Alternate Sides Of Salimah Ali
by Torry Threadcraft
New York’s creative scene has been a coastal hub of American counterculture for decades, often reflecting the tension between its natives and the police state surrounding them. And Kamoinge Collective member Salimah Ali’s experiences, professional and personal, often distort the lines between them. As a tried-and-true street photographer, Ali has spent the past four decades shooting complete strangers, political pariahs, and entertainers alike. In that time, she’s gathered dozens of stories about the subjects, and further—the particular moments she has frozen in frame. After a decade of freelance work and a focus on street photography, Salimah eventually managed to turn her love of photography into a new career--just maybe not in the way that she had imagined. Because despite the sheer impact that imagery has had on 21st-century global discourse, society has ensured that the skill involved in doing so can’t be worth all that much. But photography, with its stinging power to document, has Salimah unexpectedly working on what seems like alternate sides.
She cites her father, a painter in his free time, as her first creative influence. “I’ve always been around [Black] art, books written by Black authors like James Baldwin and others,” she said. “But he painted all of my life, that I could remember. We would go to Prospect Park and he’d sit and paint the scenes.” Surely understanding the importance of creative outlets, he bought Salimah her first camera (“an old-fashioned one with the bellows that pulled out”). By the time she enrolled at LaGuardia Community College and processed her first roll of film, she was hooked. For the most part, she self-taught, shooting newlyweds and baby pictures, until a chance interaction got the ball rolling.
While walking the halls of LaGuardia, a flyer for an Eddie Kendricks concert caught her eye. “I was like ‘I want to photograph him,’ so I contacted the promoter at the time, M. Morton Hall. He’s no longer with us but he was famous, he promoted for a lot of entertainers; from Nina Simone to Bob Marley and Earth, Wind, and Fire. I contacted him and asked if I could photograph Eddie Kendricks. He was like ‘sure!’” From there, every time he’d have a concert or promote an event, I’d contact him and he’d agree, so I was able to shoot on stage as well as backstage.” After two years of self-teaching, she transferred to the Fashion Institute of Technology.
“Those were the most fun years that I’ve had,” she said. “I was able to see the different aspects of photography in portraits in all forms—still life, baby sittings, weddings, and of course, headshots. I once wanted to be a fashion photographer—I started in fashion, working at a few ad agencies, but there weren’t many opportunities in fashion for a Black female photographer. And I found I liked the freedom of being in the streets. I wanted freedom from the studio. So I started shooting in the streets.” Some 30-plus years since being featured in her first exhibit (45 Women Photographers, in conjunction with the Alternative Center for International Arts, Inc.), it’s safe to say that she’s made the most of that freedom.
In 2005, Collette Fournier recommended that Salimah be brought into the Kamoinge Collective, originally formed as a workshop in the fall of 1963 after the Black photography collectives Kamoinge and Group 35 merged in a Manhattan studio. Named for a Kenyan Kikuyu term meaning “a group of people acting together,” the inaugural members, included names like Adger Cowans, Calvin Mercer, and Ray Francis. The group named Roy DeCarava their first director. Shortly after, collective members began organizing portfolios to ensure proper documentation of their work. By the time Salimah came into the fold, she was surrounded by major players. Salimah went on to build an extensive resume as a freelancer, with publications like Essence, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Since the late seventies, her work has been featured in ten books as well as photo exhibits throughout the city, having photographed everything from protests, to parades to political events all over these streets. Everything was going swimmingly, by New York City creative scene standards. But freelance work also had its downside. “I would wait forever for my money. Sometimes the pay was really good, other times it stunk. You had to balance it to pay your bills throughout the year.” That was, until an unlikely opportunity emerged: a photography position with the New York Police Department. And suddenly, her point of view was about to change. “When the opportunity first presented itself, I waited a year or two,” she chuckled, “before I was like ‘yeah okay, it’s time for me to do this.’ I started in May 2001. Then later that year, 9/11 happened, and then nobody was hiring for freelance work.”
