Visitors view portraits at the soft opening of the photography exhibition, “Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male” by Jerry Taliaferro at the Flint Institute of Arts on Jan. 21, 2022. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)
A photography exhibition featuring the faces and experiences of 49 African American men from Flint opened recently at the Flint Institute of Arts.
The exhibition, entitled “Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male,” is meant to challenge viewers’ “perceptions and biases” as they relate to African American men.
It does this by first showcasing the 49 men’s faces in black and white, uncaptioned images under the heading “WHO DO YOU SEE WHEN YOU LOOK AT ME?” Visitors are encouraged to consider that question—absent names, biographies, and even the bodies of the anonymous men pictured against the gallery’s black walls.
Then, in the second gallery of the exhibition, the 49 men are suddenly in full color, life-sized, named, and captioned. In this space the men define themselves under the heading “I AM…”
Here, they hold trombones, guitars, books, and cameras. They wear sharp, black velvet blazers, t-shirts, and pink choir garb. They have placards with their names, occupations, biographies, and even QR codes so visitors can watch each man tell his story in his own voice and words.
Jerry Taliaferro photographed and filmed “Sons” in 2021, after the 49 men it features were nominated and selected by the Flint community.
According to an FIA spokesperson, for one month following its last Community Gala, the FIA accepted nominations of African American men in the Flint community who:
- Have had a positive impact on individuals.
- Have helped those around them in the neighborhood; and/or
- Have created positive change or furthered important issues in the community.
After removing duplicate nominations, a committee of community members selected from 120 submissions at random until 49 men ultimately agreed to take part in Taliaferro’s work.
“It was humbling,” said author Bob Campbell, who is pictured in a tuxedo, holding his book “Motown Man.” “There are so many different men represented here—a number I know going back to my childhood.”
Campbell pointed out a photo of the pastor that officiated his wedding nearly three decades ago and listed a few other friends and colleagues now pictured on the walls of Michigan’s second largest art museum.
Campbell is the Senior Communications Manager for the Flint & Genesee Group, but he was previously a newspaper reporter, so he said the process behind “Sons” was especially interesting for him.
“Being a former journalist, I’m used to doing the interviewing, being behind the scenes,” Campbell said, grinning. “And so, it’s a little, you know, it made me a little self-conscious… but I enjoyed it.”
Taliaferro himself also noted the intimacy of producing “Sons,” which required that he meet with all 49 men in the course of about a week in September 2021.
He said he only had one or two hours with each person, and in that time, he had to ask them about deeply personal situations.
“Part of (‘Sons’) is about the African American male experience,” Taliaferro said. “So that was the question: what was that experience that reminded you that you are an African American in America?”
Taliaferro said he asked all 49 men that same question, and just like the men depicted, their answers were all different and surprising.
“Some of their answers were kind of shocking,” he said. “But there were also a couple of very uplifting answers.”
For his part, Campbell added his own hope for the exhibition.
“It’s 49 pictures, but there are many, many more men like us that are sons, fathers, husbands, involved and community engaged, serious, funny—I mean, this is just a sampling,” he said. “So, if it serves as something of an inspiration for you know, the young cats out there, that’s cool too.”
“Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male” is on exhibit at the Flint Institute of Arts until April 16, 2022. It is the second photographic exhibition of Jerry Taliaferro at the FIA. His first was a series featuring 49 African American women from Flint, entitled “Women of a New Tribe.”
Editor’s Note: February is Black History Month. Visiting this exhibit would be a good way to experience some of Flint’s own contemporary Black History by “meeting” each of these extraordinary men of Flint.