Black Lives Matter Toronto photographers share their most powerful images of the year
Two of the movement's photographers share why they raise fists while focusing their cameras
For Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO), 2016 was a landmark year. In March, they held a "tent city" occupation in front of Toronto Police Headquarters, and the province took notice; the demonstration led to a coroner's inquest into the police shooting death of Andrew Loku. In the summer, their sit-in at the Pride parade ignited a controversial debate about anti-black racism and police inclusion. In the fall, they joined the family of Jermaine Carby as they delivered a $12 million civil lawsuit against Peel Police.
That's the brief — and incomplete — overview of some of their work. And in the midst of the protests and the sit-ins, the classes and the concerts, were the people documenting it all — shaping how this time will be understood in the years to come.
"I think it's time that as black people we document and tell our own stories." - Uranranebi Agbeyegbe, BLMTO photographer
BLMTO works with a collective of videographers and photographers, a group that includes: Lu Asfaha, Michael Toledano, Zun Lee, Jalani Morgan, Anique J. Jordan, Angelyn Francis, Anthony Gebrehiwot, Tagwa Moyo, Paige Galette and Uranranebi Agbeyegbe. Their dramatic images have been shared across social media and all the major outlets, showing people across the country the undeniable presence of a young, mobilized generation determined to enact social change.
When I asked photographer Uranranebi Agbeyegbe about what inspires his work with BLMTO, he talked with me about the importance of history. "I think it's time that as black people we document and tell our own stories particularly from our own perspectives," he tells me over email.
"I watch a lot of historical documentaries about black people in America and there's so much archival work that has been done but not [much] about black folks in Canada," he says. During the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, leaders emphasized the importance of public action. They recognized the need to have media document their efforts, the idea being that powerful visuals would help turn local protests into a nation-wide movement.
Unlike those times — when organizers were dependent on mainstream media — technology and social media have given BLMTO the tools to alter the power dynamics. For Agbeyegbe, photographing BLMTO has been an opportunity to document the activism of black communities in a way that he has never seen in Canada.
The fact that images are connecting people to the movement has been a source of inspiration for photographer Paige Galette. She started taking photos of BLMTO during the "tent city" occupation last winter. "It was mostly just for fun until people on my Facebook started inquiring on the situation, and how they could help," she tells me over email. "A lot [were] friends from other cities, as well as those who are vulnerable to police harassment and brutality. [They] asked me to keep posting photos. It was nice to know that I could provide images to those who wanted to be present but had barriers preventing them to do so."
"We are telling our stories through our lens, our experiences and our love for the movement." - Paige Galette, BLMTO photographer
Galette, Agbeyegbe and other BLMTO photographers aren't outside observers — but then, the idea of an "objective outsider" reporting the news is a myth. Every individual has bias. When someone arrives at a demonstration, they come with a perspective that's been shaped by their experiences.
BLMTO has specifically chosen photographers connected to the principles of the movement, individuals who raise fists while focusing their cameras. Galette argues that mainstream media outlets cannot be relied upon as the sole storytellers of BLMTO because when left in their hands, the movement is too often simplified and cast as a reactionary assertion of anger.
"It's no secret that many, often conservative news outlets, have created rhetoric of BLM [Black Lives Matter] and BLMTO as a fear-mongering tactic," she says via email. "For many of us, the movement represents love, a fight for freedom and justice in order to achieve healing. I think images have debunked news outlets' failed attempts, and really shown [the] public what black love looks like."
Over the past year, I've witnessed the extreme way that individual members of BLMTO have become public targets. In some cases, there have been death threats. The images captured by the movement's photographers are a subversive challenge, forcing the public to see the humanity, dignity, joy, vulnerability, frustration and beauty of the young, black, queer and trans people on the frontlines working for social change.
"I think it's important for myself, as well as a fellow black artist to [do] this work, as we are telling our stories through our lens, our experiences and our love for the movement," Galette tells me.
"The fact that we are able to continue this work, whether it's documenting every action through photography, videography, paint and storytelling, or being in the streets, we are living proof that we can prevail, we will prevail and win."
Here, Galette and Agbeyegbe share some of their most powerful photographs from 2016.
"This photo was captured during the Trans March. In moments where there was chaos, a lot of sound, shouting and people talking, Janaya Khan took to the mic and spoke. People stopped whatever they were doing and listened. They had no other option but to be engaged in conversations on anti-black racism and come face to face with the reality that Toronto is anti-black. I had never heard Toronto so quiet before." —Paige Galette
"This photo features so many friends, family members, children, elders: community. Still a recent Torontonian, I have found my community within the movement. Our Black community is strong, is diverse, but most importantly, is grounded by love. We wouldn't be in the streets if it weren't for the love we have for one another." —Paige Galette
"We had been at 'tent city' for over a week. I had never seen so many people gathered in front of the police headquarters. This, to me, is what 'the power of the people' looks like." —Paige Galette
"I took this photo while BLMTO were having their press conference at the SIU Shut Down this past August. While numerous news outlets were filming and recording them, they really missed out on what was happening; the co-founders\organizers holding and supporting each other. The only words I have for this photo are 'black love.' We wouldn't be where we are at, without black love. We will not win without black love. This photo is probably not my most creative or illuminating, but for me, it really captures the essence of the movement. It's an image I don't think mainstream media would ever have in their repertoire and I feel so fortunate and honoured to have captured it." —Paige Galette
"This photo is by far one of the best/most controversial photos I've ever taken. This photo was taken at pride during the parade as we marched down after stopping the parade and getting our demands met. You can see folks marching fully enjoying their experience. [...] We marched, kept going forward even though most people in the crowd looked at us with confused faces. We marched joyously." —Uranranebi Agbeyegbe
"This photo was taken at the first protest at the police headquarters. Everyone was participating in a dance after the drums had been played. The energy in the crowd can be felt. [...] It's something that carries forward even as I look [at] it today." —Uranranebi Agbeyegbe
"This picture was taken during 'tent city' on Day 4. [...] The words still echo ever more important today. Our lives have always mattered, our lives matter now and will always matter." —Uranranebi Agbeyegbe