Powerful Portraits Tell the Stories of Black America

Ruddy Roye's photographs reveal the proud heart of the struggle for racial equality and social justice.

Sensitive moments and vibrant portraits fill the Instagram feed of Brooklyn-based photographer Ruddy Roye, whose work focusing on black life in America and his homeland of Jamaica goes out to an audience of 258,000 followers.

The self-labeled "Humanist/Activist" worked with photo editor Jessie Wender on a story about the National Museum of African American History and Culture, featured in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine. Wender had first discovered Roye's photography on Instagram.

"I love Ruddy’s Instagram feed," Wender says. "His portraits are both intimate and direct, [and] he seemed like a perfect fit for this story celebrating the opening of the first national museum dedicated to African American life, art, history, and culture. We were moved by the incredible histories behind each of the artifacts and … by seeing the donors of these artifacts pictured through Ruddy’s lens."

Roye takes his followers along as he meets and photographs artists, “urban models,” young people, and community members, telling each of their stories in detailed, reflective captions. Through this stark street photography and commentary, he builds a connection to both his subjects and himself—in one post, a photograph of children through a rainy car window inspires a memory from his own childhood, “when all my sister and I did was chase summer winds.”

As part of our "Through the Lens" series, we take a look at Roye's work and find out what makes him tick.

What was the first picture you made that mattered to you?

The first picture. Wow. I feel like I am hurting all my other photos I have ever shot. It's like saying to one child, "You are the favorite," but here goes.

The first picture would have to be of the Tuckers in Mobile, Alabama, right after Katrina. Mr. Tucker died two months after I took the picture. It made me think about my own mortality.

If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?

I would be a writer, a musician, or a professor in that order.

"Mike and Diane stopped to try and sell speakers on the street," Roye wrote of this couple he encountered in Brooklyn. "Mike said he wanted to sell the speakers so he could afford to buy a nice dinner for Diane."


Who is your greatest influence?

My greatest influence I would have to say is my mother, Dorcas Leonie Roye. I am still trying to live up to the high standard she set for the way a human being should behave inside and outside of their home. If the question is, Who is my greatest influence as a photographer?—then I would have to say James Baldwin.

What fuels your passion for photography?

The idea that my images or the work I do in photography will one day help someone to move forward or change the world in any small way fuels my passion.

What is the perfect photograph?

The perfect image is one where the viewer is moved, whether emotionally, spiritually, or physically.

Track-and-field star Carl Lewis won ten medals—nine gold and one silver—in four Olympic Games. He donated nine of them to the newly opened National Museum for African American History and Culture, along with uniforms, shoes, and other memorabilia, saying that he hopes the awards will inspire children to believe in themselves.

What is your most treasured possession in the field?

My most treasured possession in the field has to be my Leica.

What is the most important advice you can give emerging photographers?

The work you do today enriches the life of the next generation of photographers behind you, so plant good seeds. Keep shooting, as if it is an obligation or your gift to the next generation. Shoot with intent and purpose and never worry about the answer [that] it was never meant for us to be concerned with. Do the work knowing that someone will see it. Recognize it as that piece of puzzle they needed, and walk it further up the road.

To view more of Roye's work follow him at @ruddyroye on Instagram or visit his website.

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