The documentary work of photographer Terrence Burford-Phearse is a powerful blend of beauty and anger, simultaneously a celebration of diversity and human depth, and a call to action against injustice in its many forms.
La Lucha Sigue, Burford-Phearse´s photo story for recently-launched PETRIe 68, is an impactful visual fragment looking at the universality of human strength in the face of adversity. His subjects are people of Mexico City, joining a protest to commemorate a dark episode in the city´s history – the San Salvador Atenco civil unrest of 2006, which involved police brutality, and assault and death of protestors. The series moves beyond the point of observation and aesthetic gesture, and successfully contributes to the larger discourse of resistance, as it constitutes a note on the complex role of documentary photography as a medium.
Zadrian Smith: Your photographic work is often loaded with political and social notions. What role do you expect your work to play in the realm of modern photography? Is there ever any intention of activism in your work?
Terrence Burford-Phearse: The activism in my work is implicit and it is what inspired me to pick up a camera. I am constantly aware of social issues, plight, and adversity that are being faced by people of colour in the world today. Shooting with a social message is essential for me and it is always going to be there. I want the message or notion of what I have captured to be lucid and I find colour distracting for what I am trying to do, hence the black and white pieces.
ZS: There is a lot of everydayness in your photography – what draws you to the normalcy of social life? How do you choose these fragments of reality/subjects you shoot?
TBP: There is power in shooting people in their day-to-day lives, acting as they would and depicting the interconnectivity of human life. We are all human beings: we go to the grocery store, run errands for our families and for ourselves, and that is something that is very colour-blind. We have the same needs and we fulfil them in different ways. There is connectivity but also a way of highlighting the normalcy of life and the way certain people in certain cultures go about their daily life that differs from other cultures, even though the cause and the needs that they have are all the same. It´s a way to underline how we are all the same in the needs we have, but also different in how we satisfy them. Looking at this difference might actually shed some light on deeper issues, such as injustice, limits to freedom and rights, inequalities, and more.
ZS: Do you find that most people identify you as a male photographer or a black male photographer? Does this bother you at all? Has your identity served to your advantage by any means?
TBP: I am conscious of being a man and I am conscious of being black, but I do not want to anchor my work exclusively in this experience. What I want to do more than anything is capture women, children, and people in other cultures who might not have a voice, and are different from me. I want to do this in a manner that celebrates diversity, rather than isolating my own or their difference for some sort of spectacle. It´s obvious people see me as a man of colour, however, my passion is to bring life out of the human experience, so my work invariably strengthens my identity.
ZS: Why do you think there are not more black mainstream photographers today?
TBP: Photography is fundamentally an expensive medium and many minorities might not have the privilege or the access to take pictures of people around the world. A lot of minority kids are artistically inclined but lack the resources to bring their dreams to fruition or pursue that the line of education or work. There is a financial discrepancy showing in art, and by extension in photography, and this sadly affects creative output.
ZS: As I look through your photographs, I notice little glamour and shine, and a lot of darkness, shadows, and monochromatic settings. How do you balance this rather austere aesthetic with your work in the fashion industry?
TBP: I employ this aesthetic in photography to capture a portrait of a human being or something interesting about them, as opposed to selecting subjects for their appearances that fit a pattern. There is no pattern with what I am doing here. It´s the complete opposite; my work in the fashion industry (at Glamour and Vogue US) has provided me with a disciplined eye and attention to detail when I am on the street or scouting, and I can apply this even when working outside the glamorous world of fashion.
ZS: Do you find that fashion and photography have the potential to change or improve the world?
TBP: A striking image can completely shape someone´s viewpoint. It depends on the strength and determination of viewers to actually do something about what they see. Images are a good starting point, but change comes with action.
ZS: The act of looking is central to our visual cultures today. A documentary photographer especially must have a distinct relationship with his own act of looking at his subjects. Tell me a little about your own perspective on the power dynamics of looking (at ourselves, at each other, at people we deem to be different, at bodies). How do you approach this through your photography?
TBP: Perspective is unique to everyone. I could stand near a square full of people and not take a single frame for hours. I want to highlight positive aspects and unaltered narratives in cultures, and bring awareness to certain subjects, rather than rework norms or stereotypes so common to many photographers today. If someone goes on a mission to shoot the black community in Harlem, is it really a positive image to the community at large to showcase drug use, poverty, homelessness, or is it important to bring light and positivity to the youth, who are going to be looking at these pictures?
I´d like to see people of colour being shot in the same light and perspective often applied to white subjects, and watch the reaction. Historically, many photographers have built visual narratives of whiteness and blackness, and we could all benefit from dropping these prejudicial and limiting ways of looking.
ZS: What is your most important achievement so far, and what more do you hope to achieve as a photographer?
TBP: Instead of focusing on the past, I want to move forward to make a difference through my photography. Many photographers end up being single-minded and reductive, to achieve their goals; it´s hard to divide your attention and emotions when you are doing street photography in this way. To overload the visual realm with one-sided images, such as starving children as a visual locus for poverty, takes away from the larger cause and activism to reduce these problems.
How many pictures can you take of certain subjects before people are desensitized or immune to that image? Are we bringing attention to a cause, or is there more power in showing people as human beings just like everybody else, and then having the viewers expand their awareness on an issue, because their knowledge of the world is mediated by photography? What is going on in Mexico? They have a lot of problems, but does capturing and framing these problems with an overly affective, humanitarian perspective take away from the greater good? In my opinion, yes. To show people as human beings, not as people to pity. That is my goal as a photographer.
Read: La Lucha Sigue – an extended feature with Terrence Burford-Phearse in PETRIe 68 - Out Now!
Words: Zadrian Smith
Phototography: Terrence Burford-Phearse
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu