Portrait | Jalani Morgan
Jalani has short locs and a scruffy beard, he sits down in front of me in the back corner of a cafe in Kensington Market and we start talking by about his hair. “It’s a political statement”. Jalani is unapologetically political. Throughout our conversation he references the likes of Sydelle Willow, Stuart Hall, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, and by the end of it he has brought me to Nicholas Metivier Gallery to see prints from Gordon Parks hidden away in their archives. He describes himself as a photographic cultural anthropologist using his camera to understand communities - and with influences like these it’s easy to see why.
Jalani Morgan is a Scarborough-born photographer currently based and working in Toronto. His recent work has been a form of cultural anthropology, deconstructing the narrative of the black diaspora throughout the GTA. From protests to panel discussions and conferences to classrooms he uses photography as a platform to communicate the spectrum of black identity and challenge the dominant messaging of the media. Though he is tackling these concepts quite consciously and explicitly in his current work, retrospectively it can be seen that his career has always been rooted in a desire to speak to and support his local community. He references his earliest memory of photography, a portrait taken in Grade 6 of a fellow student wearing an African dress and headpiece, as an example of this. “I went to a really white school in Scarborough, Danforth Gardens, and in the 90s there [were] literally three black people who went to that school. So I totally understand why I had taken a photograph of her, because I related [to her] - completely.”
“[The role of a mentor] wasn’t just about photography, it was about knowledge itself. It was teaching them how to say who they are.”
Even from his early days shooting fashion photography with Toronto-based creative studio Herman & Audrey, there was an underlying drive to work with subject matter that could support and give back to the community that raised him. His involvement as a mentor in the Remix Project and in Che Kothari’s “We Are Lawrence” exhibition were two major catalysts inspiring the shift into more community-based exploration. The latter of which, “We Are Lawrence”, especially resonated with him as he was raised in Government Housing neighbourhoods of Scarborough that are frequently vilified by the media. “It wasn’t as bad as it was portrayed [to be], but at the same time there [weren’t] resources for us to engage with.” Jalani credits photography as a way of learning broader communication and understanding skills, and mentoring though photography as way of teaching them. “[The role of a mentor] wasn’t just about photography, it was about knowledge itself. It was teaching them how to say who they are.” The program culminated in a public exhibit displayed across buses and bus shelters from Kennedy and Lawrence all the way to Midland, documenting the narrative of that community in a very literal way.
“I wanted to create a body of work that increased the visibility and added to the discourse..”
After his time with Herman and Audrey Jalani decided to head back to school and though he has dropped out of post-secondary programs twice before, he is now enrolled at York University and finally feels like he has got it right. The time off spent working, living and travelling has given him a refreshed perspective on education allowing for courses in Visual Studies, Anthropology and African Studies to inform his artistic practice and deepen his effectiveness with the medium. His areas of academic focus were inspired by Sydelle Willow, a photographer and visual anthropologist whom he met in South Africa and it was her combination arts and understanding that resonated with him. “I was shooting Ted Talks, series-based portraits, and through that I had learnt a lot about the people I was photographing and that sort of engagement with people … [was] sort of anthropological about me knowing.”
Fast forward to 2015 and Jalani is finding another way to make that connection. Through as series of black and white film photographs entitled “Black Academics” he documents the black student body on his campus with a higher purpose in mind. “I wanted to create a body of work that increased the visibility and added to the discourse of what blackness means… I was just thinking about spectrums within blackness that had been disseminated in the media and I found that black academics was one that I haven’t really seen since [the 90s].” But the significance of the series runs even deeper than that. The portraits are shot with a 4x5 film camera, which was the same camera employed by theorist Louis Agassiz in the mid 1800s to promote “scientific evidence” of his theory of “separate creation” . Associates of Agassiz used the camera to photograph African-born slaves in South Carolina in the 1800s. The products of which Agassiz then used to argue that there was an inherent biological difference between white Europeans and black Africans that naturally dictated a white racial superiority. The dehumanizing photos exhibit the social conventions that stripped the black slaves of individuality and self-hood, presenting them as specimens rather than people.
Later in the 1800s African American abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth co-opted the power of portraiture as a tool of defiance. Truth was quoted in an 1870 newspaper saying that she “used to be sold for other people’s benefit, but now she sold herself for her own” selling self-portraits to fund her career as a travelling lecturer. In understanding these histories, Jalani decided to use the camera in a similar way, “I needed to reclaim our history. We’re never going to get our history back, but what we can do is have a reimagination of it.” Jalani’s portraits are presented as warm and approachable with the students standing proudly against their campus in the background. The series is overflowing with achievement, pride and personhood, presenting a visual argument that directly aligns with the politics of Truth and Douglass, countering Agassiz’s photos of the 1800s.
By the end of our conversation Jalani brings up Gordon Parks. A fitting reference to the prolific photographer best remembered for his photo essays in Life documenting the racial segregation and poverty faced by black residents of Mobile, Alabama in the 1950s, as well as his role as Director of Shaft. “Gordon Parks is like my Grandfather. Not really, but like my photographic spiritual Grandfather.” Jalani proceeds to bring me to Alexander Metivier Gallery to see physical prints of Parks’ photographs (that are currently hidden in the gallery's archives) and a book documenting Parks' photo essays. His poignant photographs presented a narrative of blackness throughout the United States whose spectrum of experience in struggle and success had been previously been made invisible within the mainstream media. We sat flipping through the book of portraits and photo essays mainly in silence. Neither of us needed to explain that as an accompaniment to our conversation, Gordon Parks was a perfect finale.