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
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.
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.