Never Forget: Russell Frederick’s Photographs of Proud Black Brooklyn

The Daily Beast

March 20, 2016

The photographer Russell Frederick began documenting life in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant 17 years ago.

His beautiful, sometimes moving, sometimes funny, sometimes meditative, always striking shots of the neighborhood’s African-American and other ethnic minority residents are black-and-white.

Here are people waiting for trains, and hugging their children. A group of girls look wide-eyed at the camera.

Couples hold one another, and stand outside their homes. Possibly the coolest young boy I have ever seen is dressed in a fur-looking coat and Kangol.

A body lays at rest, a woman stands in front of spray-painted “Black Panther” graffiti on a storefront. A young man in military uniform gives a salute. Frederick has an especially brilliant eye for the handsome, pretty, and strikingly dressed, as you’ll see when you visit his website.

On a recent afternoon, we looked at a panoply of the images (which he hopes one day will become a book), and talked about the Bed-Stuy history he had seen.

Frederick had become aware of “subtle changes” in his neighborhood in the late 1990s, which “gave me the indication that there might be a bigger plan coming down the road.”

Starting in 1999, Frederick walked the streets of Bed-Stuy, camera in hand, and asked individuals if he had their blessing to take their picture. It was, he said, intended as a visual narrative and celebration of an imperiled community. He estimated he had taken around 8,000 photographs to date.

What once had been a historically rooted black neighborhood had become dramatically less so, the 45-year-old Frederick said, and he wanted to celebrate the residents who had so long made it home, and made a community there, before they—as he himself had been—were pushed out by dramatically rising property costs.

“The changes were cosmetic at first,” Frederick said. Streetlights changed from aluminum to cast iron. The street vendors selling hats, gloves, perfumes, oils, and incense, slowly disappeared.

Frederick’s parents came from Panama in 1965 and settled in Bushwick. He moved to Bed-Stuy at 18, and stayed there till he was 37. He now lives in Bushwick. (When Frederick first moved in Bed-Stuy, his studio cost $425 a month. In 2000, a community board meeting estimated that in ten years time an average Bed-Stuy studio rent would be $1000 a month; Frederick said he knew such price inflation “would change the community completely.”)

For many years, Bed-Stuy was, after Harlem, New York’s second-largest African-American neighborhood, Frederick said, although in the ’70s and ’80s its reputation of “a violent place” stuck, and “the good people who live there were never acknowledged or honored. We never heard abut the virtues, or love within, the community.”

Frederick lived there, and “never had a bad experience. I never got robbed, nothing ever happened to me. I just saw working-class people trying to make a living. The reality was different to the reporting of what happened there. Bed-Stuy had a remarkable diversity of people living there—Muslims, West Africans, Caribbean people, Southerners, New Yorkers. We were all living together. We ate together, went to work on the same trains. We co-existed. This is a New York experience.”

As well as highlighting the strength of community, and its human pillars, Frederick said, “The world also needs to see a different side of Black America. When people see a ‘black community’ it’s always a ghetto, a slum place with issues, but despite the challenges present you have good people—people who are trendsetters, entrepreneurs, people trying to make it. I just want to tell that story to the world, so we can change this monolithic image about ‘Black America’ and the inner city.”

Frederick particularly emphasized how many families he has photographed: “These young black men may not be straitlaced or conservative, but they are responsible, they work.”

We surveyed some of his pictures—like of carpenter and actor Cleveland Sampson; three generations of women from one family all going to church; two other ladies coming from church on Easter Sunday; and fashion designer Don Balladic.

From being 90 percent black, Bed-Stuy now—Frederick estimated as we looked at his wonderful shots—is about 50 percent black, and condominiums have “popped up all over the place.”

According to 2010 statistics, reported in The New York Times in 2014, the area had shrunk from 75 percent black to 60 percent black in 2010, while the white population had grown from 2.4 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in the same time span.

Frederick said since 2010 this statistical shift has speeded up even more.

A few black people are moving in to the area—notably black professionals—but they are not the majority, Frederick said.

Those who have lived in the area for many years and who own homes are being offered buyouts and being harassed, he said, while those in rent-stabilized buildings are receiving pressure to move out. Musicians on the street are receiving warnings about noise pollution. There are more and more complaints about street preachers.

“This lack of respect for differences and culture is a big problem,” Frederick said. “When you move into any new community it’s about being a good neighbor, blending in, and learning about the community—not forcing your will, or manipulating people, because you have access to resources and they don’t, or making them conform to something that is comfortable for you.”

While Frederick welcomes elements of change—the hip new coffee shops and stores—he wonders why the area couldn’t have had so much care and money lavished on it when it needed it years ago.

“Some of the change has been positive, but at what cost?” Frederick asked. “Music, artists, immigrants—this is the one big gumbo that makes New York what it is. What about the people who have lived here two or three generations—bus drivers, nursing assistants, carpenters, taxi drivers? They don’t make a lot of money, but they too are part of New York.”

