I grew up in Detroit, and I love Detroit. One day more than 23 years ago, my wife learned that the Police Department was hiring. She asked if I was interested in applying, and I was.
After I graduated from the police academy, I was stationed at the Ninth Precinct. It was as if I’d walked onto the set of a “Hill Street Blues” episode. This was now my life, with all of its thrills, danger and dysfunctionality.
I would sometimes recognize officers from the precinct in plain clothes blending into the community, which was a part of their job, being 30 series (low visibility officers) and all. Everyone looked up to them; they were who you could count on for help when things got tough in the neighborhood. I thought: ‘I’m a good officer; I’ll be 30 series one day.’
They (the officers) would come into the precinct at night to do their reports. One of them always carried a shoe box; in it were Polaroid photographs attached to index cards with biographical information of people that they’d come in contact with or arrested.
Digital cameras came out soon after, and that is how I got into photography. I began to record images of the individuals that I would encounter and arrest. But they all looked like me.
I met Romain, a photojournalist with the Detroit Free Press, about 10 years ago while he was working on a documentary called “Living With Murder.” Romain would teach me about photography and sell me gently used professional equipment. We stayed in touch.
In 2015-2016 I attended the College for Creative Studies for photography. While I was there I learned so much. I began to wonder … if images and writings from the lives of marginalized people could be used to aid law enforcement in their incarceration, the opposite must also be true … images from their lives could also be used to liberate them, to dispel myths, to shatter stereotypes, to humanize a people who had been historically portrayed as demons by those who pointed cameras at them to tell their stories … and in the telling of tales, the photographer, the writer, often got it wrong, making life more dangerous for us.
It was then that I understood that through my misuse of the camera, I was placing those that I loved in danger too, and that the camera itself was not just a tool but, in the wrong hands, a weapon that had been formed against a people that I’d come from. I no longer wished to perpetuate stereotypes through imagery.
I began to ponder a question: “To what degree do images observed in life determine the belief in what is possible?”
Romain and I kept in touch, and we continued to look for ways to work together. We had grown tired of documenting the pain of the city. Being a person of color who doesn’t look like a police officer, I didn’t feel any safer. So we began to explore how we could begin to help.
I began to think of all of the people that I had come across in my career that did not have the benefit of being exposed to new things and how that must have limited their access, their curiosity and their success.
I have watched as children and adults from all walks of life are shackled with labels given out of ignorance that do not belong to them, and those labels place them in grave danger, a danger that even I sometimes cannot escape.
Capturing Belief’s mission places emphasis on the importance of children being able to tell their story, discovering who they are while exploring the world around them freely so that they can find their place in society, figuring out where they belong, not by being placed where someone else thinks that they should be. Capturing Belief seeks to be the catalyst that makes students want to interrogate their environment before venturing out to discover what the world has to offer them.
Before I left the College for Creative Studies, travel opened up for U.S. citizens to visit Cuba. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to take kids to Cuba so that they could document, through photography, a land frozen in time?” So I called Romain, and we talked about it.
But the timing wasn’t right. In October of 2016, I was in a meeting prepping for trial with the lead prosecutor, Gerry Cahill. The case centered around a murder for hire.
During the meeting someone said, “You know Gerry is getting married in Kenya in January.” When the meeting ended, I talked to Gerry, telling him that I would photograph his wedding for free. Gerry seemed both thrilled and surprised; his expression changed quickly as if he’d remembered something and then said, “I need to check with Naomi (his fiancée) first; let’s talk tonight,” he said.
On the way home I thought, “Since we were going to be there anyway, we could teach photography to children in Kenya. If Naomi says yes.” I talked to Gerry that night, and he said, “Naomi says yes.” I could hear her ask in the background, “What does he need?”
I told her about the idea of teaching photography to the children while I was there, and she said yes to that too. After that call, I had to figure out how to tell Romain what I had gotten us into.
The conversation with Romain went surprisingly well. I think he was more excited than I was. By November of 2016, we had begun Capturing Belief in Detroit with the donation of space by the Detroit Free Press and some borrowed cameras from the College for Creative Studies. In January of 2017 Capturing Belief was teaching photography to six participants in Kenya.
This experience has shown me that when I am gone, the future is safe with the next generation as long as we continue to pass on the knowledge/tools that allow them to question the status quo and protect themselves by building relationships … by building community. The community has responded with open arms and has asked for more capacity so that more children can participate.