Exhibition of photos by Joshua Rashaad McFadden at the George Eastman Museum
Does it matter who photographs pivotal moments in American history?
One of Rochester’s most prominent photographers, Joshua Rashaad McFadden, thinks so.
“The power of the camera can expose things like George Floyd,” McFadden said. “The black woman who documented this is why Derek Chauvin was found guilty. There has been a change in the country because of this. People feel empowered to document these things and are not afraid of violence who could be brought against them for using the tool of photography to seek justice, so I think it’s important to know who’s holding the camera.
Every time McFadden has held the camera throughout his career, his images have sparked discussions about race, identity and the American experience over the past 15 years.
Those images are now on display as part of his first solo exhibition, “I Believe I’ll Run On,” at the George Eastman Museum through June 19. The exhibition focuses on seven series of photos by McFadden and chronicles the intimacies of black life in the United States.
McFadden finds love of photography and a career
McFadden’s journey through photography to this point in his career began intimately when his mother gave him a camera at age seven. The medium is anchored in its family roots. Her grandfather was an apprentice photographer in Harlem, New York, when her mother was a child. On the paternal side of the family, many relatives worked and retired at Kodak.
“He literally crossed my line on both sides,” Mcfadden said.
He developed a love for the craft during those early years and used the camera to capture family moments and daily walks, but Mcfadden never imagined that his passion might one day turn into a career.
“At that age, I guess I needed someone to tell me it could be a job,” he said. “A lot of times people don’t see photography as art, which is a problem. There wasn’t a lot of support for me as a black artist here in Rochester; I wanted to leave.”
At 18, McFadden left Rochester to study fine arts at Elizabeth City State University, a historically black college in North Carolina. It won’t be long before the HBCU culture captivates the young artist.
“It was the bands, the football games, everything,” McFadden said. “I immediately connected with him and went further south after that.”
Further south meant Georgia. By the time McFadden began his graduate studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design, he had rekindled his passion for photography after documenting the Southern response to the election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.
In 2014, the police shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked nationwide protests. The death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody followed suit in 2015. McFadden again focused his lens on the Southern response, photographing protests in Atlanta and Alabama, cultivating skill at each event.
“Back to back, there were only protests everywhere,” he said. “I was able to take specific courses on documentary photography. I learned that there were black photographers before me, and I started to adopt more conceptual approaches. That’s when everything clicked. I can do what I love and develop my ideas using the camera.”
It is not easy to make a career in the practice of photography. After traveling the world with his talent, 29-year-old Joshua Rashaad McFadden began to envision the next step on his path. This next step was his first – coming home.
After accepting a residency at the Visual Studies Workshop, a non-profit organization in downtown Rochester, McFadden became aware of a teaching position at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
“Was it another leg of the journey,” McFadden wondered?
Rochester was the city he desperately wanted to escape from in his youth. Nonetheless, the job opportunity and the growing interest of the George Eastman Museum in showcasing his work caused McFadden to rethink his opposition.
“I really thought about it,” Mcfadden said. “What if I avoided something I shouldn’t.”
McFadden is now an assistant professor of photography at RIT’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences.
Earlier this year, the internationally acclaimed photographer attended an event at the Eastman Museum to discuss his work, the “I Believe I’ll Run On” exhibit and his new book of the same name.
Lyle Ashton Harris, a widely exhibited multidisciplinary artist, moderated the conference. McFadden credits some of his success to Harris’ mentorship. He believes that success in practice requires an openness to learning from masters and staying true to one’s ideals.
“A lot of times people aren’t willing to listen to their intuition,” Mcfadden said. “I knew what motivated me to do the work that I do, and I knew that I wanted to use the tool of photography to express those things. I think the key to success is following that.”
Information about visiting the Eastman Museum to attend “I Believe I’ll Run On” can be found on its website: https://www.eastman.org/mcfadden.
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