Frustrated by the recent deaths of black men at the hands of the police, Washington, D.C.-based photographer Bryon Summers felt the need to do something to change the image of black men. Admittedly, he’s not a marching kind of guy, but he absolutely believes in the power of protest and making himself “heard.” His personal protest? Picking up his camera and hitting the streets of Washington, D.C.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Philadelphia with the goal of photographing 1,000 black men.
“I wanted to flood the internet with positive images of black men to counteract the negative imagery that we’ve seen for years,” Summers said during a phone interview with The Root.
Although it began as a digital project (you can check out the portraits here), Summers’ “We Love You” project recently expanded into a physical art installation on the wall of Union Market, a popular destination in Northeast D.C. Passersby are greeted with the faces of about 30 portraits of black men dressed in black T-shirts. The collection of faces creates a striking display of unity and representation in a quickly gentrifying area.
“I want viewers to take away that black men are people in our communities,” says Summers, who has photographed 425 black men so far. “First and foremost, we are human beings and should be treated as such. I want people to get familiar with our faces, to know that we are not a threat.”
The Root: How did you come up with the idea for the “We Love You” project?
Bryon Summers: There’s a lot that came together to form this idea. It was around the time when the news was reporting the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. That was around the same time the last cop in the Freddie Gray case had gotten off. The climate in the country is crazy, and I had a lot of built-up frustration. As a photographer, I wanted to use my skills to change the narrative about black men.
TR: What do you hope to accomplish with this project?
BS: I want to flood the internet with positive images of black men to counteract the negative imagery that we’ve seen for years.
I see all of these black men—and black women—being misrepresented in the news. Whether it’s malicious for these channels to push out negative images, I don’t know. But if you see that negative imagery over years, it has an effect on you. It can brainwash you so that when you’re walking down the street in a hoodie, they cross the street or, worse, they follow you because they think you’re a threat. Or they call the police because they think you’re a suspicious person.
TR: What are the criteria for men to participate?
BS: We put out the invitation on social media that’s the same for every city. We ask for black males of all ages, and we strongly suggest you bring a black T-shirt. That’s all you need.
TR: What has the reaction been to the series so far?
BS: Overall, people are grateful for the project. The people that have come out, almost all of them have said “Thank you” or “This is very necessary.” A lot of people don’t feel comfortable going to march, putting themselves in harm’s way. Or they’re scared to get teargassed. They may feel more comfortable coming to a designated location and taking a portrait. This is a way that people can digitally march. You might take a picture by yourself, but when you put it together with other men, you can get to that point where it’s a “Million Man Digital March.”
TR: What’s been the best response so far?
BS: My dad is about to be 61 and he’s on the wall. He doesn’t use social media. But his friends called to say, “Hey, your photo is down here on the wall on Sixth Street!” That’s a proud moment for him. Some kids from a nearby school walked over with their teacher. They pass the wall every day, and now they see familiar faces from their neighborhood. It’s a reassuring feeling for them.
TR: I shared a picture of the wall on social media when I passed it yesterday. My following is mostly women. The first reaction was, “That’s so dope!” and then they wanted to know, “Will he do one for women, too?”
BS: Yes. The goal is to shoot 1,000 women once I get 1,000 black men. Black women have been very supportive. They bring the men out to the shoots. Before I take the portraits, I shake the guy’s hand and ask what brought him out. He always laughs and says, “My mother(/wife/girlfriend/sister) told me to do this!” I hope it’s the same way when I focus on the women. I hope that dads and husbands and brothers and boyfriends and sons bring them out, too.
The “We Love You” project is hosting an open call for black boys and men of all ages on Saturday, Oct. 15, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., at Union Market, Sixth Street entrance, in Washington, D.C. For more information visit the We Love You project.
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. She is also a blogger at SeeSomeWorld.com, where she covers pop culture and travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.