is took this on the first day of protests in Foley Square, New York, following the murder of George Floyd. I have witnessed demonstrations before, but nothing like that. It was intense, volatile and angry. People were sick and tired – and ready to fight for their rights.
The video of his murder came at a specific time. People were already angry after Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting in Georgia. And in New York City, a viral video of a white woman calling the police about a black bird watcher had made people even angrier. But when this video appeared, something changed. Black people knew it could have happened to any of us.
This man was one of the first to be arrested that summer in New York. As soon as I took this photo, I knew it was special. It was something that just about all black people could relate to. This man was arrested for speaking out, for daring to question authority. I was arrested for the exact same thing.
It was difficult to watch things unfold and document everything without wanting to be involved. Initially, I went out with a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. But that was the last day I did this. Regardless – I was arrested, punched in the face, and harassed by officers anyway. When you are Black, the camp is always chosen for you, as soon as you leave the womb. Your skin color always comes first.
In the heat of the moment, I don’t think I realized how big these protests were going to grow. The minute I posted this on Instagram, it became my most beloved image of all time. I thought the protests might last for a few days and then die out. Instead, it was the start of a year of protest photography for me across the United States.
This photo completely changed my career. First, it changed what I was covering. I have always been known for musical photography. In some ways it was great training. Shooting performance means your eyes are always on the move – there is action all the time and you need to be aware every second. The same goes for protests. Anything can happen any minute. If I was ever approached in the street by people who recognized me, it was for my musical work. Now it’s for the protest series.
This cliché also changed the way I work. In music, I wanted the exclusive hit no matter what. I could be a bit territorial. But with something like that, of course, you still want the best shot – but now wasn’t the time to be selfish. It was so much bigger than any of us, and no photographer could have captured it all alone.
The experience has definitely taught me to be more collaborative. And it showed me how few black photographers worked in this kind of photojournalism. When I traveled to Minneapolis to cover the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd, people asked how to help, if they could donate to fund my work. I didn’t need the money, but we managed to raise enough so that four black photographers who didn’t have jobs were in town for the trial. It is important to me that our stories – black stories – are told by black people.
The protests will define this generation and, I hope, those to come. The problems have not gone away. There are still places some people think I don’t belong. But progress is being made. I just hope these people who always look down on me don’t pass this prejudice on to their children.
When the history books are written, I hope my photos will be included. I hope they are part of the long tradition of civil rights photography. I spent so much time going through the history books, looking at these images of Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and wishing I could have captured images like that. Now I have realized that I can’t go back in time and I don’t need to. I just need to be there for the next time.
American Protest: Photographs 2020-2021 by Mel D Cole is now available
Mel D Cole’s CV
Née: Syracuse, New York, 1976.
Influences : Gordon Parks, Ricky Powell.
High point: “Right now. I feel like I’m finally the photographer I always wanted to be.
Low point: “About 15 years ago, I quit my day job to photograph full time. I was not ready and I could not pay my rent.
The best advice: “Show your range. Don’t be afraid to try something new.