‘I’m not just that guy who takes pictures’: Thaddeus Miles on attending and photographing protests against racism in Boston

“I am looking at, how do we visualize and create the aspects of joy that can continue to drive our resilience?”

"Several Invisible Master Degrees, in several disciplines speaking their truths," Thaddeus Miles captioned the photo he took at the June 2 protest in Franklin Park. –Thaddeus Miles

There’s no shortage of photos that document the protests against racism and police brutality that have taken place in Boston and across the country over the last month and half.

But Thaddeus Miles hopes his images, taken at marches and rallies in Boston in recent weeks, carry a different message to the subjects he has photographed — one of their own power and beauty. 

The director of community services at MassHousing, who has focused on community work across the state for 25 years, told Boston.com he is still developing the photo project, but reflected in an interview on the experience of participating and photographing the marches. 

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“It’s been a heart-moving, mind-changing experience to be surrounded by the people I’ve been surrounded by and marching with,” Miles said. “I’ve learned a lot about how to create change in this world differently than maybe from how I’ve been thinking about creating change. And even though I’ve done a lot and been able to create a lot and been able to effect change, this has definitely made me rethink impact and what impact means for the future. And what [are] my next 10 years of social impact, of giving to a community of trying to affect change and opportunity? What does that look like and how do I go about it? I think that’s really what it’s done for me.”

Below, Miles speaks more about his experience of attending the protests, his process for documenting the events through his photography, and shares some of the photos he took. 

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Boston.com: How does it feel to capture this moment in history, both professionally as a photographer and given your work in the community, but also just personally?

Thaddeus Miles: My first 20 years I was the director of public safety at MassHousing, so I did all of the law enforcement side and worked with law enforcement. I have received awards from the police, the city, the FBI around crime prevention and other components, so I see both sides. But first and foremost I’m always a Black man. I’ve had my own interactions and run-ins and negative experiences with the police, and I’ve had some very positive experiences with law enforcement. So there’s a balance in what I think and how I feel about it. The other thing is I’ve seen a lot of death in a lot of different communities. 

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But I’m a person that really focuses on joy — and Black joy — being my resilience. Because as much as we need the protests and other components, I am looking at, how do we visualize and create the aspects of joy that can continue to drive our resilience and continue to push us to do what it is that we are doing? We can’t sustain what is happening now through anger. And that’s just my belief because I believe that’s a challenge. 

A self portrait by the photographer. —Thaddeus Miles

As a photographer, being out there is really complex for me. In many ways, it’s the choices I have to make to not necessarily listen as much to what’s happening at times, versus taking a photo or not taking a photo because I’m listening … because I really want to hear what it is that that person is saying, be able to soak those words in because they may change my view, my feeling, my desires, or just my overall thought process and how I go about the way that I can impact a community, a state, a country. And, how I can present an image that’s meaningful?

So I’m not just that guy who takes pictures. I’m more that guy who is looking for the moment that I want to be able to display — that I want to capture and is also meaningful to me. 

The biggest challenge for me is actually photographing the amount of white people, if I’m being honest, that are at the marches. Because I’m not sure why they’re there. I’m not sure if this is an Instagram moment, I’m not sure if this is something that they really understand, if they’re there to learn, if they’re there for their friends. Or if they’re there to be disruptive. There’s multiple people I’ve seen at some of these marches that have been there to be disruptive. 

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The other component for me is photographing people that I really don’t know — Black, white, whatever — where I don’t know their own challenges. What they’ve gone through that’s led them to be in that march or in that rally.

There was one that I went to at Trinity Church. It was a mothers’ event — [Suffolk D.A.] Rachael Rollins spoke, several others spoke. And the second lady to speak [Carla Sheffield] was talking about her son that was lost to Boston police violence. I started shooting her, and I had to put my camera down and listen to her and then go over and talk to her and then reshoot her. Because I didn’t feel like I was capturing what it was that she was portraying … As another example, I had photographed a young man toting his daughter, and he was crying. When you see that image, you’re not sure what he’s crying about. You see the people in the background and in your head you’re automatically saying that this is anger. But it wasn’t his anger. It was his joy. He was joyful in that he and his daughter are getting the opportunity to engage in something that was so beautiful for him. And that even though they came out of pain, that it was a sense of joy to see that many people come together, all have one voice. To hear the spirit of which people were speaking, to hear the chants all coming together. And that’s really part of it.

The front of the march from the Reggie Lewis Center to the State House on June 2 . “Beyond the fist, there’s a lot there in plain sight,” wrote Miles of the photo. —Thaddeus Miles

Do you always approach who you’re taking photos of to get a sense of their experience? In addition to taking the photo?

No. Not all the time … I try to do that as much as I can, to sort of engage. When I’m just taking pictures of the crowd, that’s different. But I try to create that opportunity, because one of the things that I do before each march or rally is I go off to myself and I spend a few moments meditating for what I call the three Rs — to reconnect, to reflect, and to renew. It’s reconnecting with my ancestors and whatever that particular space is that I’m in, wherever I’m at. To reflect on my own stuff that I’m dealing with, to sort of cleanse that out. And then to renew myself so that when I’m in that march, I’m shooting with a fresh eye. I’m not allowing the clouds of my trauma or other components that have been part of me to dictate what it is that shoot and how I shoot. So I try to do that. 

