Ruddy Roye: Photography as Voice for the Voiceless
Radcliffe Roye (Ruddy to his friends) is inspired by, as he puts it, “the raw and gritty lives of grassroots people.” And so, as a self-taught photographer, his images — whether shot in his native Jamaica, where he spends two months each year, or adopted home of Brooklyn — document communities on the margins of society. Over the last decade, Roye has published rich, colorful photo essays on the Sapeur fashionistas of the Congo, Jamaican nightlife culture, single moms, and the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He’s also begun shooting daily with his iPhone, including a series of gritty, black and white images documenting the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy that were featured by the New Yorker. We spoke with Roye, 43, about his craft.
Tell us what it was like documenting Hurricane Sandy.
Very hard. I was the only black photographer among a group of four white photographers. They had to save me twice. Both times the people in the neighborhood looked at me and asked why I was there, because there were incidents of looting. And they didn’t know why I would be interested in photographing their neighborhood. How can anybody think like this? I try to answer these social questions in my work.
Do you think being a photographer of color gives you a different perspective?
I take pictures not because I am a photographer of color, but I also understand the importance of telling the colored story from a colored perspective. I am however honored that people see my work as important and that alone inspires and motivates me to take photos.
It seems like photography fulfills a social need for you.
All that I photograph comes under the umbrella of focusing on something that we sometimes might overlook. It’s something that I’m trying to put into focus, so it is not ignored.
You were a writer before you took photos. What drew you to photography in the first place?
When I was growing up, there was this oral tradition that’s always been a part of Jamaican culture. For me, photography came out of that need to tell stories. I returned to Jamaica when I was 28, as a writer for a newspaper. I was working with newspaper photographers. I would be telling them what pictures to take, and I started thinking, why don’t I photograph myself? For me, it was at the nexus of two things that I liked: writing and visually telling stories.
Tell us about documenting Jamaican dancehall culture.
In 2002, Vogue sent me to Jamaica to photograph the dancehall fashion look. I was on assignment, so I had to look differently at the subject. I started to see its colors, the pageantry, and the theater. All my senses were open for the first time to this culture that I grew up with. I came from working-class poor, and the subject of dancehall spoke to that level of society on downwards, to people who have been left, whose lives aren’t recognized. Dancehall allows me to get the people’s image.
You covered Hurricane Katrina as part of a collective. What did you take away from that trip?
Hurricane Katrina was heartbreaking. I had no idea that so much social and racial divide still existing in the South. Poverty was insanely high, not to mention the percentage of black men who were once incarcerated. As a result, I believe that the folks who were affected by the hurricane were discriminated against because they were black but also because they were poor, hardworking folks.
You often snap shots of your children. Do they ever come along with you on photo shoots?
Yes. I did a cover for Jet magazine with Whoopi Goldberg at The View where my son Mosi fired the shutter while I focused the camera. The boys like photography and understand its role in capturing memories and telling stories.
Aperture magazine dedicates its summer issue to black culture and black experience, through the work of black photographers.
In the documentation of U.S. history through photography, a
fundamental component has long been overlooked by the art and media
world: black photography by black photographers. For a long time,
magazines, museums, galleries and art institutions have been unable or
unwilling to acknowledge it or grasp its essence.
With few outlets and publishers, and little support or public
attention, black photographers have had to achieve some visibility for
themselves and their art, bringing the spirit of blackness to the public
through paths that were often more complicated.