In the history of Black people in the US, there are iconic moments that may come to mind, such as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Rosa Park’s brave act on the bus in refusing to give up her seat, and the historic election of Barack Obama as the first Black president of the US in 2009. However, have you ever thought about the photographers who captured these monumental moments and individuals?

Photography has played an important role in documenting Black history by providing a visual record of significant historical events, cultural moments, and everyday life within the Black community. Through the camera’s lens, photographers have captured moments of triumph, struggle, resilience, and joy, thus creating a powerful and authentic representation of Black people’s experiences offering an alternative to typical representations in mainstream media, then and now. 

From the Harlem Renaissance movement in the 1920s and 1930s to the vibrant ballroom culture of the 1980s and 1990s to capturing social justice movements such as the Black Lives Matter protests, photography has been instrumental in preserving the legacy of Black icons such as Madam C.J. Walker, Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, and Nina Simone, allowing us to learn about their remarkable contributions outside of textbooks. 

However, for many Black photographers who have dedicated years or even decades to documenting Black history and community life, their work holds greater significance due to a history of institutional racism and neglect from larger, mostly white archival institutions like museums and libraries.

By exploring the photographers behind these images, we gain insight into the individuals who shaped and preserved these pivotal moments in Black history, shedding light on their contributions and recognizing their significance.

Here’s a snapshot of seven photographers who have captured historical, social, and pop culture moments in Black history.

1. James Van Der Zee: Captured the Harlem Renaissance

The term "Renaissance" has spanned centuries and taken on different meanings in various contexts. From a historical era to a groundbreaking album, it continues to symbolize cultural rebirth and revitalization. 

The Harlem Renaissance was a vibrant period of social, artistic, and cultural expression among African Americans in the 1920s and 1930s, which holds a significant place in Black history. 
Capturing the essence of this iconic era was none other than renowned photographer James Van Der Zee, whose stunning photographs offered a unique glimpse into the lives of African Americans in New York City during this transformative time, according to an article from The Game Magazine

Through his lens, Van Der Zee portrayed both everyday individuals, special occasions, and notable personalities including activist Marcus Garvey, dancer Bill “Bojangles' Robinson, and poet Countee Cullen.

2. Stephen Shames: the Black Panther Party’s Unofficial Photographer  

Many of us have heard these three words: Black Panther Party. Some know the party's history as a movement for the social, political, economic, and spiritual upliftment of Black and indigenous people of color. Others know the movement from its key members such as Bobby Seale and Angela Davis. But few know about the individuals who captured this historical movement in Black history.

One such individual was photojournalist Stephen Shames, who played a crucial role in documenting the Black Panther Party. In 1967, at the age of 20, Shames met the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale at a college protest opposing the ​​Vietnam war.

The two became close friends, as Seale was impressed by the intimacy of Shames' portraits and invited him to capture the everyday inner workings of the party. Through their friendship, Shames became the "unofficial official" photographer of the party.

Angela Davis a former Black Panther Party member speaks at a Free Huey rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, California, USA, on Wednesday Nov. 12, 1969, standing next to Angela is James Burford. |
Image: Stephen Shames/ Polaris

Over nearly a decade in the 1960s and 1970s, Shames captured the critical community work and activism of the Black Panther Party. He also documented behind-the-scenes moments, daily activities, empowering speeches, and emotional highs and lows of activist work as well as candid photos of the men and women who made up the movement.

Children of Panthers attend school at the Children’s Institute (this was later named the Oakland Community School in 1976) at the Panther’s house for their children, in 1971 , Oakland, California, USA. Following numerous police shoot-outs at Panther offices and houses, the Panthers decided their children should live in a separate house, away from the adults, to insure their safety. 1st row l-r: Fred, Malik Seale (Bobby’s son), Randy William’s daughter, David Hilliard’s son. 2nd row: 1st kid is Nadine Hilliard (David’s daughter), 3rd kid is Debra Williams (Randy William’s oldest daughter). 3rd row left: is Darnell White (son of Ellis White). Right (4th kid, is June Hilliard’s son).
Image: Children of Black Panthers Party Stephen Shames

Unlike some of the other photographers of the time such as Ruth-Marion Baruch or Pirkle Jones, who also documented the Black Panther Party, Shames' photographs provide a unique perspective by offering a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the party. His images shed light on the human side of the movement and highlight the positive impact the party had in organizing community outreach programs, a side of the movement that was not widely depicted in the media at the time. 

3. Kwame Brathwaite: Showcased the ‘Black Is Beautiful’ Movement 

The event that sparked the Black is Beautiful movement was the fashion show “Naturally ’62,” held at Harlem’s Purple Manor nightclub on Jan. 28, 1962. It was organized by the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), a group of artists and activists who had formed in 1956, which included photographer Kwame Brathwaite, and his brother Elombe Brath, a graphic artist. The event featured Black women models wearing their natural hair. 

Brathwaite’s photography was instrumental in the movement which spanned from the late 1950s to the early 1960s and advocated for the celebration of African features and heritage at a time when mainstream beauty standards were overwhelmingly Eurocentric.

Brathwaite’s images, which are rich with Afrocentric pride and cultural symbolism, helped to foster a sense of identity and unity among African Americans. Brathwaite’s work also contributed to the redefinition of beauty standards, which made him a critical figure in the history of Black self-representation and empowerment, according to the Game

Over the course of his prolific 60-year-career, Brathwaite was able to document the intersection of music, fashion, activism, and art on a global scale and was known to photograph jazz giants, elite athletes, models, and musicians including the Jackson 5, Whitney Houston, Steve Wonder, Muhammad Ali, Bob Marley, and many more. 