For another photo project you did — Faces: Up Close and Personal — you spoke about using your camera with the intention of changing the narrative around beauty. Can you speak more to that power of photography and what you hope to achieve with your photos and taking pictures at these protests?

One of the things that Gordon Parks talks about is that we have a responsibility to not only show the pain of a community, but also at the same time the beauty of a community. So … when I showcase a photo now, I want that person, whether I know them or don’t know them, to be able to see the beauty in themself and to be able to remember that moment a little bit differently. That they see that as a moment of power for themselves and that they see that as an uplifting moment, a joyful moment for themselves. And that it hopefully speaks to a different narrative than some of the narratives that are portrayed out there when the photo is just sort of left alone. 

Angelique Negroni Kearse, the widow of Andrew Kearse, a 36-year-old Black man who died of a heart attack in the back of a police cruiser in 2017. “When she talked about him as a man and her kids she smiled through the pain for a moment,” Miles wrote of his photo. —Thaddeus Miles

Given the work you’ve done with youth in Boston and beyond, what do you think the rest of the city or community can learn from the youth who are leading and participating in these marches? How do you feel seeing these young people so involved in pushing for equity?

The first march I attended, I was called to go out to the young people’s march, and I didn’t even go out and photograph. I took some photographs, but that wasn’t my point … I was called by some other Black men in the community saying, ‘Hey, these young people are marching, let’s make sure that we surround them and make sure they’re good, that they’re protected.’ So I went out in that way with my camera because people feel a little bit more at ease when I’m with my camera. And I listened to them and I was so proud. 

I felt so good because they’re courageous where I haven’t been. They’re speaking their truth in a way that I, and others who are labeled as ‘exceptional,’ haven’t. They are the ones who are really driving this change that’s happening. And every movement through the Civil Rights and everything else — really the change has been led by young people. This has been a moment that they’re not accepting ‘no.’ They’re being creative. They’re listening to some of us that have some level of wisdom, but they’re choosing to live their own dreams. They’re not allowing dream-crushers to prevent them from taking a step out. There’s a lot of dream crushers out there — there’s a lot of people that are older who feel like that’s not going to work, so they crush young people’s dreams. 

And I just love the fact that they’re not allowing that to happen and that at the same time they’re learning. Each march that I’ve seen them do has gotten better and become more inclusive. They’ve set agendas and they’re holding not just white leadership accountable, they’re holding all leadership accountable. And that’s really why I feel that they’re just making a tremendous difference in pushing people to be more courageous, to push people to be more creative, pushing people to take a deeper dive into their own moral standards. To take a dive into their own envisioning — to take a deeper look and to be more reflective of their own mishaps. But that they’re open to learning through failure. Because a lot of us, as we move to certain points, stop because of fear. 

And they are fearless, and I love that. I love seeing it. And it motivates me to step out of the way. If they ask me, then I’m going to support. I’m going to find a way to support. But I’m also going to find a way — I feel like this is my time to stand behind them and be able to catch them if they’re falling, not allow them to hit the ground. Allow them to show their feelings and to make the changes and be able to catch them and to stand them right back up and stay behind them. This is not my time to be out front leading them. 

Miles took this photo at the ‘March like a Mother’ rally on June 27. “Family love on lock,” he wrote of the photo. —Thaddeus Miles

What change do you want to see in Boston to address issues of systemic racism in the city? Is there anything in particular you’re looking for leaders to do?

One thing I want to do is create access for the non-traditional and grassroots leaders that are in the community — to be able to give them the opportunity to be heard and listened to and to be able to shape the dynamics of policy and procedural change. It can’t just be the exceptional folks that are actually the ones who are voicing those communities. Really I think Dr. Karilyn Crockett says it — the exceptional are really those on the ground, those grassroots leaders that are creating change. But other people see the “exceptional” as those that are considered “elite.” I think that’s one. 

I think two is to look how the philanthropic community is really funding and the processes of how they fund Black nonprofit organizations. Black nonprofit organizations usually get 60 percent less of the amount of funds than a white-led organization, something of that nature. At the same time, they have to jump through more hoops — when they’ve never been given the tools to really be able to look at best practices, evaluations, and other components of how to really build that infrastructure to receive additional funding. And even if they have that infrastructure, they still don’t receive that same amount of funding. So … [third], it’s to look at the overall thought process of where economic opportunities [are] — building wealth through homeownership, building wealth through entrepreneurship, and engaging in more creative, educational and learning processes … We’ve got to be a lot more creative for how we actually educate and create pathways for young people. 

I think the fourth thing I would say is to address the trauma and the mental health and the physical wellness differently than the way we do right now, [particularly] around access. Hopefully develop more psychologists and counselors of color to be able to take a deeper dive into the health disparities that are there. And that comes from putting the right people on boards. There’s still a lot of boards of directors of corporations of health care and others that are not inclusive of people of color, nor do they have community advisory boards that are connected to the highest level. 

Then I think the last thing I want to get into is the arts — how the arts play a role in the development of young people and the development of a community and how do we sort of embrace that. 

When I look at a lot of these arts institutions that are on Huntington or in the Seaport or other places and then I go to the one Black art museum that’s on Walnut Ave. and the walls are being torn down and the paint is peeling and there’s been no investment in it. That to me is really challenging. How do we get people more access to be able to express themselves and to be creative?

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