Counternarratives As Healing and Photography As Self & Community Care: A Conversation with Artist RJ Eldridge

Interview by Lauren Ash and Zakkiyyah. Photography by RJ Eldridge.

RJ Eldridge is a Chicago-based writer, emergent multidisciplinary artist, curator, educator and thinker. We view him as indicative of the "multiplicity of black geniuses" of which he speaks in our conversation. We were able to peek inside RJ's mind a bit this past March with his profound interview with poet Ladan Osman in Issue 001: Growth. Ever since then, we've been waiting for the right moment to highlight a facet of his work more intentionally. Over the past few months, RJ's growing body of photographic art which spotlights South Side black folk including artists, creatives, and everyday people simply living life, has been making waves and touching lives. We hope that you enjoy this conversation and feel inspired by RJ's tremendous contributions to the world so far. For more of his art and thoughts follow RJ on Instagram @thenouveaunoir on Twitter @rj_el and his website www.whoisrjel.com.

L: So, RJ, I’ve noticed, over the past several months, your body of photographic work capturing black people on the South Side of Chicago. You’ve been doing this for awhile now. I’ve noticed it recently, however. Can you speak to the work that you’ve been doing and the greater intentions behind it?

R: Yes, I like photographing black people. It’s a great pastime!

I’m influenced by a great many folks in the black visual tradition. Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence...Not just the visual tradition, but performative as well, and just overall creative tradition. Folks who have wanted to look at blackness-as-embodied in critical ways. As a visual artist, I’ve always been interested in how representation affects the way that we read the world around us. As a photographer, especially I’ve been very interested in one, capturing images of creatives, black creatives, people who think a lot and who think in strange ways. And, two, in presenting them with compositions that exalt them.

So, I look at the ways that black people are generally represented in the mass media and I know that that is a kind of speech act, right? To present the black body in that way. I look sometimes to make a counternarrative to that in the work. It also is an act of love. I think that when you celebrate (especially young) black people, it is a subtle defense or strike against stories that diminish us. It’s like planting a seed when you have a path that’s being burned down. When you have the black body, the young black body being disregarded on a large scale... I’m finding ways to love that, to celebrate us in a way that is not just an act of overt sexualization, as we often find in images that are supposed to counter the narrative of us being undesirable. There’s nothing wrong with sexuality, but I think there are ways that sexuality can be employed to diminish, too.

I’m very interested in discovering the light in people’s eyes, for instance. I took photos of Jamaica Kincaid recently and it was important that the way I presented her was direct. So you’re looking at her eye to eye. And also, to exalt, from below her, to see the photograph of the ceiling behind her, the structure behind her. And when I photograph my family, it’s the same thing. If all you see behind someone is the sky then you have to look up them. That’s one of the intentions behind shooting black people, and the ways in which I do so.

I’m also working on a manuscript of meditative essays that deal with transcendence and think about what this moment in time means for the black body, and about way that we use different forms of stories to read who we are in the world. A story, to me, is about engaging a particular moment, a particular place and time, and expanding it to open it up to meaning. As a photographer and as a writer I think ... how does this particular moment resonate in the wider moment, of history. And I make the work with that meditation in mind.

Z: You said something about blackness. Being someone who goes around the city photographing all these different people, how do you see blackness being embodied in Chicago?

R: I’ll put it like this: Chicago, in the consciousness of black people in the world, and especially in the consciousness of black people in Chicago, is this cutting edge place, right? Especially for black people. People have had historic relevance coming from and through the city of Chicago since DuSable. Anyone from Oprah Winfrey to Kanye West to many others who seemed to be able to break past the limits of what blackness has been defined as. And do it more and expand the definition of blackness for other black people who throughout history have not been granted the opportunity to thrive in such a way.

Blackness, race, has always been tied to the body. It is an embodied term. It at least has to do with a kind of bodily heritage. You can define yourself philosophically or theoretically in the presence or absence of other concepts. But it is not incorrect to say that blackness has always had something to do with the body. The ways in which we embody blackness is often centered on how the body moves. Black speech or dances or a way to walk or carry yourself. It’s also been and still is defined by what is done to black bodies. In various ways in this city you can see blackness embodied. That’s my long preamble to the answer to your question. Ha! I wanted to frame my answer to how I see blackness embodied in Chicago.

It’s transcendent. It’s transcendent in various ways. In Chicago, right now, you have people experimenting. Whether you call it style, fashion, art, the spirit of the moment. People experimenting with thought around blackness, pushing beyond the limitations, making work that calls a lot of assumptions about blackness into question. You see it everywhere, from music to theater to poetics to visual art to just how the youth act and what they’re interested in. This moment in Chicago seems to be about pushing the bar from the mundane into the speculative. And often doing it by making something that’s so attractive and sexy and interesting that people can’t help but pay attention to it. Chicago has always been a cutting edge place for blackness and will continue to be. I just want to be present to the magnitude of the moment and make work that brings some good.

PHOTO: Zakkiyyah.

PHOTO: Zakkiyyah.

More about RJ Eldridge:  RJ is the Associate Director of the Chicago Slam Works House Ensemble, and teaches creative and critical writing and photography with Young Chicago Authors, Chicago Slam Works, Chicago Danztheatre and the Storyographers Digital Storytelling Organization. He made a national television debut last September in the NAACP Image-Award nominated series, Lexus Presents: Verses and Flow. A graduate of the University of South Florida’s Master’s program in Africana Studies, with a focus on literature and theory, he has engaged widely on the role of the arts in the construction of identity, and seeks to expand the dimensions of thought on the intersections between performance, race, history, ontology and myth. He has instructed at the University of South Florida, Young Chicago Authors and the Noble Network Charter Schools in Chicago, and has gained a reputation for enhancing literacy through critical thinking. He currently resides in Hyde Park.