We’ve all heard the sad and often horrifying stories of the injustices against black and brown citizens of America– police officers killing unarmed black men and assaulting young black women– a court system that convicts thousands of black men a year for the same petty crimes that are often dismissed when it is our white counterparts. Media and art have explored this tragic narrative from only two points of views– until recently. Daniel Edwards, an Atlanta Based visual artist started a photo series titled, Black Outlined Blue. The series highlights the stories of black police officers who must navigate both worlds. The officers are faced with the challenge to maintain trust with the black community and remain honorable to the force. The Zeal Life spoke to Daniel on this groundbreaking body of work:
Tell me a little about yourself and your background.
My name is Daniel Davis Edwards. I’m a Denver native but have spent my adult life in Atlanta. I came to Atlanta in 2007 for undergrad at Morehouse College. I graduated with a B.A. in Sociology and currently I’m pursuing an M.F.A. in Photography at SCAD.
When did your love for photography begin How did it flourish into what it is today?
I’ve wanted to be a photographer since I was twelve. For my thirteenth birthday, my mom bought me my first camera. It was an automatic camera that took 35mm film. I credit Gordon Parks for my love of photography and Ed Bradley for my love of story. I initially wanted to be an investigative journalist. That wasn’t possible right away when I started college and I ended up finding Sociology instead. In my last two years at Morehouse, I took a couple journalism courses and a documentary course. I decided to pick up a camera again and fell back in love with it. By Any Other Name, my first documentary was a group project screened at Midtown Arts Cinema. When I saw our work on the screen, I knew making visual arts was what I wanted to do with my life.
After graduating I spent a handful of years in the workforce and as a novice entrepreneur. Exposure to the environment at SCAD and working on a purely creative body of work inspired me to go back to school. A year later, I have learned more about photography and have created more work than ever. That work includes The Remember Me Project, a project that invites participants to set an intention for their life by finishing the statement “Remember me as…” to accompany their portrait; and Planted, a project in memory of my late brother Richard Bowen that highlights fictive kin and bereavement photography.
Do you have any other interests in the arts?
I grew up in choir so I love to sing and explore new music. Candy Chang made me fall in love with art walls and I built one dedicated to my grandma that lives at 17th and Bishop St in Atlanta.
When did you begin Black Outlined Blue?
I began Black Outlined Blue in January 2017.
What events sparked this project for you? Why do you believe its important?
I saw footage of Philando Castle’s murder and lost it. I had a series of moments where I got angry, questioned the state of policing and specifically wondered how a black person in America could be a police officer. Both of my parents have a history in law enforcement so I know what good policing looks like. I realized as a result of the shootings and my own personal experiences, I hated cops. B.O.B. came out of a desire to quell the hate and keep the love I have for my parents. It was my way of answering why a black person would be a cop in America.
What are your hopes/ expectations for this project?
Black Outlined Blue is visual art as therapy and Sociological research. I hope to grow from this project and (productively) add to the conversation about race in America. The [series] reflects W.E.B. DuBois’ theory Double Consciousness. A social navigation that requires you to be less than your full self in order to be safe or comfortable in the world. As a Black person, the regularity of this fragmentation has made it second nature. Thankfully as a whole we are becoming more comfortable in living our whole truth–all the time. Some Black officers have to further fragment themselves because of the responses their uniforms illicit. That compounded with how they’ll potentially be reacted to as Black citizens out of uniform is a dynamic I wanted to investigate. Each of the officers added handwritten responses to questions about their experiences as officers and civilians. With all the work I do, I want people to have “Ah Ha” Moments. To learn something new about themselves and the world. I want people to face their hate, fears, discomfort. I want people to lean into those things, get above them and be better.
How has Black Outlined Blue been received (feedback, both positive and negative)?
The reception of the work that I have directly received has been largely positive. However, in conversing with the owner of Sacred Thread Yoga, the exhibition location, there was one practitioner that hated cops so much that she refused to come back to the studio until the work came down. That’s been the most divisive reaction to the work so far. The best have been the moments of silence when people are thinking. To Have a project that makes people stop and be in the moment is the best compliment I have received.
Would you consider speaking with white officers? Why or why not?
No. This isn’t about them. Plus my parents who are the base of the project aren’t white. Also, this project isn’t for any Black officers that aren’t doing it for the community either.
What are your plans for the future of the project?(how long do you plan on working on it, is it complete? Do you plan to take it to different cities?)
My goal is to have the work in the Center for Civil and Human Rights. I’m also working on a joint show. This work is not finished and I plan on adding officers from other cities (and my parents) to the project.
Can you name important conclusions you’ve pulled/learned from your interactions with officers?
1) They react to shootings of unarmed civilians in the same ways that the general public does.
2) Helping people is their calling. Policing is just their chosen profession. They all would find a way to be of service even if they weren’t in law enforcement.
What was your opinion thoughts on black police officers before going into the project? What changed after documenting the officers?
I hated the police before this project. I was angry and confused. I felt like there were gaps in my perspective and the perspective of others. After the project, I’m better able to separate the person from the uniform and the system. I’m still a work in progress because admittedly, I’m still very much triggered by white officers. It’s really difficult for me to separate the connection of the overseer and slave catchers from modern-day policing when it comes to white officers. With that said, I’ve seen a marked difference in my reaction to seeing and interacting with all officers.
What was the biggest challenge for you in completing the project?
The biggest challenge was getting everything together for the exhibition. I was doing a lot of things for the first time and with a limited amount of time to execute them. It all had to be perfect. Or as close to perfect as possible and that’s a lot of pressure. I didn’t sleep for a while lol. It was worth it though.
What do you believe it will take for black citizens and officers to trust law enforcement?
On a macro level, it is going to take police forces that represent the communities they are policing. Officers need to actually be from the communities they’re servicing. On a micro level, it takes more art like mine. Art that pushes people to face their discomforts. On an individual level, it’ll take actually knowing an officer and then another and then another. We’ve become victims of what Chimamanda Adiche calls The Danger of the Single Story. When we only know a limited amount of each other it’s easy to be judgemental. In the case of Black people/POC and officers, it’s proven to be a life-threatening disconnect.
Any particular officer’s story stand out to you the most, if so why?
That’s a hard one. Each of the officers reminded me of my parents in some way. The location of the officers’ portraits is significant for them in their careers. The stories of Officer King, Murphy and Sauls stand out. Each of them had a tragedy occur that defined policing for them. Their stories in particular resonated with me because I know how much an influencing force loss or the fear of loss can be to pushing your life purpose.
What is your purpose as an artist?
My purpose as an artist is to be an archivist. To hold space for stories, for experiences that cause people to think critically about their world. To know better, so we can do better.
Daniel D. Edwards is an artist that uses photography to address sensitive social and personal topics. His goal is to spark constructive conversation. He uses narrative portraiture primarily and also utilizes alternative processes and still life. Having his hands in the creation of the work is important to him and without a story, his work doesn’t have a purpose.
His work is a culmination of multiple interests with the goal of creating a solid foundation for his non-profit BlackVign. As a multimedia non-profit, BlackVign is focused on collecting and telling the stories that represent life as it is truly lived. BlackVign connects its audience to lives that are otherwise lived in secret, showing that all life is beautiful. BlackVign will be a platform for other artists to create and showcase their work. One of the main criteria is that the work has to be socially-engaged. That is, it has to get the viewer to think critically about the topic at hand.
In addition to having a platform to support other artists, he plans to teach photography as well. He would like to be the guide he didn’t have for an aspiring photographer.