Reese Bland calls himself a visual documentarian. Since childhood, he has been gathering the stories and experiences of his community on film. Nowadays, that means followers can see black-owned apparel vendors at street fairs, black girl magic at music festivals, and black activists at a variety of rallies and protests, among other narratives.
In the everyday black experience, Bland finds beauty and power. His work tells stories, drawing the viewer into the joy of the subjects. Looking at them, you realize that they run counter to the images of black people that the media and popular culture often present. These are fully realized people, living rounded, complex lives. It’s clear that Bland is invested in these subjects on an artistic level, as well as on a personal one. He not only sees people, he sees moments.
We spoke with Bland, about his art. In measured tones, he explained the motivation behind much of his work, made his audience clear, and broke down his philosophy. Plus, he offered some solid advice about taking killer candid photographs.
You attended 17 different schools. That’s pretty extraordinary in comparison to the average person. Tell us a little bit about your upbringing.
Yeah, that all stems from being a military brat. We moved fairly often and sometimes it wasn’t necessarily out of the area. But, we ended up moving out of the school district one time by moving across the street from the school that I was going to, on accident. We actually tried to move closer to the school, but we ended up moving out of that school, so I went to that school. But most of that ended up being from my dad was in the Army for 23 years so, we had to move from place to place.
Home is still Pittsburgh, though.
Do you continue moving pretty frequently or are you opposed to that entirely now?
I mean, I’m not opposed to anything in particular. I’ve been in DC for 10 years now. D.C. is a good spot to be right now, but I wouldn’t be opposed to moving somewhere else if the opportunity came up.
Did growing up as an Army brat have an impact on your work?
Definitely. A lot of people ask me when I started to take photos, how long have I been doing photography. And so I kind of you know, “Are you asking me how long have I been taking pictures?” And that’s usually the question. And then I’m like, “Well, since I was like seven or eight.” I got one of those old — what was it? — Kodak Slim 110 cameras, film camera and sometimes panoramic shots. But, I filled those up with pictures of friends, pictures of places that we were living, and that would happen whenever we’d move. So, when I got to middle school I had like photo albums full of pictures.
Wow. And, do you still document everything through photography?
For the most part, yeah. I’m not without my camera for a long period of time. Every once in a while, I’ll leave it at home. But, even if I’m not shooting sometimes it’s with me.
I’m curious: Are you an introvert?
People have been throwing around the term ambivert at this point and I think that more describes people, describes me, in fact. I can be really introverted. You know, I was the shy person who was forced out of being shy by the amount of people that I had to get to know. You move from one school to the next, you have a whole new set of people to try to interact with.
If your camera is always with you are you fully engaged in the moments that you’re a part of when you’re recording them, or do you feel like the lens keeps you apart from those moments?
I think that’s actually the most interesting question. I am part of a lot of moments. I’ll be the camera; I’ll be the photographer that you’ll see, whether it’s a party or it’s some conference and they have some music playing. And although I’m taking photos, I’m also dancing at the same time. You know, that’s gotten me quite a few looks like, “Aren’t you supposed to be taking pictures?”
“Well yeah, see these 30 pictures I just took in the last three minutes?” I’m probably one of the rare breeds that can actually be behind the camera but still interact with the people I’m looking at as well. You know, I don’t show up on my own Instagram feed very often but if you look at tab that says “photos of you,” sometimes I’ll go through there and see pictures people took of me while I was at the event. Yeah, so I don’t selfie very often.
Why do you call yourself a visual documentarian?
I think it goes beyond being a photographer, beyond being a videographer. What I do is to try to capture moments rather than images. And a lot of people say that as well but, you know, in just the way in which I document people when I document, I try to grab people in the moment, and that continues throughout whether it’s a protest or a party or a conference or what have you. You know, that’s the goal, to visually document what’s going on at that moment. Sometimes it’s video, sometimes it’s photo, sometimes there’s a mix of those or graphics or some text, what have you.
Your candids and your posed shots all seem to tell amazing stories but is there a specific narrative you’re trying to forward or is it just literally what’s happening in that moment objectively? Does it vary?
Most of the time it’s what’s happening in that moment, but obviously, it’s going to be sort of my point of view, my lens. I’m capturing this. I’m involved in a lot of organizations and there are quite a few that I’m involved with that are trying to combat the narrative of angry black people. So, there’s a lot of black joy moments. You can see the hashtags #Blackboyjoy and #Blackgirlmagic. Or, there’s actually an event that happens in D.C. every Sunday. It’s kind of a gathering, a standing appointment and black space, and it’s called Black Joy Sunday, and it’s free-form as far as what’s happening, whether it’s a game night or whether it’s a day out in the park or what have you. But there are all these people interacting and that’s possibly even more so at music festivals. You know, people reacting to music and reacting to the culture around them and just celebrating being themselves. More so people celebrating being themselves than anything else.
You just did back to back festivals, right?
