When it was time to choose a pediatrician for his then two-year-old son, Brooklyn-based photographer Ruddy Roye was determined to find one who shared his black and Jamaican roots. He scoured catalogs and listings, but when he tracked the right one down, the doctor was mystified. He couldn't quite grasp why Roye, who travels the world shooting for major magazines and newspapers, would spend so much time searching for a doctor with his own background. But as the photographer told me, "There was no other way to explain to this educated man why I chose him other than what happened the first day my son was inoculated."
As the black and Jamaican doctor tried to keep Roye's child's attention away from the needle that day, he asked the boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. Mosijah, Roye's son who is now 11 years old, looked up at the pediatrician and replied softly, "You."
For Roye, this moment was a powerful affirmation of his belief that seeing people who look like you do positive things can have a profound impact on how you see yourself. "The visual allows boys to see that it's attainable, that it's not as farfetched as a guidance counselor saying, 'You know, you could be a doctor'" he said.
This sensibility serves as the bedrock of Black Male Re-Imagined, a narrative photo project backed by the Campaign for Black Male Achievement and shot by Ruddy Roye. The organization, which was launched in 2008 and has helped invest tens of millions of dollars into initiatives for black men and boys, tasked Roye with traveling to cities like Baltimore, Ferguson, and Chicago to photograph and share the perspectives of everyday people who are uplifting the lives of black men. Along the way, he took portraits of leaders like Tracy Martin, father of Trayvon Martin, Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, high school principal Yetunde Reeves, and contemporary artist Knowledge Bennett.
"When I first came to this country, I met all of these stereotypes: That black men were never fathers, we were never teachers or educators," Roye said. "By showing these images, I inspire other other black men to say, 'I can be that person' or 'I can be in those positions.'"
The Campaign for Black Male Achievement helped lay the groundwork for President Barack Obama's popular My Brother's Keeper initiative and is involved in organizing the annual MLK Now event, which is taking place Monday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Like those well-known efforts, Black Male Re-Imagined furthers the group's mission of "narrative change," which Rashid Shabazz, the Vice President of Communications of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, defined to me as creating "more accurate, elevated depictions of black men and boys."
Although the project's idea of the "Re-Imagined" is flexible, Shabazz made it clear to me that the goal was not to push tired respectability politics. In addition to showing black boys the men that they could be, this project also seeks to show America who black men really are.
"The idea really was to be provocative. A lot of times we don't have to reimagine black males—we just need to put a light on the diversity, that black males are not a monolith," he said.
This mission seems especially important today. Although it's Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a holiday dedicated to an activist who epitomized the strength and grace of black men—and we've just seen a black man serve for eight years in the highest office in the land—the triumphs of these leaders and others like them have not been sufficient to negate the pernicious negative perceptions many Americans hold about men of color.
At a time when black college enrollment surges and the absent black father myth has been debunked, it's disheartening to see that old stereotypes and one-dimensional portrayal of blacks males still color the way many individuals see the world. Even our next president, Donald Trump, perpetuates mangled concepts about black people—that we all "live in hell," violent communities filled with "gangs roaming the streets."
Ruddy's work depicts a more nuanced black America, one with beauty and hope and power in spite of the pain of enduring in a country plagued with institutional racism. As Shabazz noted to me, regardless of their surroundings, Ruddy manages to capture his black subjects with "a sense of dignity" that they are usually denied. "He's telling these amazing stories through images. That's why we chose him. That's why we want to engage with him. He captures us in a way that shows not our brokenness, but our wholeness."
"If we come together, we can strengthen the platform that we stand on. I think these images do that." —Ruddy Roye
Of course, this is nothing new for Roye, who's used the same approach since his first major photo project in 2000. In that early work, he documented the squatters along an abandoned train line in Jamaica. And to get the story and really engage with the people, he walked 121 miles from Montego Bay to Kingston.
After moving to the US in 2001, Roye found himself a bit disillusioned with photojournalism because of the stories he was asked to cover by white editors—and his dwindling professional prospects.
"I began to feel as disenfranchised as the people I saw in my Brooklyn neighborhood," he said. "In the past, it was so hard for me to walk up to them and say, 'I'd like to photograph you.' But I found it easier if we talked about the fact that we weren't working together. 'I'm not working. You're not working. I'm a father. You're a father…'"
And so he began photographing people in and around his community in ways that expressed compassion and understanding for their mutual struggle as blacks in America. Instead of going to traditional media companies with this work, Roye published these powerful photos on social media. "Instagram gave me the vehicle to do it," he said. "There were no editors at the gate telling me that this story was not important."
Today, Roye's vision has earned him more than 250,000 instagram followers and he was just named Time's "Instagram Photographer of 2016." Although his work has appeared practically everywhere, from the New York Times to Vogue, he told me that this Black Male Re-Imagined project with the Campaign for Black Male Achievement is what really satisfies his soul.
One of the most impactful experiences he had shooting this project was in Milwaukee, where he photographed Mike McGee, an older gentleman who had been a member of the Black Panther Party.
"As we sat down, he was very belligerent about talking about where we were going to be in the future as a race," Roye recalled. "He believed that without a physical revolution, we would never achieve anything. It was important for me to understand that during his time, that was his belief. And where we are now, I have my own beliefs. And as I look to my sons, they approach race in a different way than even I do. We're three generations of black men, coming from three different spaces. My goal is to photograph in a way that will link us together."
Capturing that sense of unity is crucial to Roye's mission in these photographs, because it is something he hopes will have a tangible impact on those fighting institutional racism across the nation.
"One of my responsibilities was to go out and photograph what we are all doing because we really don't know," he told me. "Remember, the fist is not just a symbol of power and strength, it has a story of connectivity. What's going on in Oakland, Atlanta, Birmingham, Baltimore, in Ferguson—if we come together, we can strengthen the platform that we stand on. I think these images do that."
Below is an exclusive selection of photos from the Campaign for Black Male Achievement's Black Male Re-Imagined project by Ruddy Roye. Each photo features a caption by Roye about the subject's point of view on the representation of black men today and the legacy of Barack Obama. You can learn more about the Campaign for Black Male Achievement on their website and you can see Ruddy Roye latest photos on his Instagram.
Follow Wilbert L. Cooper on Twitter.