Lucy McKeon | Longreads | February 2015 | 18 minutes (4,489 words)
With over 100,000 Instagram followers, photographer Ruddy Roye came of age in Jamaica, and has lived in New York City since 2001. He has photographed dancehall musicians and fans, sapeurs of the Congo, the Caribbean Carnival J’ouvert, recent protests in Ferguson and in New York, and the faces of the many people he meets and observes every day. Roye is perhaps best known for his portraits taken around his neighborhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn—pictures of the homeless, the disenfranchised, and those who Roye believes aren’t often fully seen.
In Roye’s Instagram profile, he describes himself as an “Instagram Humanist/Activist,” and when looking at his portraits, the phrase that comes to mind is “up close.” Roye is closer to his subjects—who he calls his “collaborators”—than is typical in street photography, in terms of actual proximity as well as identification. Each picture, he says, contains a piece of him. With this closeness, Roye creates images that can be harrowing, disturbing, joyful and striking. If they are sometimes difficult to look at, one has more trouble looking away.
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How did you begin taking photographs? Maybe you could start by describing your first experience with a camera.
My first experience with a camera. I was in Ritz Camera in Washington, D.C. on 16th St. I went back to the window to look at cameras—I’d never used a camera before—and I remember looking outside the window and watching this guy walk into the frame [of the viewfinder] and I snapped and then he walked out of the frame. I realized at that moment that I could stop the story. Before and after really didn’t matter, the fact that I could stop him in frame—a light bulb went off in my head.
Like you stopped time for a second.
Yes. And I was at a crossroads in my life where I was told by immigration to go home [to Jamaica], and I was also looking for something to do. Something that I could use as school, because my mind was still in college. I’m not going to say where—I never want to talk about them. [Grins]
Fair enough. But you had come to the U.S. for school?
Yes, I was in school in Baltimore. I came here [from Jamaica] when I was 20 years old, and I came here to go to college. I was accepted at Kansas University, but when I went on campus it was just too cold—too much of a shock. So I matriculated for a year, went to California, tried to figure out what I was going to do with my life. And I decided that I would try to go to school on the East Coast. So I came back to the East.
And what were you doing in Washington, D.C. when you had that first experience with a camera?
I was actually working. I was working at a bar trying to figure out how I was going to go back to Jamaica, because I had to do my papers all over again. I was in school, but I was told by immigration that I could no longer continue the next semester—that I had to go home [to Jamaica] and do my paperwork all over again.
After that first moment with a camera, how did you begin taking photos regularly? I know of your project walking along the railroads [from Montego Bay to Kingston, Jamaica] as one of your first projects.
That was the beginning. I went back to Jamaica and I was given an assignment by the newspaper. Before I came to the States I was a reporter at a small tabloid. I went back and instead of writing, I decided I wanted to take pictures. And I was given an assignment to cover a family that was living in a defunct train station on the train line. They wanted me to photograph how the family was living, so I went there and I just—I took a couple pictures of them and brought them back. And when the newspaper article came out, I said to myself, “This is a story I really want to do. I want to walk the entire train line and photograph the people that are living along it in the train stations.” So I did.
And how long did it take to walk the train line, from Montego Bay to Kingston?
It took 21 days, 10 miles a day.
I don’t think I had realized how far you were walking each day. That’s a lot.
It is. It hurt!
Did those photographs get published, or exhibited?
The train line images were never published. I had one exhibition when I moved to the USA but never really wanted to show it because it felt tainted and unfinished. I was using Nikon film cameras at the time. I started with a Nikon N90s and then I graduated to an F5.
So what happened after that?
It took me three years to get my paperwork finished. And in those three years, I did sports in Jamaica, I did commercial work, I worked [as a photographer] for the Rotary Club, I worked for the Jamaica Film Festival, and then I moved to New York.
What year was that?
2001, I think.
You’re known now for your work on Instagram, but you must have been doing editorial work in New York for years before Instagram was a thing.
