Lens on Ferguson

Alyx Chandler

Adrian Walker, a 25-year-old 
photographer, was driving home from a wedding on Aug. 9, 2014, listening to the radio when the news erupted on the local stations that a white cop had shot an unarmed black teenager. In the hours that followed, 18-year-old Michael Brown was pronounced dead, shot by Ferguson, Missouri, police 
officer Darren Wilson.

Without a TV in his home in St. Louis, Walker could only scroll down his jumbled, exploding Twitter feed a few minutes before grabbing his camera. He knew he had somewhere to be, but trying to drive into Ferguson was impossible with police blocking off all the major roads, the atmosphere tense in a way he’d never seen. Protesters lined the streets and huge crowds formed.

Walker knew the situation – black civilians who felt wronged, the questionable faith of the police force, bullets hitting bodies – this was the sort of news he’d heard time and time again, the sort of news he called “steady happening.” He knew all those things; he was ready for them.

Except he didn’t know was how different this time was.

“But what I didn’t know I was going to see was Jesse Jackson carrying this girl on his shoulders, marching with thousands of people behind him,” Walker said. “I didn’t know I was going to see this little boy holding up this sign that said ‘Hey, don’t shoot’ that he actually wrote himself.”

It was the way the St. Louis people in the day came together that shocked him. He said he watched a community realize that they actually did have a voice, collectively, that was heard.

“I didn’t know that I was going to see kids out there chanting – probably not even knowing what the hell they’re chanting for, and I didn’t know that I was going to see Marquez Little and see him showing his wounds from being shot with a rubber bullet and being dragged away by the police,” Walker said. “I didn’t know I was going to see these things.”

What he saw, what he photographed became his first book, “Lens on Ferguson,” which was published in 2015 and selected by Paris Photo as one of 30 books to be published out of thousands of entries from all over the world. Photography from the book will be mounted at The University of Alabama’s Ferguson Center as part of the Black on Film gallery. It will be on display for the rest of February in celebration of Black History Month.

Walker continued to go out to Ferguson six days after Brown’s death. He went down early mornings with bags to clean up smoke bomb remains and all the trash that people were throwing the night before until 5 a.m. while they were protesting. Then he went each day around noon to shoot.

Walker wanted to be behind the scenes, focusing on the people, their bodies in contrast.

“We see that we’re being killed, and have been killed, by the police for so long that our bodies aren’t looked at as the most important thing,” Walker said.

During all the hyperfocus on the actual violence in Ferguson, Walker’s photos revealed some of the hidden turbulence, the way limbs and fists and foreheads interacted with their surroundings, the crowd, the overwhelming police presence. What he shot was the shift of actual community where mourning turned to demanding for a change in an inaugural part of their everyday life: the justice system.

This humanization of the protestors often went unnoticed by people sitting on their couches, watching TV halfway across the nation. They only saw the wild, “more exploited” depictions of a community, the extremity used excessively by the law force, Walker said.

MK Stallings, another mentor and friend of Walker’s, also experienced Ferguson during the peak of tension between mostly white police officers and a predominately black community.

Ever since Walker first enrolled in the University of Missouri in St. Louis, Stallings has acted as a major channel of encouragement for his photography. Walker got his undergraduate degree in sociology with an unofficial certificate in photography and another in women and genders studies.

With Walker’s background in sociology, as well as his own, Stallings said sociologists are generally trained to be dispassionate about the subject they are addressing, exploring or researching. Stallings explained sometimes it’s more about how the person feels about the person captured in the image than the particular image captured itself.

“With sociology, it’s partially about your theoretical framework, like any social science, and that framework is often referred to as a lens, and in that lens, whatever you point that lens at is what you see,” Stallings said. “But you have to have a reason to point it at something, right? You have to be able to point it at whatever piece of reality that you hope to capture.”

Walker said injustices like what happened to Brown are going to continue as long as people aren’t having conversations with people both outside their race, people within it and even the people who don’t care what’s going on.

Stallings said the photos that Walker shot constituted the majority of how people were experiencing Ferguson and the protests.

“Adrian wanted to make sure that the people who were on the ground and experiencing this calamity, this tragedy in this aftermath, would be well-represented through his lens,” Stallings said.

When Stallings first heard about the police shooting an unarmed black man, he made his way with his family to Ferguson to observe what was happening. He participated in some of the protests, to be in solidarity with people openly critiquing policing not only in Ferguson, but in all the counties and cities around it. He said he wasn’t out there in the evening “when the tear gas was poppin’ off.”

The police firing tear gas, rubber bullets, the fires being lit as soon as night settled in – that’s what some media individuals stuck around to cover.

“It’s unfortunate and tragic that someone like Michael Brown was killed, but these kind of unfortunate interactions between African Americans, particular black males, is something that feels too common,” Stallings said.

Up until the response from the Ferguson Police Department, the situation itself wasn’t that unusual. Up until the point where the St. Louis community came together, in both violent and non-violent ways, forming a voice loud enough to cause a threat, it felt like another concerning but isolated event in a town most people outside of the state didn’t know.

But just like that, Ferguson was suddenly on the map.

“That was the wild thing about it, the people that were able to make a name for themselves because of activist reasons,” Stallings said.

Adrian, on the other hand, wasn’t there to cash in on the moment.

“There’s some people that might be repressed or confined by the reality,” Stallings said. “But if you can find a way to liberate people through your art, in this particular case though photography, that’s admirable and that’s certainly something that he didn’t have to do.”

When publications like the Washington Post, the Huffington Post and ABC News started reaching out to Walker first on social media, then by other means, asking if they could use his photo, build his credibility through their publication, he gave them a simple reply.

“Nah, I’m good.”

Currently, Walker describes himself as a lifestyle and portrait photographer. When he was on the scene, he didn’t have a certain agenda, it was just him and his camera.

“I wanted to be my own boss of something that I thought was really important,” Walker said.

Walker, like all artists, can’t control the perspective which people interpret his images from.

“If they come into that artistic moment with an open mind, with an open heart, then they can see the humanity of the moment and perhaps the tension and it [helps] to somehow put yourself on that street, put yourself on West Florissant where much of the protest earlier on took place,” Stallings said.

Stallings said it’s comforting to know that students were in solidarity with the protestors and their outrage about how the criminal justice system in Missouri, St. Louis and Ferguson responded to Brown’s death.

The University of Alabama was one campus where a group of self-organized students expressed outrage. Stallings said people would champion the cause wherever, but regardless of how long and how many UA students sat in the Ferguson Center in Dec. 2014, changes involving laws or regulatory police policies haven’t happened on a structural level, even a year and a half since Brown’s death.

It’s about placing value on the civilians that police are supposed to serve, he said, not “dehumanizing their residents.” Every time someone from another state held a protest or sit in, they were essentially saying they didn’t want to see that happen on their streets and their yards and their campuses, and they do not stand for that to happen in Ferguson’s space.

There’s only so much, Stallings said, that anyone can do for one lone town. But when Walker is able to provide this intimate and long-time local perspective of this space because the people of Ferguson let him naturally enter and share it, then people all over the world are able to view a new perspective.

“So for him, because he’s black, he’s young, he’s interested in what was going on in Ferguson, part of his hometown, so I think he was able to just be there and capture some of those moments in a way that might not lead some of his subjects of his photography to feel like he was exploiting the moment and exploiting the people,” Stallings said.

Walker will be at the Ferguson Center Art Gallery at 7 p.m. Thursday for a talkback about his book, “Lens on Ferguson.” The talkback will serve as part of a larger exhibit of photography titled “Black on Film,” sponsored by Creative Campus.