Yeah, so AFROPUNK was two weeks ago and then you have ONE Musicfest just the next weekend. That’s another thing about me. I love music. So, you know, going to a festival and getting a free ticket to a festival to shoot for a music magazine website, SoulBounce is the magazine I’m shooting for, but being able to get out there and enjoy the festival in one fell swoop. You might be looking at artists and you’re shooting the artist for them, and then turn around and shoot the crowd because you like being around people.
And you like being around incredibly attractive women. They are heavily featured.
There are a lot of really attractive people.
Okay, do you do other festivals or is this relatively new. I couldn’t tell from your website.
Yeah, the website is something that is going to be changing soon to highlight more recent photos instead of separating things by categories, so that’s what I’m getting to. I kind of jettisoned it for a while, but it still exists for people who want to see the baseline. The Instagram feed is obviously going to be the most recent thing, and then, I just started doing the actual Facebook page not too long ago. That’s what’s going to start taking over as far as the recent photo dump place. And then the more curated stuff will be on the website.
Do you have a specific audience in mind when you’re creating your art or are you creating it for the sake of doing it?
I guess with that it’s a throwback to Solange’s album saying, “This shit is for us.” So, that’s pretty much what we’re going do. It’s not even just combatting the angry black narrative; it’s combating all types of narratives. In that, you know, it’s okay to be angry. You know, you’re supposed to be angry at some point. I go to festivals, but I also go to marches and rallies. There’s definitely times you should be angry. I’m on both sides of that. Especially, I’ve been asked that question before. It’s like, “Do you feel the need to just show this side of things?” No, you show every side of things. You show the truth. Like the truth is that there are black people who are successful and we’re all having a great time, and there are this many people converging in the streets in the spirit of enjoying themselves and music. But then there’s also sometimes when we’re all converging in the streets because we have a message to get across.
Do you feel like the camera, you said that you’re capturing the truth, do you think film is the best way to do that?
I think there are several measures to do that but I think the more immediate, the more stark way to do that is through photography. It is through video. It’s just because people will, you know, they react more to an image than they will to text, especially with the way things are going. Everything is more visual now, and media has become more visceral to a lot of people at this point, whether they think it’s for them or they think it’s not for them. They’ll get their own conclusion out of it, but the presentation is there. It’s a lot more stark and a lot more hard hitting in the media to see it than have to read something, to form an opinion after that. Not to say that a text and written articles aren’t going to be impactful but it’s just the immediacy is more there.
If somebody wanted to capture good candids, do you have any tips?
A tip for capturing a good candid. One is don’t be a guy lurking in the corner. [Laughing.] I mean, it sounds like it’s counterintuitive, but the best candids I’ve gotten are the ones where I’m actually engaged in conversation with the people that I’m taking candids of. So, at some point, I guess I’m in a room of people. I walk up to people and I talk to them and everything and maybe before I got up to that point, I shot a couple of pictures and maybe they are candids but the better candids happen after the conversation. I start off taking pictures of other people, and I excuse myself from that conversation and go to another one. But I kind of look back at that person and they’re still, they’re fully engaged now, they’re comfortable and starting to feel the camera’s there. But, they don’t realize, that I’ve already taken two or three pictures at that point.
So, it’s kind of a dance in the way that you do candids. Sometimes you take it before you’ve met the person, sometimes you’re taking them as you’re talking to that person. And, I’ve gotten good at taking photos without looking through the lens and then when I’m not looking through viewfinder; then, it’s kind of a feel for how far you’ve zoomed in and what your focus is. And, if you’ve taken some shots and seen what the light looks like, you get lucky with some of those. Sometimes you know exactly what you just shot, but at the same time, people expect that when you look at a photographer, the camera is up at their eye and they have one eye looking at you and one eye closed and the lens pointed at you and that’s how a photo is taken.
But you don’t just take photographs. You have your foot in tons of disciplines, what are you currently working on?
Currently, I actually work. I do have a day job and that’s at a PBS station, the only black-owned PBS station in the nation right now to have Howard University, but I don’t really go into much detail about that because it doesn’t always speak to where I’m going as a person. But, that also is a part of things.
Me as a person, I’m getting a lot more into my creative spaces and the photography is a huge part of it; video is a huge part of it. But there’s also design is a huge part of it as well and art, and I’m actually, working with a friend of mine, working on a couple of t-shirts. There’s a niche that hasn’t hit quite yet and that’s t-shirts for photographers. I’m hoping to get a shipment of those in this weekend. Talking to a friend of mine, she’s actually a really great entrepreneur as well. And she’s got a lot of acclaim lately because she’s been doing a lot of work and has some of her designs on HBO through the show Insecure. She’s helping me to print a bunch of the shirts that I’m going to have available.
That’s, yeah, that’s a market that I haven’t seen addressed at all.
Exactly, you know. Hopefully, I can start being the one to bring that out.
Can you share your philosophy as a creator?
I see life as a composition, made up of countless narratives, moments, and perspectives. Because of this, I strive to create and share positive and truthful images — especially those of everyday Black excellence.