I did a lot of things before Instagram, none of which I was known for. I worked for the AP, I worked for USA Today, I worked for Ebony, Jet, Essence, I assisted this good friend of mine for Vogue magazine. And I did a lot of shows—I did about five or six exhibitions in New York before Instagram. But I was like an apple in the pile, according to Robert Frost.
What sort of photographs were you exhibiting?
I’ve been working on this book on dancehall for the past five-six years. I did a major show at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery. I also photograph J’ouvert [the annual Caribbean street Carnival] and I’ve done a couple shows, two at Nathan Cummings Foundation, at Calumet, and at the Open Society Institute. Calumet used to be a photo retail store that housed an exhibition space in its building. Luckily I was able to be a part of two shows there before Calumet closed.
When did you start taking pictures with your phone?
It took a while before I actually jumped into phone photography. I was at a crossroads, just like today, thinking, “How do I move forward?” And a friend of mine took a picture of me and my boys [9-year-old Mosijah (“Mosi”) and 6-year-old Iyeoshujah (“Yoshi”)] and said that she was going to post it on Instagram, and I was like, “What is Instagram?” I looked to see what that image did on Instagram and I was immediately attracted to the fact that there was an audience. And I started to take portraits—just little portraits around [my home in] Bed-Stuy. And then [Hurricane] Sandy happened. And again, I was also at a point where I wasn’t really photographing much. I didn’t really feel like taking out my camera. But during Sandy, I grabbed my iPhone and I went to Coney Island. And the next day, The New Yorker called me to take over their Instagram feed. That was the beginning.
You went on to cover the New York Marathon 2013, as well as Black History Month last year for the same feed. How did that feel, getting a call from The New Yorker?
It’s hard to describe because, like today, a part of me believed that I should be working. A part of me cannot understand why I’m not working. A part of me had claimed that maybe I’m not marketing myself properly. But I also know that a part of it is the fact that a lot of minority artists do not get jobs in the industry. And that the doors don’t open as widely as they do for other folks. So I was very grateful, but very frustrated at the same time. It’s like I’ve been carrying this bag for the last 10 years. I knock on doors and I get used once [for an assignment]. And maybe I’m a terrible shooter…
Do you feel the reception of your work is different, from people in positions of institutional power and from the bulk of your followers on Instagram?
The followers on Instagram follow because there’s a certain—and I have to put this is quotes—”truth” that they’re attracted to. I put truth in quotes because a picture is just a part of a story, a part of the truth, it’s not the whole truth. And what I present is a piece of the puzzle, not the whole puzzle. So I understand that those pictures have limitations. But I also made up my mind that I’d shoot whatever I felt like shooting—that it won’t be strained or vetted or censored. I’m going to talk about things the way I see them. And if they’re accepted, then [shrugs shoulders].
And that’s one benefit of social media platforms like Instagram, right? It gives the artist total creative control.
Right, like if I want to write about racism I can write about racism without a magazine saying, “That doesn’t go with our policies or reflect our editors.” I just write and take pictures.
Let’s talk about that—your writing. Your captions on Instagram are often long and sometimes lyrical. What role do your words play in relation to your images?
My captions are an invitation into my world. Throughout the history of black imaging, our photographs carry the burden of being taken out of context. Our women are sexualized and our men are pimps, or brutes, or, depending who it is, thugs. The only acceptable images are of athletes or musicians. I try to introduce each face I photograph to an audience who is interested in knowing them. My stories are about stripping away all the stereotypes and leaving the portrait with who is being portrayed in the most beautiful way. I want to introduce white America to people who they might never have met, and I want them to fall in love, too.
I think the first time we spoke, about a year ago, you described the people you were most interested in photographing as those who go “unseen”—who are often invisible?
The disenfranchised. When I started taking pictures in Bed-Stuy, I started to photograph everything. Any portrait that I could photograph. And one of the photographers that I read, Eugene Smith, said that photographs should have purpose. And I also read somewhere, another photographer said [something like], “You know, there are enough photographers photographing the pretty things, and not enough photographing the things that aren’t as pretty.” And I began to look around my community of Bed-Stuy and I saw a lot of not-so-pretty things. And a lot of it does not get printed or the stories are not told. So I just started to photograph can-collectors and homeless people, and people who live in shelters—people who have a story that doesn’t often get covered. I just wanted to talk to them, talk about them. It doesn’t mean that that’s where I want to stay. It means that I’m attracted to that right now.
