February 20, 2019

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From Harlem to Johannesburg, Photographing the Famous and the Unknown with Dignity and Respect

From Harlem to Johannesburg, Photographing the Famous and the Unknown with Dignity and Respect
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The images Ozier Muhammad saw in Life magazine while growing up in Chicago during the 1960s inspired him to become a photographer.

They were of his family and their friends.

Mr. Muhammad is the grandson of Elijah Muhammad, a founder of the Nation of Islam, the controversial religious group that was often in the news then because of its two highest-profile adherents, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.

“I grew up in a community that was either revered or reviled,” said Mr. Muhammad, 68. “I saw a lot of pictures published at the time of the Nation because of Malcolm. There was so much coverage because of Malcolm in the early to mid-60s, and Gordon Parks came into our community and documented it. He documented my grandfather Elijah and his inner circle, who were some tough characters. These were people I knew intimately and Gordon Parks had photographed them. They were really incredible pictures. I wanted to understand and learn more.”

And so, the jazz-loving teenager forgot about his dreams of playing trumpet like Miles Davis and embraced photography. His career took him from working for Jet and Ebony magazines to newspapers, including Newsday, where he shared the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting on the African drought and, finally, The New York Times, where he covered Nelson Mandela’s electoral victory in 1994 and the Haitian earthquake in 2010 before retiring a few years ago.

A career retrospective, “A Life in the World: Bearing Witness With a Camera from the South Side of Chicago to South Africa,” is currently on display at New York’s Interchurch Center Galleries through Feb. 22. His images span continents, feature the famous and the unknown, and capture moments of joy or drama. What unites them is a strong commitment to portraying his subjects with the dignity and respect that often eludes them in the glare of news cameras.

“My antenna was always up to try to portray them in a way that shows the respect they had earned in the community,” he said. “As a kid being in the Nation of Islam, there wasn’t a whole lot of frivolity. I learned to appreciate it as I got older that the community deserved the reverence, to whatever extent it received it from the public. I felt as though it was reacting to societal conditions, racial issues that were going on at the time, segregation and overt racism.”

His foray into professional photojournalism dates to his undergraduate years, when he went to take pictures at a Motown concert and met an art director for the Johnson Publishing Company, which dominated the African-American market. He was encouraged to freelance for the company’s various titles and was eventually hired on staff, spending five years going everywhere from Hollywood to Africa, photographing celebrities, artists, politicians and newsmakers.

His first trip to Africa came in 1974, when he went to Tanzania to cover the 6th Pan-African Congress, a gathering of intellectuals from the African diaspora that had been started by W.E.B. Du Bois at the turn of the century. Meeting the likes of C.L.R. James, the influential Trinidadian anticolonial writer and historian, reaffirmed his approach to the medium.

“I wanted to be a witness to people who were trying to improve the conditions of African people throughout the world,” he said. “To be in Tanzania on my first trip to Africa at a time when Tanzania was considered the ideal in Africa because of the leadership of Julius Nyerere. He was Mandela before Mandela became the leader of South Africa. He was a man of the people.”

His concern for how people of color have been represented in the news shaped his approach to covering disasters, too. During his 1984 reporting trip to Mali, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, he explored the devastating impact of the drought and subsequent famine. Later, while covering Haiti’s earthquake in 2010, he was unsettled by scenes of death and destruction. He approached it carefully, figuring out how to show something horrific had happened, but avoiding broken and bloodied corpses.

“There seems to be some racial imbalance when it comes to covering people of color in that situation as opposed to covering folks who were killed in Paris,” he said. “You just don’t see something comparable in white enclaves.”

On the other end of the emotional spectrum, he considers his coverage of South Africa’s first free elections in 1994 an indelible experience.

“I felt like I was a part of it,” he said. “These are my brothers and sisters, too, and we were one large family. That might not be a good thing for a journalist to feel, but we share things in common besides skin color. We are people who have been oppressed and subjected to the worst horrors human beings can be subjected to. This was a moment of redemption.”

Since leaving the paper, he has devoted himself to his other passions: music and Harlem, where he has lived for decades. Given the radical changes in his neighborhood’s demographics — not to mention housing and local economy — he is taking stock of where it is headed.

“My pictures look like architectural relics,” he said. “I’m glad I was able to spend that much time in Harlem because it is a community that lost its distinct African-American cultural signature. It hasn’t quite settled into what it’s going to become.”

In the meantime, he can often be spotted at local concerts, like those at the Manhattan School of Music, which is near his home. Although his high school music teacher once said he was a dog-ass trumpeter,” he still drew inspiration from jazz.

“I look at the musicians and think about the skills they have and their musicality, using their instruments and making musical expression with a high degree of excellence,” he said. “That’s translatable. It’s not exclusive of any other form of artistic expression. I couldn’t be Miles Davis, as my trumpet teacher told me after 12 lessons. Well, I was not going to be a dog-ass photographer. I will try to hone my skills to be as good as I possibly can.”



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