The Camera Ministry of Khalik Allah

Born into the Five-Percent Nation, a Harlem-based offshoot of the Nation of Islam, photographer Khalik Allah spent his childhood bouncing around Long Island, Queens and Harlem, honing his eye for the eclectic line-up of characters that would become his subjects after receiving a Hi-8 camera as a teenager. Through Allah’s lens, the golden age of ’90s East Coast hip-hop was captured first hand, as he photographed members of the Wu-Tang Clan and began his first forays into filmmaking. His documentaries, most notably 2018’s Black Mother, have since achieved critical acclaim for their rich and powerful depiction of the Black diasporic experience, from New York to Jamaica.

Allah’s series ‘The Camera Ministry,’ meanwhile, has been described as “street opera” for the epic, cinematic sweep of his images and the nobility with which he imbues his subjects, carrying all of the subversive beauty of Caravaggio paintings remade for the 21st century. But it’s the spiritual element that has always felt most powerful for Allah. On the corner of 125th and Lexington Avenue in Harlem, Allah found an endless well of inspiration in the subjects he describes as coc-reators. “Christ always surrounded himself with the poor and hte downtrodden and the people that didn’t have support from society, which is also why I call this the Camera Ministry,” Allah explains. “It isn’t about money, it’s about being a listener, and opening up to these people who are opening up to you.”

Inteview by Liam Hess

© Khalik Allah - Magnum Photos

What are your relationships with the figures that populate this series? Are they people that you knew personally, or people that you met while out photographing them?

My relationship with the people in the photographs was forged through me being a photographer and taking an interest in their lives and documenting them. I think that photography is a way of bridging the gap and opening up lines of communication that would never have otherwise been open. I’m sure that unless I had an interest in making photographs, I would never have spoken to many of the people in my photographs, but the camera gave me an excuse. It’s also inspired by my early impressions of New York City, and having grown up recognizing the condition of people in a state of poverty and to an extent suffering. Once I had a camera in my hand, I was interested in people who had unique stories, and the people in my photographs don’t often get a chance to express their own stories as they’re maybe overlooked by society. The way I look at it is that we’re co-creators, I wouldn’t be able to make them without them. There’s a mutual respect.

© Khalik Allah - Magnum Photos
© Khalik Allah - Magnum Photos

Where do you think your work sits between documentary photography and something more artistic? Do you even believe in those distinctions?

I’m always looking for intimacy in my work. In the beginning, I was trying to emulate Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson, great documentary photographers who are a little more standoffish. I was trying to emulate them for the longest time, and eventually, I knew I should break the ice and introduce myself to them, and the work became tremendously more intimate. I’m listening to them, which was helps them open up to me and I’m coming with an open mind, from a position of non judgment. In a way, it’s like psychotherapy. A lot of my subjects have problems, they have issues, and not many people stop and take an interest in their lives and the camera gives me an excuse to do that. It’s helped me as a human being too—it’s helped me to look inward and focus on where I need to heal, as well.

© Khalik Allah - Magnum Photos

Have you taken any visits to the area of Harlem where these were shot over the past year? How have these communities been affected by lockdown and the pandemic?

It’s been a very difficult year for a lot of people, but especially for people that don’t have homes when you have certain mandates that tell you to stay at home. During COVID, life has pretty much remained the same for the homeless community—although there have been certain people that I used to photograph who I don’t see anymore. But that’s always been the case, it’s always been a revolving door. I think that it’s definitely affected them in that the morale is low. People are usually a lot more willing to be photographed, whereas this summer was rough, everybody was apprehensive, they had their guard up. Even for me, taking photographs felt unimportant, but I wanted to make sure I documented it, so I just tried to push through it.

© Khalik Allah - Magnum Photos
© Khalik Allah - Magnum Photos

I know you’ve spoken before about how your spirituality informs your photography – how did that dictate the way in which you shot this series more specifically, and how you chose to present your subjects?

It’s very important to me to show them from a dignified standpoint, because I’m really trying to focus on the inner life of the person, regardless of the external circumstances, and how they may have damaged the person through societal pressures or jail or drug use. I’m really trying to go beyond the physical to discover something more spiritual. It’s about love and showing people in a dignified light, regardless to the circumstance that they find themselves in. Historically speaking, Black people’s contribution to the world to science, to mathematics, to spirituality, we’ve been lied to about. The libraries in Africa that were burnt down, or the esoteric knowledge that was hidden from the public. There’s been a lot thrown against them, to prevent them from rising into their true potential, because the first thing you learn as a Black kid in America is that you come from a history of slavery, and that lowers your self esteem as a child. We’re not taught any of our history, we’re just taught that we began as slaves and automatically we feel less than, you know what I’m saying? So it’s an ongoing process to educate people. All I want to do is show that the people in my photographs are royalty, despite their external condition.

© Khalik Allah - Magnum Photos
© Khalik Allah - Magnum Photos
© Khalik Allah - Magnum Photos

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