And you knew these people, to the extent that you were seeing them every day?
I saw can collectors everyday. And the funny thing is, as Bed-Stuy gentrifies, there’s an increasing number of can collectors in the neighborhood. There are more cans, there are more beers. And so, every week there was this new group. At one time it was this group of guys from a shelter nearby who were the can collectors. All of a sudden there were Hispanics, there were white folks, coming in collecting cans. And I found that intriguing. First I questioned, “Why are they here?” And then I realized there were more college students in the neighborhood, more hipsters, more beers in the neighborhood, more bottles and cans to collect. I started to photograph it. People who were in the shelters, those people started to change. And then the neighborhood started to change. There was a lot more to photograph, so I just stayed photographing.
What are your thoughts about the risk or complexity involved in photographing disenfranchised people?
The word is—it can be conceived of as exploitative. One of the things that has to be stressed is every image that I put up on Instagram has a piece of me in it. There’s a part of me that I’m trying to tell. To be invisible is something that I’ve felt in the past 10 years. I have felt invisible as a photographer. So for me, it’s very easy to sit down beside a guy who’s begging and have a conversation with him and feel some sense of kinship with him, because part of me understands that feeling of invisibility. I do not totally understand what it means to live on the street. I’ve tried it—I followed a couple on the street for a week and after two-three hours, I was miserable. So I have no understanding as to why somebody—or how somebody can sleep on the street. But it’s very easy for me to walk over to somebody and engage that person in a conversation about invisibility because I feel some level of invisibility.
A drunken person is my dad, somebody that I scorned for a long time in my life. Somebody that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to. He died while I was here. And so, sometimes I feel like by going over and engaging in conversation, I’m trying to make amends to a part of [my] world. I have a part in being brutal and vicious and unfeeling and unforgiving. So that’s a part of me mending a relationship that I could not mend. The man is dead. I’m trying to tell stories that come from me, I’m not trying to be exploitative. Those are the easy ones.
Recently I was coming from B&H [Photography]—I had just bought a strap for my new camera—and I saw this guy by Taco Bell on Eighth Avenue, by 34th St. He asked me for some money, and I asked him if he was hungry. And he said yes, so I walked him into Taco Bell and told him to order some food, and his food came up to like $5-something. And I gave the guy $10, and told him he could keep the change. For me, I didn’t need to take that picture. It was enough that I fed him and I asked what his name was—his name was Ray. I didn’t feel the need to sit down and get into [deep conversation], “Oh, so why are you on the street?” No. There are so many moments when I’ve done that and we’ll sit down and have a conversation over coffee and I’ll feel like I want to tell that person’s story because it’s interesting and I want to share it. And I share these stories because I want people to understand that these lives…matter. These lives are out there, they’re not invisible, they’re humans. On Facebook I keep putting up homeless people who are talented. People who are found through the shelter system to be old musicians or people with amazing talents.
In other words, it’s not always an exchange—a picture for a meal, a story for—but whatever interaction you’re feeling as a human in that moment.
I wanted to ask you about Ferguson. You went down there, didn’t you? What did you think of being there and documenting that specific event?
I actually just came back from Mississippi and Memphis, in what I would call rural sections of the South. And I was just speechless as to the level of—I don’t want to use these terms but, bondage; people who were still shackled by social constructs. I spoke to this one lady who couldn’t get health insurance because she has a felony. So her life, for as long as she’s alive, is going to be lived with her unable to take care of herself.
It was sad to go to Ferguson and see people living what I would call a second class citizenship. I’ve always admired the black experience, because happy or sad, what you see is laughter and happiness. I don’t know what kind of resolve black folks have, but we do whatever we can to survive.
