Mel D. Cole on capturing Black Lives Matter protests: “This is bigger than me”
Each month, Alternative Press Gallery explores the work of photographers, directors and other creatives who help shape the music world from behind the scenes. With each issue, we explore the stories behind the shoots and take deep dives into the most compelling media, asking about the vision as well as the happy accidents that create some of the most powerful moments in music. Along the way, we talk to rising stars as well as legendary artists, all of whom work to construct a visual story of your favorite artists.
Mel D. Cole is the first to admit that he’s aware of his strength as a photographer and is a force to be reckoned with when looking at his contemporaries. Yet, he’s also honest about who he is as a person and the personal growth that inspires him day in, day out to be not only a better creator but a better person. Cole initially gained recognition by capturing legendary photos in hip-hop and live events, which resulted in his work being featured in major publications such as Complex Magazine and collaborations with Levi’s. But despite these incredible milestones, he always knew that his work would lead him to an even greater mission.
In the wake of the senseless and tragic killing of George Floyd in May 2020, and the protests against systemic racism and police brutality, Cole knew he had to capture the collective moments the world was experiencing and document history in real time. After springing into action, Cole traveled around his native New York City to capture the protests that were unfolding. Soon, he found himself traveling for the better part of a year across the East Coast to document the push for change. He amplified the voices of those around him, offering an intimate and up-close view of the diverse, complex and emotional reactions to current injustices.
In 2021, after compiling a massive collection of striking photographs of the current civil rights movement, Cole published American Protest. The book is a glimpse into America, captured in stunning and intimate black-and-white detail that tells not only the story of the American people and the current human experience in times of injustice but also shows the world through the lens of someone who dedicated their life to something beyond themself.
As a person, Cole isn’t afraid to be vulnerable in the public eye and speak his truth. Thankfully, he’s gained the support of thousands who are grateful for his honesty and commitment to telling history in a true sense, even if that means putting himself into dangerous or conflicting situations. Cole has sat down with prominent leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement and those inspiring positive change, but he’s also spoken with white supremacists and Capitol insurrectionists. That’s because he’s fearlessly aware that to capture history correctly, it has to cover the entire spectrum in hopes that negative historical events don’t repeat themselves.
For Cole, the future and its possibilities are endless. While he has dreams of developing his own show where he travels around the world, bringing his documentarian skills to the masses and becoming a household name for his contributions to history and the civil rights movement, it’s likely that he will transcend this in more ways than he expects. He will undoubtedly go on to be seen as a prominent figure who led the charge of showing the world the truth through his lens. With a legacy built on integrity, the world must take note and celebrate those who are unapologetically real.
It feels like the world is noticing what you capture and create even more now due to your honesty and intimacy with everything you do. Was there a moment that led you to become more vulnerable with yourself, your documentation and your photography as a whole?
As you get older, I guess you stop caring about what people think about you and instead care more about your legacy. For me, my legacy is very important and is one of the things that I have pretty much all control of while I’m alive, and I’m its main contributor. It’s all about leaving something behind that is very fruitful for my son and my family. With leaving my stamp on this world, you realize you just have to tell people how you really feel, and sometimes those feelings aren’t always happy, and sometimes they come with tears, tears of sorrow, and sometimes they are angry. Sometimes you feel lonely even when you have family, a son, a wife, friends and a community, but there are times where you want more and to change it up.
Over the last two years, people have been noticing my vulnerability from talking about what’s happening in the world, specifically what happened on Jan. 6 [the 2021 Capitol riots]. On Jan. 7, I got on Instagram Live, and I thought that dancing and playing one of my favorite songs was going to be my way of obtaining happiness and joy, and that’s what I did, but little did I know it would become my most watched video and also turn into my own therapy session. People told me I was needed and loved, and it really motivated me to keep going, which I didn’t know I needed, but I knew I needed to cry and for people to be there for me. Being surrounded by so many hateful people, I knew I had to be surrounded by love as well.
Obviously, you have been studying your craft of photography for decades now and are charging forward with your legacy, but so much of what you have been doing recently has been covering moments in time and capturing the world around you. Do you feel like this is second nature to you as your style continues to develop?
First of all, I’m self-taught, and it’s always been about trial and error while creating a style and persona that separated me from my own generation and those ahead of me as well. When I hear the word “moment,” I think about capturing the moment legitimately, and that’s what I did for many years because I was legit faking it till I made it. Getting there was a lot of fun, where I got to try a lot of different things and figure out what type of photographer I wanted to be.
Right off the bat, I knew I wanted to cover events and concerts. I would open up Complex Magazine and look at these musicians, and I was always inspired by music in general. It was twofold. I would try to find ways that I could get into these concert venues and be around these musicians and also how I could become this photographer who takes these photos in the back of Complex but also have people take photos of me as well. By using moments, I was able to accomplish my goals and more.
