White and Black America were hungry for images of Malcolm X. He knew how to navigate the cameras, journalists, and televisions. But he also turned the tables by outsmarting the press and manipulating the photograph, whether behind or in front of the camera.
Malcolm steered photojournalists towards positive, non-stereotypical images of his community, like playing children and successful businesses. Secretly, he even set up some of the shots himself. And he did the same for his portraits.
From his clothes and hair to his speaking style and relaxed-yet-commanding facial expressions, Malcolm defined himself. He was the creator of his own camera persona. Once you look back at pictures of him, you can see it.
Today, with more technology and social media, Black movements still use visual strategy. But many interrogate the need for our images to be “respectable,” like emphasizing “peaceful” protesters or circulating “clean-cut” photos of police violence victims.
We can be inspired by Malcolm’s agency while questioning this, too.
Like Malcolm X’s photographic counternarratives, nearly every image we see today is strategic. And that’s powerful. But hopefully, in a liberated future, we will no longer have to use photography to prove our humanity or advocate for our freedom.
In a liberated future, without carrying the weight of oppression, we can spend our days taking pictures of whatever we want.