Going to Ferguson and watching people march and for me, march in a space that was helpless, I didn’t see them getting any resolve. I didn’t see what would become of this march—the march just felt like marshmallows or cotton candy. It was airy. It lacked push and force. I covered both the white demonstrators and the black demonstrators. The white demonstrators were unmoved, unfeeling, unremorseful, the black demonstrators were angry. And it took two days when I was there to be doused. After the funeral it was dead, like dead dead dead dead.
For me, there’s one word, and that is sad—the black experience is a sad experience. And the videos that came out as a result of Mike Brown’s shooting, videos of shootings everywhere, speak to the fact that black lives don’t matter. I’m raising two boys with the thought that their lives don’t really matter. And so it’s scary to me.
You said the other day, you feel like we should still be protesting.
Yes. I followed these protestors in New York, and again, it felt empty. The marches need to be organized, they need to have an agenda. One of the beautiful things about Selma is it showed that the marches had a focus. The marches were rigidly organized. They weren’t just, “Let’s go march down and block a street and disrupt.” Of course a part of the marches was about disrupting businesses, but there was a purpose behind disrupting this or that business. The protests should disrupt businesses that support black boys being killed.
I live in Bed-Stuy, I listen to people, I go to the corners and I hear men talking about, “We will not talk to officers, we will not help officers, we will not be compliant.” And I don’t think that is what we need to do as black men in the neighborhood. I don’t think we should necessarily be compliant, but we should have a relationship with officers in the neighborhood. But I think for now, as long as blue stays blue, the rest of the neighborhood will fight and resist anything that comes from that section.
I also believe that there should be officers who come out and say, “What some of our fellow officers do is wrong.” That would actually win a lot of community over to the NYPD. If you don’t do that, you set up a “we against them” scenario. I think if there is no accountability, the system in itself looks corrupt—feels corrupt.
I thought your photographs of protests in New York in the wake of the grand jury non-indictments conveyed a real sense of urgency and emotion. You call yourself an Instagram Humanist/Activist. Talking about protest strategy, what do you see as your role, as an artist/activist, and its relation to political activism and organizing?
I would say that I am a conscientious observer. I am an agitator. I am a dissident sometimes, and my hope is that my images instigate conversations that will compel the viewer to think differently about a subject matter. I am hoping that my images can achieve some form of social change and by definition that is the job of an activist.
I am not saying we shouldn’t march but what marching meant in the ’60s is not what it means now. Back in the ’60s we couldn’t march, we weren’t allowed, so marching in itself was activism. We need to understand that protests have agendas. That it is not just about disrupting traffic or just walking, the marches should have a greater purpose. For instance, every night that there was a march late last year, members of the NYPD [out on the streets] were getting paid overtime. That seemed counterproductive to me. Awareness is just not enough.
Your recent trip down south, was that in order to speak to people about what was going on around the deaths of Brown and Garner?
It was actually to work, with a friend of mine, David Holloway. Doing a commercial actually, on how to insure the places in the South that are uninsurable. It was sad to be in neighborhoods where the majority of the neighborhood doesn’t have [health] insurance, and there hasn’t even been the thought to get insurance. It’s a luxury.
What are you currently working on?
I want to do the same stories I do on Instagram, on video. Instead of me writing, instead of me editorializing I guess, it would allow somebody to tell his or her own story. I think that would have more impact. We’ll see.
Have you started working on this video project?
I haven’t started. I’m still trying to figure out how to do me. How to stay afloat, how to pay rent. Stuff like that.
Do you bring your sons when you photograph?
Sometimes. The idea is—I mean I remember walking by this homeless guy, maybe a couple of months ago, we were going to play football [my sons and I] and this man, his legs were hurting. And he said he needed icy hot or something, and I didn’t bring any money because I was going to play football, and my son immediately said, “I can go home and break my piggy bank for him.” And that felt good. It felt good that, at nine years old, he had the heart to understand what it meant to help, or to offer help. So that feels good to me.
I do everything for them. It’s my legacy to them. I want them to see and experience the world the way I see the world before they start thinking about the world themselves. I want to give them a foundation.
You have a picture from Thanksgiving with—
Thanksgiving with Gladys! It’s been two years in a row. My sons asked me for her this year, but we couldn’t find her this year. I actually went out looking for her.
