed the public health and well-being of the many above the profits of a few, there wouldn’t be a climate crisis. There would be nowhere to put a coal plant, because no one would accept the risks of living near such a monster if they had the power to choose.

Critics of the Black demand for justice and equality like to respond by saying “all lives matter.” It’s true; they do. In fact, that’s the very point of the chants and banners and signs in the streets. After centuries of oppression, the insistence on Black dignity is a cry for universal human rights. If Black lives mattered, then all lives would matter.

With the pandemic, economic crisis, BLM protest movement and climate crisis converging in the lead up to the election in November, we’re entering a pivotal moment for the future of cities. I hope we’re in the beginning phase of a complete a complete transformation of how we utilize public space in order to make them more equitable and resilient.

The reckoning over racism in the cultural industries, including photoland, will be transformative, leading to a vibrant new culture and industry. I believe that. It’ll take time, maybe too much time. But we’re entering a new world and I can’t wait to live in it.

I’ve been inspired by the activism and risks photographers have taken in calling out racist behavior. I hope it continues, and think the fine art photography community needs to reflect and make changes in the process for elevating work, especially the portfolio review process which is often exclusionary because of the economic barrier to entry.

I’m figuring out new ways to support artists and organizations that I’m passionate about and will be sharing further in the future. For now, here are a few initiatives and resources that are doing great work right now.

I’m a strategist, photographer, and writer in New York City. You can email me at info@bryanformhals.com or follow me on Instagram & Twitter

Way of the Walk is my weekly newsletter on walking, photography and creativity. Each week I share updates on my current walking projects as well as interesting creative projects and artists incorporating walking into their process. The podcast is just getting started, tune in!