'Paint Us in a Beautiful Light': Photographing Black Joy

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Photographs by Amir Abdul-Shakur (Courtesy of Amir Abdul-Shakur)

The Instagram page curated Amir Abdul-Shakur, aka Amir The Photographer, looks like a community yearbook. His shots are mostly portraits of Black folks in Oakland, and show each individual in their own radiant light.

His images, some of protests and others of parties, all seem to have an underlying joyous sentiment.

Photographer Amir Abdul-Shakur
Photographer Amir Abdul-Shakur (Nancy Abdul-Shakur)

One image that caught my eye earlier this summer was a shot of Fitness owner Joli Zahra Drevitch. The framing, the lighting, the strength in the posture of the subject-- it all gave me a sense of joy.

After talking to Amir about the intended purpose of his photos, it seems like he's meeting his intentions: highlighting Black joy.

Below are lightly edited excerpts of my conversation with Amir Abdul-Shakur.

Amir: Yeah. My thesis is to try to paint us in a beautiful light. it's always been about elevating Black people and showing the beauty and, unfortunately, humanizing us.

Pen: Was there a moment, was there something that pushed you over the top? You're like, yo, I got to start doing this right now?

Amir: Around 2016 or 2017 my family was a part of a PBS documentary called The Talk: Race in America, which focuses on law enforcement and how parents of color and particularly Black parents, mixed folks have conversations about law enforcement with their with their children. And so we got a camera, because from there we thought we're going to do a family channel and do vlogging. Fast forward to 2018, and the Black Joy Parade comes about. And I'm like, I got this brand new camera, got no shots on it and just take it out. And so I went out there, shot some images, then one grew to two, two and so forth.

Pen: I imagine that given your identity as a Black man, your partner's identity as a Latina woman, you're both Muslim. I imagine you have a lot to talk about with your son. How do you address everything? All of it? 

Amir: We try to keep it real as much as possible.

Pen: Gotcha. Does he understand what's going on currently? With addressing police brutality and--. 

Amir: Absolutely. For an eight-year-old, he's very, very much in tune with what's going on. Cause, I mean, this the work that we do in general just kind of is privy to that, even as far as police brutality... Our family we're dealing with a very personal kind of tragedy. On June 2nd in Vallejo, a young man named Sean Monterrosa was killed by law enforcement. And so my wife, Nancy, was his mentor for almost three years. So when he was murdered, it really hit my family hard and we still are dealing with that. So he knows about what's going on. 

A throwback photo of Amir Abdul-Shakur, Nancy Abdul-Shakur and their son, Zaire.
A throwback photo of Amir Abdul-Shakur, Nancy Abdul-Shakur and their son, Zaire. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Amir:  This is this is a very difficult time to be Black and to be a parent. It's a very scary time, it's a very troubling time, it's a very revolutionary time. Yeah. I can't really describe anything like it, to be in a pandemic and then a racial pandemic. And then to have these conversations and to be you know, in the house cooped up and just trying to make sense of it. 

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