Photographer Julian Ali Shares The Vision Behind His #BlackKings Photo Series

Photographer Julian Ali is on a mission. He’s intent on changing both the way society views Black men and how Black men view themselves. The 27-year-old Harlem-based photographer’s current project, #BlackKings, is an archival series — featuring 100 intergenerational and intersectional “Black Men of distinction,” showcased in stark black and white portraits that seek to reinterpret Black identity and honor its complexity.

With this broad aim, Ali has photographed legends like the RZA, activists like DeRay Mckesson, and lesser-known (but certainly significant) figures like Trayvon Martin’s brother, Jahvaris Fulton. His sessions are loose and not overly managed. The setup and props remain the same. What’s left are photos defined by Ali’s ability to capture his subjects at their most authentic — a skill which he has in abundance.

Looking at Ali’s photos as a series, you’re left with the comingling senses of sensuality, vulnerability, and power — a mix that demands the viewer’s deep attention. So it comes as little shock that last year his work attracted the eyes of festival spaces like Afropunk and ENVSN as well as outlets like Forbes. In the second half of the quarantine, Ali has returned to the series, sending prop kits via mail and guiding his subjects on framing and poses over the phone.

As #BlackKings ramps back up, we linked with Ali for an in-depth chat about what he hopes to achieve with the project and why public art is so vital right now.

Julian Ali

What was the inspiration for the #Blackkings Project?

#Blackkings is a portrait series I put together about two years ago. It was inspired, truly, by me wanting to connect with people around me that I may not have had a chance to connect with before and reach out to certain individuals that I felt were moving and shaking the world. Now I have this mission statement where I talk about what representation means and what the project means to me but it just started out by me reaching out to friends and reaching out to people around me that I thought were dynamic.

The project in itself is 100 Black men of distinction. I’ve been trying my best these last two years to capture as many men as I could who were intersectional and intergenerational. I’ve been able to shoot people like RZA, Trayvon Martin’s older brother, who is just amazing and has kind of held Trayvon’s legacy up by his activism and continuing to fight for social equality. I’ve been able to shoot even younger people like 10-year-old Jeremiah Harvey who had a viral moment a couple of years ago when he was wrongly accused of grabbing a white woman’s backside. The picture to come out of that international story was of him crying and for at least 10 pages you’ll see pictures of him crying on Google. I thought it was my duty as an artist to capture him smiling at 10 years old.

An important part of your work is exploring the beauty of black men, sometimes even after or in spite of personal trauma. Why is it important for you to explore beauty in the face of tragedy?

I feel like we’re at a point now where Black stories are being told. However, I feel like we need more Black people telling those stories. Blackness is more than just a color, or culture, it represents so much to me and to other Black people, it represents struggle, it represents joy, it represents all these things. A big part of our story just so happens to be pain, but I wanted to show how we can move through pain and I want to show you what comes through the other side of that. Even though a lot of the guys that I’ve shot have gone through these life-changing events or had to struggle to get to where they are, they’re living proof — from pressure makes diamonds.

I really wanted to show that and I wanted to do it from my Black male perspective.

Julian Ali

Your art has brought you both acclaim and followers, what do you think about the images is resonating so strongly with people right now?

I think that it’s really just the subjects that have helped me do that. It’s my job to show up and mirror who they present to me, but it has truly been amazing to watch this organic movement happen with the photos. As an artist, I feel like I have one definition of what I’m trying to show, and I feel like it has really been a testament to these men and their lives and what they mean to other people.

I think that also, a lot of these men work in media, or work in the industry, but some of them are just first-generation college students. It all happened very organically.

You like to photograph people who you find inspiring or phenomenal, what makes somebody interesting enough to photograph for you?

I didn’t have any rules or guidelines in the beginning. I really was only shooting people who I thought were interesting myself or people who I’d wanted to shoot with and never had an opportunity to do so. As the project grew, and I saw what it meant to other people, I started to dial back on the scope of people who I had been shooting. I like to see people who are out there living their best lives, living up to their true potential, or helping somebody else live up to their full potential.

You don’t have to move the world, but I would like to think the people I’m shooting are moving the world just by being their authentic selves.

Julian Ali

You mentioned shooting RZA — what does he mean to you personally?

Still hard to put into words! RZA is not human, he’s a spiritual force. It’s an interesting feeling, I feel like you only see people like him in cartoons or Quentin Tarantino movies. He’s so enigmatic but at the same time so real. I think that before meeting him, I thought of him as a founding father of hip-hop and especially New York hip-hop, but after meeting him… I think he’s got so much to share.

He’s one of those men that are just oozing from the pores with wisdom, being able to sit with him and talk and get into his mind a little more was really inspiring.

He’s a nod to the past, but he’s able to stay current and he’s a true testament to resilience.

Julian Ali

Of the people you’ve shot, who has left you the most in awe?

There have been a couple! Meeting Jeremiah Harvey was definitely a moment for me. One because I had stalked his mother for a good year leading up to the shoot. His initial viral moment… it really wasn’t planned, of course, and they kind of had to go into hiding because the media and the press and all the journalists coming after them. So after about a year of searching through pages and pages, I finally got a moment to sit down with them and spend the day with them. Afterward, Jeremiah told me he wanted to be a photographer.

That really made my heart, bro. I never had a moment like that before, but I could truly see that in me he saw himself, and in him, I saw me.

Meeting Walter Fontroy was also an amazing thing. Walter is a little up in age and he also organized and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and just to sit with him and hear him talk about Martin and everybody else that was involved with helping him get to where he is was also beautiful.

