The photographic project BlackFlorida by Trinidadian photographer Johanne Rahaman is a mammoth undertaking capturing images of black residents in Florida. It is a project that she admits will take “twenty years” to complete. The aim is simple: to reclaim a positive image of Florida’s African diaspora.At a basic level, it is a premise conceived because of stereotypes perpetuated (in part) by the media. One, can argue of course that the media merely supplies a demand for that particular brand of ‘blacks’ and the ‘black story’. It’s a type of sensationalism which is infinitely more interesting.
From stories of murder, deprivation, drugs, injustice (and more) the negative aspects (certainly in Western culture) appear to shape a black image steeped in colonial motifs. Stories of positivity subsequently seem to play second fiddle. They become the anomaly and by implication not the norm.
“I do not see the negativity” she genuinely states with her rather engaging Trinidadian accent, “My intention is clear. There is negativity everywhere in the world, and there is enough of that in the media. It is not that I am avoiding negativity it’s just that I don’t focus on it”. Her ability to see the negativity as a white noise has a foundation in her own childhood.
Growing up in a deprived area of Trinidad she was caught by an antagonistic dichotomy. The outward negative image of her town and her own reality of her town where that essence of “community spirit” was alive.
“I grew up in a place called the Laventille Hills in Trinidad.” She responds softly when we talk to her about the circumstances which led to her living in Florida, “it is a marginalised community and it is considered one of the most dangerous places in Trinidad. People from there are shunned. But my own personal experiences, are quite the opposite. My memories of living there are idyllic. I knew my neighbours and people took care of each other. There was a Chinese shop around the corner and when we were having difficulties, we could go to the shop and get rice or flour on credit.”
But it was a need to escape Trinidad which fuelled a search and a wish for freedom in America. As the adage goes the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence and ironically her bid for freedom from Trinidad only saw a different imprisonment (as it were) as an illegal immigrant in America. Far from freedom she found she was equally caged. From adversity however one can find purpose and through that, Johanne Rahaman found a photographic direction.
“I came to Miami when I was about 26 or 27. I came with two suitcases-one with clothing and one with books. I had no intention of returning. I came here because I felt trapped in Trinidad. I could not grow any further and I knew I wanted to be somewhere else apart from there. But when I came, I had to live off the grid as an illegal immigrant. I realised that this same ‘negative’ narrative was being pushed in similar places in America about black people. So, when I became a photographer and I started to think about my own experiences growing up in a marginalised community- I wanted to tell another story. The parallels, I saw between where I grew up and what was happening in America were too apparent to ignore.”
She adds with a palpable passion.
“To suspend judgment is to forget what main stream media tells you about a community or a people. I want them to experience my people through the eyes of a person who is not driven or influenced by the negativity. I want people to relinquish these pre-conceived ideas of black communities and let the people in these communities tell their story. There are generations in the same house or in the same community. The families are deeply rooted in the communities they were born into and that is overlooked because it is not news worthy. Normality in black communities is not focused on.”
Johanne Rahaman’s photographic work is a tour de force of endeavour and determination. Juggling a day time job with the project she has traversed Florida talking and visually documenting the city and rural life of those people and communities.
“I have not scratched a quarter of Florida yet. I have been taking images of Florida for six years now. If I continue at this pace, I will be doing this for the next twenty years. If I were able to do it full-time then maybe ten years instead. I have a full-time job and so I shoot on the weekends and edit at night.”
Through her visual “social activism” she encapsulates poignant images of black people surviving amid gentrification and social displacement.
“There are places like Notting Hill in the UK which are a prime example of this state of flux that black people are in. I had two aunts who lived there [Notting Hill] (one died) but my other aunt moved away because it changed drastically. I think that change or should we say gentrification, happens more rapidly in the US. It is aggressively occurring in predominantly and historically black communities. I go back and a family who lived in a house for years have moved because they can’t stay due to increased rents or high taxes. It’s destabilizing communities. They are being forced out by land taxes because of community redevelopment, high-priced condos and art galleries- they get priced out of places that they’ve always called home – places that their new neighbours have shunned a few years prior.”
Allowed to enter the lives of those she documents, Johanne Rahaman captures normality with sensitivity. In that sensitivity she also captures the indomitable spirit of those black people who collectively and individually survive. But their survival in historically black neighbourhoods as Johanne Rahaman states may only have so long.
“They [black communities] are always able to keep that sense of community. We are still holding strong as best we can, but it is not easy when people are being dispersed. There is only a very small section in West Grove left from the historically black community originally called Coconut Grove. A few black families remain. Overtown which was the Harlem of the South is also almost completely gone. It is on the highest ground in Miami and so it is being annexed by neighbouring high-rise communities.”
The project has loftier aims of re-writing to a degree the history of the inner cities and rural black communities in Florida but also being an archive that immortalises these communities and shows a different history. It adds a real creditability to her work. It is a socially active defiance of the media’s past, present and future of these rural black towns, but it is also a powerful project that attempts in some way to override a tried and tested tactic of writing a history of black people which can reinforce old stereotypes.
While there is a positivity in that aim, for us here at itchysilk we also cannot ignore the fact that these communities are endangered by the inexorable machine of gentrification fuelled by capitalism. Her beautiful work however holds firm (for now) against that machine. And while it holds firm, it also builds a new visualisation of black communities which seeks to be “true” archive told by black people about black communities devoid of the perpetuation of negativity.