Where did you first meet her?
Penn Station. We were just talking, and she said something about, do I follow up with the people whose stories I tell? Do you ever see them again? I said yes, sometimes. I asked if she would like to come to dinner on Thanksgiving and she was like—she thought I was joking. And I said no no no no, let’s go to Thanksgiving dinner. I was so surprised. [On Thanksgiving] Gladys was nicely dressed, Gladys put on some new sneakers—they weren’t new, but different sneakers. My sons sat beside her the entire time, rubbing their heads on her, I was like, okay this is good.
And you found her again the next year, in the same spot?
They’re all in Penn Station. There’s a world there. If you actually go there and spend enough time you understand how that world works. Every space that has heat is a coveted space. And people know how to negotiate the spaces. You’re also not supposed to be lying down so people sleep standing up, some sleep standing up with sunglasses on so that nobody sees that their eyes are closed. It’s a different world, and if you stay there long enough you’d understand it.
You go there, to Penn Station, on New Year’s Eve, is that right?
Yes, there’s always this great melding of people—of revelers and homeless, of drunk and…drunk. Party-goers, and—for me it’s fun to watch the gumbo. The coming together, the melding of different worlds. You can’t tell who is who, they’re all mixed up. And they’re all drunk.
The great equalizer. These days do you photograph primarily with your phone, or do you still use cameras, and what kind?
I use both iPhone and mirrorless cameras. I use whatever is in my hand when I see a picture that I must take.
Is there someone who you’ve photographed in the last few weeks, months, who particularly sticks out to you—who stays with you?
[Looking through his Instagram feed] It would have to be in Mississippi. This dude, Damion Portis. I was in a restaurant and I wanted to carry Eric Garner, Michael Brown, with me. And while I was there I would just ask people on the street how they felt about these deaths. I did this because it was a job I had to take, but I was so involved in the protests here that I felt so disjointed, like I was tearing myself away from the protests. So I brought the protest with me. And everybody that I met [while I was down south on this job] I would ask them their thoughts about Eric Garner, Michael Brown—if they’d even heard about Eric Garner or Michael Brown. And I met this father and son—should I read it? [reads aloud text from his post on December 13, 2014]
Dad and son walked into the Japanese restaurant. Senior and junior strolled in confidently to the pick up line.
It was an early Saturday night and I was desperate to find food that was not labeled pork and a pint.
It was a balmy evening, the brisk wind reminded me that it was still winter but the night felt comfortable. Damion Portis senior looked at me and nodded in the customary way; nose pushing upwards before dipping down.
I walked over to ask him about Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
“In the case of Michael Brown and the officer, they were both wrong.
In my life I have dealt with a lot of white cops. The thing that help me is understanding that I was born in a world that is not fair.
My elders raised me to play chess and not checkers.
You have to navigate the path that is given to you,
You have to finesse the relationship you foster with the police. As a young black man I have to perfect that for my own survival — it’s essential.
It’s not about education it’s about elevating in your thoughts. You have to rise above the board and see all the pieces. A soft answer turneth away wrath. You can’t disrespect an officer just because he violates your rights, we have to be wiser than that.
Look at this, James Craig Anderson was run over by white teenagers in 2011, and no one, not our leaders or our communities lifted a finger until CNN did a story, this is what is here in Mississippi. We are alone so we live by our wits.”
I think he echoed what I felt, what I had been feeling about, not just life in the deep south, but the way officers see black youth. If we’re found—if we’re caught in a situation where we’re potentially in the wrong, we’re immediately seen as criminals. And the conversation, the relationship, that space we enter into starts from that place. I’m not seen as a man, I’m not seen as a black man—I’m seen as a criminal first. I think that needs to change. He [Damion] echoed the things that I know are similar to other stories across the United States. He was so intelligent, so eloquent, but he was like—you know, that doesn’t matter. To these officers we’re criminals. And so, we have to be playing chess, we can’t be playing checkers. That was beautiful.
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Lucy McKeon is a writer in New York.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.