Ears, Eyes, Voice: Black Canadian Photojournalists 1970s-1990s
Toronto in the 1970s and 1980s evokes memories of reggae star Peter Tosh appearing at the O’Keefe Centre, Caribana as a giant block party on University Avenue, large Africa Liberation Day marches taking over downtown streets, Bathurst and Bloor as “the Caribbean area,” and growing tensions between the Black community and the police. A cadre of talented and skilled African-Canadian photographers used their cameras to document many of these places and events. Ears, Eyes, Voice: Black Canadian Photojournalists 1970s – 1990s displays the work of photojournalists Jules Elder, Eddie Grant, Diane Liverpool, Al Peabody, and Jim Russell, who began observing Black scenes through their cameras in the late 1970s. They represent a handful of African-Canadian (of Caribbean and in one case African-American origin) photojournalists hired by mainstream print media, several of whom experienced overt systemic racism in their field.
The collective archive of these photographers reveals a comprehensive visual record. Training their lens on politicians, community members, activists, and protesters, as well as entertainers and athletes, they tell a remarkable range of stories and histories about Black lives and experiences. On occasion, their photographs were published in the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and the Toronto Sun. Most of their images appeared in Spear, Contrast, and Share, all Black-owned publications that served as powerful vehicles for chronicling a blend of newsworthy stories from local and national Black perspectives, and highlighting issues of pan-geographic concern. The images featured in this exhibition assist in framing our understanding of the diversity and complexity of African diasporic communities, and underscore the importance of photographic archives to help shape their narratives.
Jules Elder’s images re ected the realities of the racialized politics of policing and the Black community in the 1980s. His depictions of protests and activism related to the police killing of Lester Donaldson—an unarmed, mentally ill Black man—were powerful visual statements aimed at garnering attention to the injustices plaguing the communities. The rallying cry of the protesters, “no justice, no peace,” is eerily familiar today.
Eddie Grant was a regular contributor to the now defunct journal, Spear: The Magazine about Truth and Soul (1971 – 1987), as well as Contrast and Share newspapers. Some examples of Grant’s photography assignments include the 1975 funeral of Michael Habbib, a teenage victim of a hate crime, as well as myriad community social events and early demonstrations for social justice.
The formidable personal photography archives of both Diane Liverpool and Al Peabody span the late 1970s to the 1990s. They contain images reflecting homogenous African-Canadian communities and a range of intimate moments both painful and celebratory. Spanning the years 1979 to 1981, Liverpool’s presence was ubiquitous as she covered both local and international artists and performers for Contrast. Liverpool was keenly aware of her status as the only Black female photojournalist and photography editor. Often gaining rare backstage access, she captured candid and familial moments of visiting musicians. Peabody’s vivid study of Caribana revellers jammed against an iron gate at Centre Island as they waited for the last ferry is replete with symbolism and meaning. The image was taken in the immediate aftermath of a violent incident involving the police.
Jim Russell began his career in Toronto in the early 1970s freelancing with the Toronto Sun newspaper. When a new photo editor was hired, he was told that he would no longer be chosen for assignments. Despite facing similar barriers, the photographers featured in this exhibition retained an unrelenting passion for their craft. Their dedication has resulted in a rich visual historical record reflecting a range of eras. Russell’s coverage of the Miss Black Ontario Pageant, for instance, showcased a moment of significance for some in the Black community that they would not find in white mainstream media.
Ears, Eyes, Voice: Black Canadian Photojournalists 1970s – 1990s takes the motto of Contrast newspaper as its inspiration. The exhibition situates Toronto’s multidimensional Black experience by underscoring the desire to bear witness, using photography as a powerful weapon.