Despite his accomplishments, it wasn’t until the final decade of Brathwaite’s life that he received recognition from the institutional art world, according to Art Net.

4. Chantal Regnault: Captured the Underground Black and Brown LGBTQIA+ Ballroom and Voguing Scene 

Have you ever wondered about the people who helped capture the vibrant and empowering moments of Ballroom culture? The phrase "10s, 10s, 10s across the boards" and the mesmerizing images of voguing may come to mind — but who is responsible for preserving this significant movement?

One person we must thank is photographer Chantal Regnault, who has been instrumental in capturing Voguing and the Ballroom scene of New York and bringing it to the forefront of popular culture.

Between 1989 and 1992 in New York, French-Haitian photographer Chantal Regnault captured the  growing Ballroom culture. With a camera in her hand, Regnault attended several Ballroom events across the city with a line of eager dancers wanting their picture taken. Along with capturing runway presentations to voguing battles, Regnault also captured icon Willi Ninja who is known as the pioneering godfather of Voguing

Beginning in the late twentieth century, members of the underground LGBTQ+ community in large cities began to organize masquerade balls known as "drags" in defiance of laws which banned individuals from wearing clothes associated with the opposite gender and at which competitions and pageants were held, according to Van Vogue Jam.

Although some drag balls at the time were integrated, the judges were predominately white, and Black participants were often excluded from prizes or judged unfairly, held against white aesthetic standards. As a result of the racism they experienced in established drag pageant circuits, Black and Latino drag queens began to organize their own balls and competitions. The Ballroom scene became a safe haven for marginalized individuals to express themselves authentically and celebrate their identities freely.

The legacy and impact of this movement and sub-culture continues to be celebrated through music, fashion, TV shows, and pop culture, with artists such as Beyoncé paying homage to the movement through her iconic Renaissance album.

5. Lawrence Jackson: the Photographer who Snapshot the US’s First Black President 

On Jan. 20, 2009, Barack Obama made history as the 44th President of the United States and the first Black person to hold the highest office in the country. During his presidency, photojournalist Lawrence Jackson, the only African American photographer on the White House photography team at the time, captured iconic images of the former president, his family, significant events, and notable figures who visited him.

Notably, Jackson's work included the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches, where he photographed President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Rep. John Lewis led a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. His portfolio also features a candid image of the former First Lady Michelle Obama participating in a “Let’s Move!” Dubsmash video taping with NBA player Steph Curry and his wife, Ayesha Curry.

President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia wait with former President George W. Bush, former First Lady Laura Bush prior to the walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches, in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015.
Image: | Official White House Photo by photographer Lawrence Jackson.|

In 2019, Jackson released a book titled Yes We Did, which features a selection of compelling images from his eight years at the White House, providing a behind-the-scenes look at the president and the First Family, as well as documenting what it felt like to be a Black man photographing the first Black US president. Jackson's photography offers a unique perspective on historical moments and the personal interactions of those in power.

On Jan. 15, 2021, Jackson returned to the White House as the official photographer for Vice President Kamala Harris, capturing another historic moment in Black history. Vice President Harris is the first Black and Asian American woman to serve in this role and Jackson's continued presence at the White House demonstrates his ongoing contribution to documenting significant events in Black history.

6. Dee Dwyer: Shot the Black Lives Matter Movement 

During the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 — a movement which dates back to 2015 — protesters from the US and globally came together in solidarity against police brutality and for reform to the US justice system. The 2020 protests were sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade at the hands of the police. Black photographers joined the protest efforts in the best way they knew how: art.

One of these photographers was award-winning documentary photographer, curator, and director, Dee Dwyer, who felt it her duty to tell the story from the perspective of the Black community.

Dwyer’s black and white imagery captures the emotional intensity and underlying tension of the Black Lives Matter protesters at the time. Whether it’s the striking image of the Confederate general Albert Pike’s statue being toppled and set ablaze on Juneteenth or the encounters between protesters and police officers or simply capturing bystanders and moments that are missed in the midst of the crowd’s momentum, Dwyer has always aimed to put humanity first

During an interview with the Financial Times, Dwyer discussed her role in documenting the Black Lives Matter protests: “​​Though it is hard to be in the midst of the movement, it is needed. I am here to visually show the world that we are fighting for our freedom, our reparations and all injustices placed upon us because of the colour of our skin. As Malcolm X stated: ‘Concerning non-violence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks.’ Black people are standing up and fighting back because we are tired of constantly being bullied.”

7. Flo Ngala: First Black Woman Photographer to Work the Met Gala 

For one night only Hollywood stars, fashion designers, and lovers of fashion come together for the annual Met Gala. You’ve probably tuned into at least one of the Met Gala events or seen online commentary debating who was best dressed at the event, but have you ever taken a moment to think about who are the people behind the scenes taking these iconic red carpet photos of the night?

The Harlem-based photographer with Cameroonian and Nigerian roots, Flo Ngala, whose impressive portfolio includes work with artists Cardi B, Gucci Mane, and Burna Boy , landed her first New York Times cover in 2019

In 2022, she made history as the first Black woman hired by Vogue to shoot the Met Gala.  On the night of the Met Gala, Ngala took a candid photo of Megan Thee Stallion taking a selfie with singer Normani at the event. Ngala also took some stunning photos of other black celebrities at the event including legendary singer Lenny Kravitz, singer and actor Teyana Taylor, Lori Harvey, singer Janelle Monáe and model Willow Harlow, to name a few.

In 2023, Ngala returned to the Met Gala as one of Vogue’s main photographers at the star-stunned event. 


Demand Equity

Black History: 7 Photographers Who Captured Iconic Moments

By Fadeke Banjo