When I was about six or seven my father died. This was either the worst or best thing that ever happened to me. In fact, now that I think about it, it was both. That experience was both my blessing and my curse. I don’t remember much before the death of my father. For me it feels like that’s when life as I know it really began. It’s not like I was saddened by the event. I hardly knew my father. His memory only survives in my head because of three scenarios: the way his coarse mustache pricked my cheek when he kissed me, the short collect calls he made from the correctional facility, and the photos that my mother keeps under her bed. After his death my mother became incredibly detached. She became a mere exoskeleton of her former self. With a dead father and a deeply depressed mother who basically stopped living, I had no choice but to take care of myself. I became as self-reliant as possible. There was no more time for childhood. I was all about business. Thanks to the death of my father I learned to value independence, hard work, and maturity. This is my blessing. Thanks to the death of my father I grew up much too fast and never learned how to ask anyone for help. I carry my own burdens…alone. This is my curse.
Photo: Dawoud Bey, Kevin, 2005. From the book Class Pictures (Aperture, 2007). Image courtesy Aperture Foundation.
The strategy of Dawoud Bey’s Class Pictures project is a simple one: Slow down. Be still. Listen.
Each large-format portrait presents us with a single person, aged somewhere in their teens, in the school environment they know well. Each is accompanied by what the subject chose to write about themselves. The photographs are remarkable for their calm dignity; all the more surprising as we find out more about the lives the kids live, and the schools that have brought them together. To look at the photographs is to remember how important it was for us as teenagers to simply have someone hear us out.
See photographs with captions at Milwaukee Art Museum
Read Bey’s statement on the project and see more photographs at DawoudBey.net