Practice makes perfect, and 20 years later, I can say that I feel like one of the greatest to do what I do and what I’ve done. However, that confidence didn’t happen overnight. In July, I was in the middle of Ethiopia in a field, and I had 125 tribal people clamoring for me to take their photo, and I took a moment to walk out to this field in the middle of a cornfield surrounded by a mountain range, and I just sat there talking to myself saying, “Damn, you fucking made it. You are here, and you are the fucking man.” It took me 20 years to finally say that to myself.
Your work makes people want to do better and do what you do, but what can people do to support what you are doing?
What I tell people is that it’s not so much what you can do for me but more so what you can do for yourself. You want to hear the things that are hard to hear because, at the end of the day, you will feel like a better person. To answer your question, what you need to do is listen to people because from that, you learn a lot about yourself and eventually will help people. I want to help make others become better people.
What I do with my work is to educate without throwing it in your face. When I go out and talk to a Black Trump supporter, it’s not just because I’m curious but more so because I know thousands of people are also curious and want to learn about this stuff. We all live in our bubbles where we know these people exist, but we never have the opportunities to hear what they have to say, but I’ll figure out a way where I can make these situations interesting and engaging. People will then be like, “I don’t fuck with this shit, but man, I’m listening.”
As you rise as a photographer, I can really see the growth. What do you make of your contemporaries in photography? I feel like there’s such a unique, differentiating factor to what you do that sets you apart in so many ways. Is this a driving force behind what you do and the moments that you document?
I always thought I was just as good as many of my contemporaries but felt like they were doing something that I wasn’t doing, whether that was networking or meeting the right person. I felt like that was a big part of why these photographers were successful. Me being me, my attitude was that it was going to happen for me when it’s meant to happen, and I always said that I hope to be alive to see it happen. It wasn’t until two years ago when the protests started where I really felt like it was my time. I put out a book of hip-hop stuff, and I feel like I’m one of the best hip-hop photographers in the world and not many people can fuck with me on live music photography. But now, it’s like, “Oh, you’re gonna put your photojournalism hat on.”
The reason I feel like I’m excelling in this shit is that it never feels like a job. This shit is bigger than me. This book American Protest that I put out, this shit is bigger than me. It’s about legacy and telling history because if it’s not me, then who will? If I wasn’t out there, there wouldn’t be a book about what has happened these past years. No one was able to capture these moments and see the things that I saw the way that I saw them.
The level of intimacy with your work is so real. Your attitude and vision are so strong that you bring this level of professionalism while still being on the front lines in a raw and organic way to show what’s really going on in the world that transcends what we see on social media or in the news. In many ways, I feel like you’re right in the middle of both. Would you agree?
It’s all been fuck this and fuck that my whole career, and partly this attitude has suspended me in the sense where I reach a ceiling when I won’t allow myself to go further because I won’t kiss people’s ass to do shit. Another photographer can wiggle their way in and take amazing photos, and I’ll have FOMO, but at the same time, I’m still me and still have my integrity, standards and rules of doing things the way I like to do them. At the same time, I need to figure out a different approach to get the results that I feel I deserve and need.
For me, using my phone when I’m out talking with people actually helps people become more vulnerable and connect with me in a way that you can’t when you have a big camera in front of them. It’s too professional and too “newsy.” Everyone in this country has been videographed with a phone, so they are comfortable talking.
People always ask me when I started talking to people, and it started on the second or third day of the protests when I realized it was super important to document what’s going on. This then transformed into me interviewing people and not taking a side in what’s going on, and a lot of that is inspired by Anthony Bourdain, newscasters that I listened to and watched in the past, and a lot of it is learning on the go and doing what I think is the right thing to do. I always considered myself a chameleon growing up, where I can adapt and excel.
What’s your dream project or scenario for the future and everything you create?
There are a few dream scenarios. Generally speaking, I want to take what I’m already doing, photography-wise, and make it bigger, get more eyes on my stuff, and become a household name. I’m already doing these three-four-minute shows with the Chelsea Football Club in London where I interview super fans and document them. We did five episodes last March, and now we’re in the middle of editing more episodes, and we took it up a notch and are planning to grow it even bigger, where it’s not just about soccer.
There’s this show on The Weather Channel with this Australian photographer who goes around the world documenting nature, and he has this big personality, and I want to take what he’s doing and take what Anthony Bourdain was doing and mix it with what I’m doing, where you can drop me in the room with a Ku Klux Klan man, talk with him, kick it with him and learn about him, but also drop me in the bucket with [Argentine soccer player] Lionel Messi and kick it with him so it’s just this big clusterfuck of different personalities and vibes. I would love to travel the world while doing this amazing show. That would probably be my dream scenario right now, where I’m directing it, producing it and so on.
This story appeared in issue #403 with cover star Dominic Fike, available here.
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