Meeting Jahvaris Fulton was a beautiful moment, too. Again, shooting people in spite of trauma is important to me. The person I met — I would’ve never known that he had lived through such a traumatic experience. To be able to see who he has become since this terrible tragedy was powerful. He came across very transparent. He’s just a ball of energy that I didn’t know I needed in my life. But after I met him we’ve been very consistent and the best of friends.

I think with this project I’ve not only gained mentors, I’ve gained good friends, and I’ve gained a lot of people that I’m learning from.

Julian Ali

You’re part of casting Black men in a new light. In what ways do the media and society continue to fall short when it comes to depicting Black men?

A big part of this project was me showing 100 intersectional and intergenerational men because I wanted to show the different facets of us. When we’re shown, it’s a binary. They show the highly successful exceptions to the rule — like the Jay-Zs and the Diddys and the people on TV — and then we get the opposite side of the spectrum: us on the news, mug shots, and all this conditioning and framing that we’ve been so used to for decades now.

Personally, I wanted to shoot this because one of my favorite photographers is a white male photographer. I really love Robert Mapelthorp. I loved his series called: The Black Book. I have it on my coffee table. When you look at this book you see dozens of Black men, but they don’t have a name and they’re very anonymous and they’re in very compromising positions. When you look at them they’re highly sexualized. One thing I wanted to do was show these men in their truest forms. I didn’t ask anything of them, I just let them show up as they are, but I wanted to take away this fetishized gaze that we typically view Black men through. I also wanted to show that Black men with Berets on can be joyful, they can be all these different things, not just militant.

I think that’s why it resonated with so many people. Black men are just Black men, in general. But with a beret, we start to think of the Black Panther movement and this highly militarized highly masculine highly dominant individual, but no one does a deep dive into these individuals characters and who they are or what they stand for.

I just wanted to show these men, in that way. So far I’ve had trans, cis presenting, gay, bisexual, straight, light-skinned, brown-skinned, dark-skinned — all physical characteristics I’ve sought out. I even had the opportunity to shoot two of my very close friends, one who has vitiligo and is out here living his best life as a model and one who is out here with albinism and is the first person with albinism who has been able to grace an international runway.

Julian Ali

You want to take the Black Kings project to the subways of New York City and other large public places, why is this series landing in a public place so vital to you?

I truly believe in public art, I believe public art can be very healing and bring together communities. When you put a project like this out in the public, it gives people a chance to stand still and empathize with whoever it is that they’re viewing. My whole mission of this was just to show these men in their true form, I think during Black History Month we only focus on a good five people. I want to show 100 people who are out here doing stuff right now, whether they are out here protesting, or simply going to college.

Put these in the subways and on public transit and places where ads typically are will recondition how people view Black men and how Black men view themselves. I really wanted to show not just people like RZA but the everyday person as well, so that the everyday person can see something of themselves in the photo.

It would be refreshing to be able to enjoy art instead of ads!

I work in Times Square now and I gotta tell you, most people who walk around here are desensitized. There are a million ads around us but I don’t think we’re consciously taking it in. The moment you take an ad down and put up some public art people are going to take notice and dial into that and try to figure out why it’s there in that space. That’s what I’m hoping to do, just get away from the distractions and give people a moment to focus on the beauty of Black men.

Julian Ali

You’ve also expressed an interest in wanting to use augmented reality in your visuals, could you tell us more?

My hope with this project is to eventually get it published and to have it in these public installations outside through Instagram and social media. I’m hoping to have murals put up of these men in different places in New York City and eventually the US where images of black men like this don’t exist. I would like to partner with a Snapchat or some kind of AR platform that would allow me to tell their stories. Essentially what I’m hoping to do is get these photographs muralized so that when you look at them through Snapchat they’ll talk to you and tell you the history of the space it’s in or a little bit about the subject.

I think that’s important because this generation is a little different. I think older people are more inclined to stop and appreciate something but I feel like it takes a little bit more to get the younger generation’s focus.

So you want to take the gallery format and put it into the streets?

I’ve seen ad companies and all of these million dollar companies using this technology to sell products but I’ve yet to see people really using it for art. Typically people are pushing you to a sale, but I have yet to see this used in this way so I’m hoping to do that.

What do you have planned for the future: is there a Black Queens project in the works?

You know I want to do exactly the same thing. I have the same purpose for shooting black women and with that project, I don’t even see me shooting all 100 women myself. I would love to share the spotlight, it’s not about me, that’s what I’ve learned. This project is bigger and means more than it does to just me. I’d love to partner with 4 or 5 other black or brown women and do 25 collaborations with each to total out to 100 women and do collaborations with let’s say a painter or a sculpturist, or a muralist or a writer, and have these women showcase other women and their perspective. I’ll just be the help essentially, a collaborator.

That’s what I’ve started to form as a thesis for the next project.

Now that we’re living a more locked down less active lifestyle, how has the pandemic affected the project?

The job of the creator is to remain malleable and resourceful and while the nation struggles with both unemployment and empowering African Americans, artists have continued to create despite all odds. One of the most important things I personally continue to learn throughout life is the beauty in perspective. Simply put, what could look like a setback is really a chance to redefine your focus & that is oftentimes what needs to happen in order for you to get it right. So, while social distancing has kept us separate, one could also say it has also connected us even more digitally.

Whereas, I don’t find it my place to document the struggle for equality on the streets, being able to virtually photograph someone became a concept out of necessity for many including myself. Since this pandemic has started, I’ve been able to digitally host and photograph men for #BLACKkings including ABC Black-ish Star, Marcus Scribner as well as a few others. While this process is far from ideal, it’s helped hone my communication and reinspired me to think out of the box.

Julian Ali