During the Sixth Pan-African Congress—a political gathering launched at the turn of the 20th century by the theorist, writer, and activist W.E.B. DuBois—the then President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere closed his eyes and placed his left hand on his cheek. Nyerere was unaware of the presence of the young black American Ozier Muhammad, the photographer and grandson of Elijah Muhammad, who founded the religious group The Nation of Islam. Muhammad’s trip to Tanzania, as part of the conference’s North American delegation, marked the first of many times he traveled to the continent.
A print of Nyerere’s image was featured alongside Muhammad’s Pulitzer Prize winning photographs of famine in Ethiopia, and the presidential inauguration and funeral of Nelson Mandela as part of a recent short-run exhibition, “A Life in the World: Bearing Witness with a camera from the South Side of Chicago to South Africa,” hosted at The InterChurch Center in New York City.
Initially hesitant to give creative license to the show’s curator, Frank DeGregorie, Muhammad conceptualized his first solo exhibition as a “retrospective,” an opportunity “to look over the range of [his] working, creative, and productive life as a photojournalist.” Until the exhibition, the majority of Muhammad’s photographs had appeared in the Chicago-based Ebony and Jet magazines and the New York City newspapers Newsday and The New York Times, where he worked until recently. There were subtle nods in the show to his early days as a photographer on the streets of Chicago and his coursework in photography at Columbia College, where social documentarians Carol Evans, Jim Newbury and Archie Liberman personally introduced him to the legendary American photographers Robert Frank and Roy DeCarava, and where he learned to make silk screens and daguerreotypes. Despite prioritizing his published works, the exhibition succeeded in illustrating the historical and cultural brilliance of black American and African life and the shared political struggles that unite black populations.
No particular chronological, thematic or methodological frame fused the three-part exhibition. The InterChurch Center’s Treasure Room, a small room near the westside entrance, housed Muhammad’s photographs of Africa—his portrait of Nyerere, along with intimate portraits of black American pop-culture icons, such as Lawrence Fishburne and Muhammad Ali. The hallway on the building’s southern side, closest to the Treasure Gallery’s entrance, included pictures from Muhammad’s early days as a photographer living in Chicago, where he photographed everyday street scenes outside of a homeless shelter in conjunction with the activities of the Nation of Islam, and of Harlem, where he currently lives. The building’s elevators and reception area obscured the northward side hallway, which displayed scenes gathered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for US president. Forced to look at the exhibition in parts made it possible to see why Muhammad eschews the term “news photographer,” and prefers to be called “a photojournalist.” In his words, he did not always cover “news.” In fact, when on assignment, Muhammad found himself documenting in “post-mortem,” or “catching up with breaking news.” He likened his practice and work as a photojournalist to “keeping visual journals.” There was “documentary, personal, feature, news, [and] sports.” The same year of these editorial assignments in Africa, when he photographed not only Nyerere, but also Samora Machel, then the leader of Mozambique’s liberation war against Portugal, Muhammad photographed the famed boxer and Nation of Islam member Muhammad Ali as he read a poem.
Rich visual imaginaries of Africa’s liberation informed black American political activism during the US civil rights movement. The photographic image of black African and Caribbean liberation heroes, such as Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, and Michael Manley, were fixture’s in Muhammad’s childhood home, where the African-American-owned newspapers The Chicago Defender and Pittsburg Courier, and magazines Ebony and Jet circulated frequently. Muhammad recalled the pain experienced by members of his community upon learning of the Lumumba’s death in 1961. “We grieved as if he [Lumumba] was our leader.” Tied to this imagery and his own family collection of news clippings, Muhammad became attuned to the American media’s fascination with the Nation of Islam and the “great photography” that accompanied reporting.
Muhammad’s vein of news photography in the 1970s and 1980s differed from African-based photographers, including the Kenyan Priya Ramrakha and the South African David Goldblatt, who published features in the well-known American publication Life magazine. Muhammad worked for the cash flushed Johnson Publishing Company, the owner of Ebony and Jet magazines. Unlike its competitors, Johnson Publishing Company used its sales profits to support Muhammad’s first trips to the continent, and to create an informal yet highly productive wire-service that rivaled Life’s, the Associated Press’s, and Agence France Presse’s Africa coverage. Muhammad resists identifying himself as the only African American photographer in such a position. In fact, he and the black American female photographer Marilyn Nance documented the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Nigeria (FESTAC) in 1977. An extensive network of black print news journalists, including Lerone Bennett Jr., John Johnson, and Gerold Boyd, published Muhammad’s images without backlash, including potentially more gruesome and violating ones of famine in Ethiopia, for which he shared the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. The black newsrooms where Muhammad worked prioritized news coverage of Africa. Years after he won the Pulitzer, Muhammad noted particular journalistic concern for what he called “misery photography” with the controversy that surfaced around Pulitzer-prize photographer Kevin Carter’s picture of the child and vulture in Sudan.
Muhammad’s photographs reflect a willingness to focus on the background: he stood behind or next to his subjects, to consider what they saw on the streets of Harlem, or while traveling on the train to Mandela’s inauguration; and he photographed moments when his sitters looked at and looked away from the camera. The African continent is not Muhammad’s muse. Muhammad does not seek to criticize the failures of African liberation. Instead, he celebrates these aspirations for the expressive possibilities they presented many black Americans and the complex networks of cultural and political solidarities that black communities cultivated through photography. He freely documents the vulnerabilities that black populations continue to face in the wake of natural disasters.
When I asked him what kind of photographer he wants to be thought of, Muhammad responded, “as a race man… I was a person concerned about the African race. In a nutshell, in the best sense of the term, I would be thought of [as such].”