When asked about instances where her own line of creative work clashed with the force, she chuckles. “I’ve had a few,” she said. “My camera strap got wrapped around an officer’s gun once when they were arresting Al Sharpton. I was taking pictures of him while they put him in the paddy wagon, and my camera strap just happened to wrap around his gun. I had to say hey, listen, I’m not trying to do anything, I just need to get my camera. Another time,” Ali continued, “they were arresting protestors at the Democratic National Convention. I was low-shooting, and I saw a leg get in my way. I almost flipped the person. Good thing I didn’t, because it was an officer, and I hadn’t seen his face. Then, during Khalid Muhammad’s Million Youth March. The NYPD really didn’t like him and wanted him to end the march early. When he didn’t, there were helicopters flying over, and stuff was sprayed for the crowd to disperse. It was just pandemonium.”
But now a typical day on the job, however, is relatively uneventful. For the most part, Salimah takes mugshots in central bookings throughout the metro area, occasionally shooting official department portraits, awards dinners, and parades. There’s data entry, tracking the work of a team of photographers. Still, the harsh realities of the job rear their heads occasionally. “It’s depressing sometimes,” she lamented. “You get your crazy people coming in, you get your people that are innocent, you get your young guys that come in at 15 and 16 [years old] who made the biggest mistake of their lives. On May 7th, I’ll have been with the NYPD for 18 years, and I just think of someone, spending that time in jail while I have the freedom to make choices. I can travel the world. I’m up with the technology and what’s going on around me. all this developing technology, it’s mind-boggling.”
Ali’s duties with the force rarely intersect with officers on the ground, but technology might be blurring the lines in that regard. In the past year, Amazon and IBM have faced backlash over their adoption of inherently biased facial recognition technology. Following the 9/11 attacks, IBM developed software that allowed NYPD to search for suspects by, amongst other things: facial features, clothing color, facial hair, and skin color. Officers were advised to only use skin color and tone for evaluation purposes, not assessments. Furthermore, citizens were not informed that private companies were given access to their likeness, much less that they were being used to create a public surveillance database. The project was reportedly phased out in 2016, but since then, the New York City Council has proposed the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act, which would require full transparency of the NYPD’s technological arsenal. The proposal is still in limbo, after being denounced by Mayor de Blasio and the police force alike.
America’s obsession with both sides of the outlaw lifestyle spans the past two centuries. Mugshots pervasiveness in pop culture are a fairly recent development, an extension of those infamous Most Wanted posters in American Wild West mythology. What began as childhood games of Cowboys and Indians would eventually lead to Cops and Robbers. Mass media evolved, and mugshots captured, in that sinister way, images of celebrities, hardened recidivists, and common civilians at their most vulnerable moments. While there are the occasional cases of mugshots that lead to modeling jobs, they’re mostly a shameful sight to the families of those charged.
To the average person, a mugshot itself is sufficient evidence of the subject’s guilt. As they are meant to be neutral images, they also become susceptible to the public’s projections. In an alarmist and technologically sound era, even the absence of mugshots as evidence has (rarely, but often enough) lead to misguided attempts at vigilante justice. In the hours after the Boston marathon bombing Reddit users, bolstered by their new role in the media, formed an online community to aid in efforts to track down the culprits. It resulted in (according to the founder) “a disaster, doomed from the start.” In 2016, after five police officers were killed at a police brutality protest in Dallas, the local police department incorrectly labeled Mark Hughes a person of interest. As the world spirals, it becomes increasingly challenging to assess the neutrality of simple images.
“It’s not my job to sit in judgment of you,” Ali concluded. “I’m only here so you can get through the system because, without your photograph and fingerprints, you’re going to sit in a cell.” Black celebrities and public officials alike have long wrestled with the question of collective cultural responsibility. Between growing wealth disparity and the ever-burrowing claws of the police-industrial complex, there’s no shortage of native New Yorkers who would scoff at the notion of assisting the NYPD with a clear conscience. But above all else, after many years of shooting the streets, she says, “it gave me the opportunity to have light at the end of the tunnel.” To make things even more confusing, Ms. Ali just so happened to join the force four months before it would be irreversibly changed. In the intersecting career timelines of the Kamoinge Collective, it’s just another example of life interacting with art.
A selection of Salimah’s work will be featured with the Kamoinge Collective at THE AIPAD PHOTOGRAPHY SHOW from April 4 - 7, 2019 Opening Preview: April 3, 2019 Pier 94 | New York City