What Frederick is noting is the hyper-gentrification now spreading from Manhattan outwards. It is captured on blogs like Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York and, in Chelsea particularly in Kenneth in the 212.

In five years time, Frederick thinks the pace of change will mean Bed-Stuy is predominantly white; studio apartments are around the $2,000-a-month mark; and homes are being sold for $900,000. In the culture clash that is ongoing, he wonders how tense it will become, “where can we meet in the middle, how can we live with each other?

“I have no problem with the community expanding, but we should also have respect for one another. Losing the bodega or the guy running his fruit stand who’s had it for 10, 20 years—it hurts.”

Frederick himself was originally interested in architecture as a profession, but the studying was tedious and for his mom the arts represented “a hobby, not a job,” he said, smiling.

He studied to be a nurse, then joined a friend’s fashion magazine.

Frederick became a clerk in a hospital AIDS and cardiac unit prior and during his introductory years to photography, which included a course at the International Center of Photography. Unable to afford the tuition, he “started shooting voraciously and going to bookstores to study photography.”

For Frederick, among the most compelling pictures we look at is the one of Supreme, a stepfather to a young boy, Tyshawn, teaching him to tie his tie. “He’s a stepdad, and he’s stepping up to being a dad,” said Frederick. “This picture is an embodiment of family, of a community of love and tradition, a community showing black men loving which breaks the whole myth of absent father.”

Frederick also indicated the picture of emergency physician Dr. Robert Gore, who started the Kings Against Violence Initiative (KAVI).

The organization, of which Frederick is men’s program director, mentors young men and women at risk of violence and dropping out of school.

In Frederick’s picture, Dr. Gore, who lives in Bed-Stuy, is wearing a hoodie, and Frederick likes it because “he does not have the image of what a doctor is supposed to look like. It’s what society has come to think a criminal looks like, but Dr. Gore is like, ‘I’m black, I wear a hoodie and I save lives.’”

In the picture, Dr. Gore is standing in front of a mural in memory of Yusef Hawkins, a 16-year-old African-American killed in a racist attack by a white gang in 1989.

“I hope the picture challenges stereotypes, stigmas, and challenges people to think differently, and disarm us from fear,” Frederick said. “Fear is ‘false evidence appearing real.’”

Frederick finds his work with KAVI incredibly fulfilling, “giving back and building up,” as he put it. “It’s about how to help young people who don’t know how to navigate life, and find out who they are, or navigating the paths of the streets, where–depending on where they live and which school they go to–there may be influence of gangs.”

KAVI teaches the children about conflict resolution, self control, entrepreneurship, what manhood means, family, and community.

Frederick “definitely” wants to have children himself, but laughed that he needed to find a wife first.

He added that he wanted to leave a legacy with a family of his own. “I’m realizing we all have a purpose, and we all have to find our purpose. As a black man or black woman in America we also have a responsibility to make our community and people better. Any success or access we gain, it’s important to share, develop, and nurture.”

Frederick’s most significant photographic influence, the Kamoinge black photography collective, embodies precisely that aspiration. Photographers inside the collective (like Eli Reed, Anthony Barboza, and Roy DeCarava) and outside it (like Joseph Rodriguez, Clarence Williams, and James Van Der Zee) showed Frederick how photography could have a storytelling element, as well as “changing how black and brown America was represented. All of them have shown how social justice can be done with their cameras. That’s what I love about them.”

In Ethiopia recently, Kamoinge taught 70 photography students how to tell stories from within their communities using their cameras and cell phones.

Frederick’s next personal project will ask what does it mean to be a young black man in America today, focusing, as he said, on the disproportionate number of young African-American men in the legal system, the lack of opportunities open to them, the violence sometimes around them, and how to help them succeed and flourish as he does with his work with KAVI.

I asked Frederick what picture he had taken in Bed-Stuy in the last 17 years had moved him most.

He recalled an elderly couple called Mr. and Mrs. Brooks, who he photographed in 2003. In the moment, Mrs. Brooks was resistant to having her picture taken. Her husband gently convinced her, saying, “Straighten up, and smile for the man.”

Three years later, Frederick received a call from the couple’s daughter. Mr. Brooks had died. Her parents had been married 52 years, the daughter said, and Frederick’s picture was the last one they had had taken of themselves together.

Mrs. Brooks’s voice suddenly came on the line, Frederick recalled.

“Young man, I’ve got to tell you that I’m glad you persisted that day,” Mrs. Brooks said. “I just didn’t want my picture taken because I didn’t feel I looked presentable. You reminded me of what marriage is all about. Marriage is about trusting your partner even when you may not want to.”

Frederick’s voice cracked. “She also said to me, ‘I wish you the best with the book, good luck,’ and she sent me five dollars…” Frederick paused, suddenly overcome with emotion. “…To buy some film.”

We looked at the wonderful pictures of so many faces and so many lives in front of us.

Frederick said, very softly, “And for people to think that this community is violent and that nothing but lowlifes live there… No, we are bigger than that.”