Though separated by the decades, the parallels between renowned photographer and social rights activist Gordon Parks and Kendrick Lamar are undeniable.
When Kendrick Lamar released the cinematic music video for ELEMENT. in June (taken from what we’ve crowned the album of the year, DAMN.) it was soon recognised as a visual homage to the seminal work of photojournalist and social activist, Gordon Parks.
For the uninitiated, Parks was a self-taught photographer whose work immortalised marginalised communities through the 1940s-1970s, and he pioneered using photography as a way of highlighting civil rights issues and poverty for black Americans. After seeing photos of migrants workers in a magazine at the age of 25, Parks went and bought his first camera, a Voigtländer Brillant, for just $7.50.
He would go on to become the first ever staff photographer at LIFE magazine—a position where he would remain for over 20 years—after having his first photo essay published about his time spent with Red Jackson, a young Harlem gang leader. The 21 photos selected by the editors of LIFE are chilling, fatalistic depictions of a neighbourhood trapped in a senseless war and it’s impossible to conceive how they were caught on film. (Check out Harlem Gang Leader here).
Parks once said, “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against . . . all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.” And though in different eras and mediums, it’s this which attracted Kendrick to Parks’ work. Lamar’s razor-sharp observations on blackness in America in his lyrics is his chosen weapon against the injustices that still exist in racially charged modern-day America. Exhibit A, ‘The Blacker the Berry’ from To Pimp a Butterfly:
“This plot is bigger than me, it’s generational hatred/It’s genocism, it’s grimy, little justification/I’m African-American, I’m African/I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan/I’m black as the name of Tyrone and Darius.”
To celebrate the union of Kendrick Lamar and Gordon Parks, The Gordon Parks Foundation in Pleasantville, New York, are now showing Element: Gordon Parks and Kendrick Lamar, an exhibition which ties together original Parks’ photos and their modern-day music video adaptation. Below are just a few of the iconic images on display and the incredible history behind them.
Black Muslims Train in Self-Defense, Chicago, Illinois, 1963
Gordon Parks gained access to the insular Black Muslim community through Malcolm X (who also features heavily in his photos series), the two flying to meet with community leader The Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Elijah Muhammad would eventually offer Parks half a million dollars to create a motion picture and book on the lives of Black American Muslims, which Parks would turn down, afraid the money would be used to sway his obligations to present an unbiased viewpoint. After Parks refused his offer, Elijah Muhammad told him:
“I like the fact that you just turned down half a million dollars because of principles. I think I can trust you. Brother Malcolm [X] is going to be your guide. I’m going to allow you to go through the world of Islam. If we like your pictures and what you say, we’re going to send you a box of cigars. If we don’t like it, we’ll be out to visit you.”
The above image, appropriated into ELEMENT., depicts a guard formed by Black American Muslims called the Fruits of Islam. Training for members of FOI saw men gathering in up to 30 mosques across the US to be trained by judo experts. This was done strictly in self-defence in preparation for attacks by anti-Muslim aggressors.
Ethel Sharrieff, Chicago, Illinois, 1963
A photo from Parks series Black Muslims (which also inspired a scene in the 2016 film Hidden Figures) is reimagined in ELEMENT. in the triangle formation of a group of black, female Muslims. The original portrait is of Ethel Sharrieff, the daughter of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
Untitled, Fort Scott, Kansas, 1963.
The opening scene of ELEMENT. depicts a hand reaching for the sky, piercing through the surface of the water, a direct reference to Parks’ photo from Half Past Autumn: The Life and Work of Gordon Parks. The youngest of 15 children, Parks was born and raised in Fort Scott, Kansas, where he attended a segregated school. He was told by his teacher that pursuing a higher education would be a waste of money. At the age of 11 three white boys threw him in the river—aware that he couldn’t swim—and eventually he managed to save himself by making his way to land underwater and out of sight of the three boys.
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois, 1957
Gordon Parks was one of the rare photographers who gained access into the inner sanctum of the Black Panther Party. He travelled with the party’s Prime Minister, Stokely Carmichael, for three months in 1967, and was later put on assignment documenting the Black Panthers after the group was involved with two gun battles with the police in both LA and Chicago. He was also present at a number of rallies during the Civil Rights Movement protesting against police brutality and the killing of unarmed black men—a theme which runs rife through Kendrick Lamar’s music, and which is brought the surface again in ELEMENT.