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Morning Shift

MacArthur ‘Genius’ Dawoud Bey Calls The Award An ‘Affirmation’

Photographer Dawoud Bey was recently awarded one of 24 “genius” grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation — $625,000 paid out over five years with no strings attached.

Known for his portrait work, Bey has used his camera to capture images of humanity for more than 40 years.

Over that time, Bey had solo exhibitions at some of the world’s great museums and galleries. His work has become part of the permanent collections at The Art Institute, The Guggenheim and The Whitney. 

Bey spoke with Morning Shift host Jenn White about his approach to photography and the meaning of the MacArthur Foundation award. Below are highlights from their conversation and samples of Bey’s work. 

Dawoud Bey, ‘Charita,’ Color Street Portraits, Courtesy of Dawoud Bey

On why he spends time with people before taking their portrait 

Dawoud Bey: It’s important because in most of the situations in which I find myself working — and making the work that I want to make — I’m an outsider. I don’t live there. I’m not from that community. Part of that process might even be more about them getting to know me. Getting comfortable with my presence there, so that at the moment the work does take place, there’s that important element of trust. So a lot of the time is me just being present in these places.

Dawoud Bey, The Birmingham Project, Courtesy of Dawoud Bey

On his series in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963

Jenn White: So you end up taking photos of young people at the same age as the young girls who were killed in the church, and two young men who were killed in the subsequent violence, and also of adults at the ages they would’ve been had they lived — and you pair these images together. Why was that an important pairing?

Bey: Well, I was trying to figure out how does one visualize the past? How does one make work about something that has already happened? How does one make the past resonate in the contemporary moment? 

Dawoud Bey, The Birmingham Project, Courtesy of Dawoud Bey

Bey: Also, when people talk about the four little girls, it becomes an abstraction. So what I wanted to do was give those four African-American girls — the youngest was 11 and three were 14 — I wanted to give them a tangible physical presence. 

Dawoud Bey, ‘A Man with a Ukelele,’ Harlem USA, Courtesy of Dawoud Bey

On his Macarthur “genius grant”

Bey: It’s an affirmation, certainly. I think it’s an affirmation and validation of all of the work I’ve been doing over the past 42 years. It also implies, of course, work yet to come. A belief that the work that I have yet to do will have some significance to some larger sets of conversations, both conversations about photography and within art practice and, equally as importantly, the larger social conversation. 

Dawoud Bey, 'A Boy in Front of the Loews 125th St. Movie Theatre, Harlem, NY,' Harlem USA, Courtesy of Dawoud Bey

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation, which was adapted for the web by producer Justin Bull.

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