In June 2021, I received a residency from the Cleveland Print Room in memory of Stephen Bivens, a local black photographer who dedicated his life to empowering other creatives. I just graduated and was at a crossroads trying to figure out what I wanted to say with my work. In discussions with other black artists of all ages at a group show I was attending, Cross Generations by MOCHAxMORGAN, I found my next theme: generational wealth within communities for people of color. I would use different photo formats to represent the challenges of three generations and as a nod to Bivens, I would photograph on the Euclid Reserve, the same place where he captured one of his final artworks.
I don’t like to compare the problems between generations as “better” or “worse”. You are just different. Like our evolving modes of photography with which we begin our work. We have progressed in some ways, but in other respects they have brought new challenges. In 100 years there have been multiple civil rights movements, multiple pandemics, and two world wars. My great-aunt, Mrs. Trula McKeithan, saw it all. On April 16, 2022, our family was able to come together in a way we hadn’t in years—to watch her turn 100. We all shared stories and memories of the time we spent with her. This crystallized out what I wanted to show in my exhibition. Generational wealth is not always about capital – it is also about knowledge. Experience.
As the struggles to achieve and maintain intergenerational wealth spanned three generations – through multiple photo lenses – it brought into focus each generation’s perseverance against various odds and spoke to some larger truths about creativity.
Paving new roads means navigating without a map.
My Aunt Trula’s generation, the Boomers and Pre-Boomers, were born before the Civil Rights Movement, when people of color were prevented from attaining education, jobs, and dignity on the same levels as their white counterparts. Yet, against all odds, they persisted in achieving something that seemed so simple at first but actually required so much effort: a good life.
In my exhibition I have represented their experience by photographing with a large format film camera. If you’re unfamiliar, shooting large format film is fraught with complications and you can mess up the film while loading, shooting, processing, or really any stage of the process. But it is also the basis of modern photography and gives us actual access to the past.
My Aunt Trula and her peers laid a necessary foundation for their families. Aunt Trula personally built hers by helping raise her siblings as the eldest of 14, becoming a licensed nurse for 25 years and opening her home to many people in the community over the years. One of the people she hosted actually became her city’s mayor.
The tools are not as important as the dexterity of the hands that wield them.
My Aunt Trula’s children, nieces, nephews, and older grandchildren benefited from the building blocks my aunt built and her spirited presence in their lives. But Generation X also faced its own hurdles. School integration hit an all-time high but was still divisive, the war on drugs raged hardest in all communities of color, and mass incarceration increased.
I shot the portion of my exhibition of their generation with a digital camera which is easier to use but still requires some skill to figure out the lighting. The cameras are also smaller, but have three times more power than a film camera. Stronger, more efficient, but not entirely painless – the Generation X experience of maintaining generational wealth in a nutshell.
The most resonant new stories are those that borrow from the past.
Aunt Trula was 77 when I was born and due to the distance, I heard her stories mostly secondhand, from my father and his older siblings who spent summers with her growing up. I cherished all the little moments I could share with her, like trying her homemade mac ‘n cheese (the best I’ve ever had). But the most valuable thing I’ve learned from spending time with her is optimism in the face of challenging times.
The smartphone is my generation’s dominant photo-taking tool, enabling even the most inexperienced photographer to capture a shot worth framing. Autofocus, multiple lenses and filters are already integrated. We’ve come a long way, both technologically and symbolically. Smart technology is universally accessible and tertiary/post-secondary education is more egalitarian. But we still have so many problems to overcome stemming from the big issues of our past, such as widespread misunderstandings, rising living costs, and ongoing police brutality towards people of color at a time when some people think racism and its implications for racism are over .
My generation’s obstacles are different than those before us, and the solutions that used to work may not work for us. We must preserve and share the wealth of their knowledge, but also speak our own truth. Our storytelling methods may have improved, but that doesn’t mean the problem is fixed. We have yet to figure out how to change the world for the better for the next generation. The last 100 years are all around us, inside us, preparing us to one day reach a world where we can fully break our generational curses.