Capturing the Moment So It Will Last Forever
Melvin Grier uses his camera to document both news events and daily street life.
by Sadd Ghosn
Melvin Grier likes to quote African American civil rights writer James Baldwin who, reflecting on Richard Avedon’s photography, said: “For nothing is fixed forever and ever. Generations do not cease to be born and we’re responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.”
This is the role Grier chose for himself. For over 30 years and as a photojournalist he has witnessed and recorded his time’s events, paying special attention to his native city’s street life and to the life of his fellow African American Cincinnatians.
Born and raised in Cincinnati, Grier graduated from Martin DePorres, an all black boy’s high school in the West End. Later, he joined the Air Force, trained as a medic and based in England he worked in an obstetrical hospital at RAF Mildenhall. There and during his off-duty time, he picked up photography and learned basic skills and technique at the photo hobby shop on the base. With a camera in hand and a stainless steel developing tank to reveal his images he experienced the power of pictures, discovering at the same time the potent social works of Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks and W. Eugene Smith.
When discharged from the military and back in Cincinnati, Grier decided to work as a photographer. He joined briefly a commercial studio, worked for eight years for a printing company and finally landed at the Cincinnati Post as a full time photojournalist.
“Working for the Post was a great experience,” he says. “I would be given different assignments, some more fulfilling than others, but most importantly the opportunity every day to be out on the streets and explore things on my own.”
Grier likes to call himself a street photographer. Driving the city on many of his assignments, he would encounter and capture through his lens the ordinary and the less mundane, documenting regular black people’s lives and activities as well as the societal ills that affected them.
In the face of violence and increased homicides among black youth, he photographed, for instance, the many street memorials spontaneously erected for gun victims in various neighborhoods. His series Unfinished Lives was published in Cincinnati Magazine; it meant to make readers reflect and become involved in the problem solving process. Grier also took pictures at Cease Fire Cincinnati vigils held at the sites of the shootings, sharing them with the deceased’s family and friends and printing them at some point in the Post, raising awareness about the issue.
Sensitive to the displacement of poor people caused by the rehabbing of urban neighborhoods and having seen many of his childhood places, including the building where he grew up, demolished in order to “serve progress”, he took many pictures of the changing status of Over-the-Rhine and the resulting effects on its inhabitants. He wanted thus to state history and resist, even if only symbolically, the ongoing gentrification of the area.
“Progress comes and poor people move on,” he says. “Parts of Over-the-Rhine are looking very up-scale these days, unfortunately at the expense of the disadvantaged, mostly African Americans, who, in the process, lose part of their past.”
For the same reasons Grier documented the deteriorating condition of Washington Park. Initially a welcoming green space for the neighborhood, the park had become in the last few years a neglected, littered and dangerous place to frequent.
“I was convinced this was deliberately allowed to happen,” he says. “The agenda, as we know it, is to uproot the poor. It was important to be a voice for them.”
Homeless individuals and panhandlers also often found their way in his photographs. Grier considers them part of what makes the city, and their begging to earn a living similar to a job. His photograph Pokemon represents a homeless man of the same name, sitting under the snow, holding a blessing sign and asking passers-by for charity.
“Pokemon would sit there every single day, a constant feature of the city,” says Grier. “He surely was not lazy; something else must have been going on in him. But if anything he added daily compassion and humanity to the busy urban life.”
Thanks to his job at the Post, Grier was also able to travel the world. He visited, among other countries, El Salvador, Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti and at each of his abroad assignments captured the human, social and political issues of the place, amazed by the cultural diversity, connecting with the local people.
“There are obvious differences between cultures,” he says. “If we ignore them and do not reach out to understand them, we become prejudiced and develop a racist attitude.”
His statement relates well to his own experience having encountered wide spread racial discrimination, intolerance and inequity growing up as a black child in the 50’s, training as a medic in Montgomery, Alabama, and witnessing the racial violence of the 60’s.
Even though his personal and private work dealt primarily with African American subjects, the majority of Grier’s assignments as a photojournalist related to white people and resulted in photos exclusively depicting them.
“I often would be the only black person present and the one taking the pictures,” he says. He recently showed in an exhibit titled White People sixty of these pictures taken at different times. Seen with the eyes of a minority individual, they again remind of diversity and of the need to reach out and learn about others.
“Everything to me is about photography,” says Grier. “I used it for my job, but also to document things I care about, the human condition in my city, its street life, the problems facing the African American community, jazz, store front churches. It served also as my voice when I needed to make a statement, for instance when opposing the zoo’s expansion at the expense of its residential neighborhood.”
Now retired, Grier continues his love affair with the camera. He still wants his photographs to touch emotionally and connect with the viewer, also capture the present moment and life as it goes on.