Mel D. Cole, American Protest, Photographs 2020-2021

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Damiani Editore (here). Hardcover, 144 pages, with 170 black and white and color photographs. Includes texts by Jamie Lee Curtis and Blair Milbourne. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Mel D. Cole is an acclaimed photographer who first became known for his images of celebrity musicians, from the Roots, A$AP Rocky, and Kendrick Lamar to Erykah Badu and Beyoncé. After a successful commission to shoot a soccer match in Italy, Cole launched Charcoal Pitch F.C., the first Black-owned sports photography agency “dedicated to creatively exploring soccer visually and educationally through a multiracial visual lens.” But the events of the past two years led him to switch to a more photojournalistic approach. During the early days of the COVID pandemic, he started documenting the streets of New York City, and when the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd erupted across the United States, Cole turn his camera to the wider story of the BLM rallies and their ramifications. 

His book American Protest, Photographs 2020-2021 powerfully documents both Black Lives Matter demonstrations and pro-Trump rallies, shot for over a year in New York City, as well as in Washington, D.C., Richmond, Houston, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis. The book has a clear mission to document and share the current political moment, and does so with its direct title, its straightforward design, and its many on-the-ground photographs. An image capturing a clash between protesters and counter-protesters at a Blue Lives Matter event in support of police in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, appears on the front cover, and inside, the visual flow consists largely of black and white photographs, their placement and number per spread varying from page to page, stressing the chaos of the various rallies and marches. A couple of color images appear throughout the book, adding emphasis to certain moments, and a simple list of captions identifying locations and dates is placed on the endpaper. 

The book opens with a photograph showing a group of police officers on the street holding a Black man, his mouth open as he struggles in their grasp. The photo was taken in NYC on June 6, 2020, just a week or so after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The next spread pairs two photos, each showing a man in handcuffs, one of them holding his hands in an expressive gesture of grief. This is then followed by a full spread image capturing police officers and protesters clashing on the street as seen from the above.  Many people wear masks in a year marked by both the pandemic and racial injustice protests, and Cole’s images reflect the tensions, emotions, and violence of the unfolding events. 

Cole’s photos show people taking their demands to the streets – we see them marching, holding their protest signs, raising fists in solidarity, camping by City Hall, or dancing and drumming in celebration of community. A portrait of a young woman wearing a mask reading “justice for Breonna Taylor” takes up most of one spread and is followed by a full bleed photo showing a mass protest and people with signs. Some of them read “white silence is violence”, “bring her justice”, “happy birthday angel”. “What I’m looking for is emotion,” Cole says. “If I’m shooting a concert or backstage with a musician, I’m trying to tell a story to the world. So it’s the same skills, just a different environment.” Later in the publication, another striking photo captures an enormous crowd near the Brooklyn Museum, all dressed in white, an historic moment of a massive gathering in support of Black trans lives; that day about 15,000 people gathered to show solidarity and support, and Cole was there to capture the scene.

Plenty of violent moments are also captured in Cole’s photos. In one group, he documented the destruction caused by looters as some took advantage of the chaos during the protests: nine images laid out in a grid show boarded up storefronts, shattered shop windows, a burning police car, a vandalized ATM machine, as well as police conducting arrests. While documenting the looting, Cole himself was harassed by the police officers, as they assumed he was one of the troublemakers.

In the second half of the book, the narrative moves from the BLM movement to various counter protests, showing rallies in support of Trump. Cole knew that in capturing this complicated historical moment, he had to show the entire spectrum of events that were taking place. On January 6, he planned to document the pro-Trump rally, and ultimately found himself photographing the insurrection at the US Capitol – he describes it as “the most terrifying day” ever. A powerful full spread photograph shows the officer Michael Fanone squeezed in the middle of an angry mob, with an American flag right above him and a good number of “Make America Great Again” hats dotting the image. 

The following spread pairs eight small images showing both the chaos and violence as the mob stormed the Capitol, and the range of emotions on display, including an enraged man waving an American flag, another person yelling to rally rioters, and a third person in pain after being pepper sprayed. A full spread photo shows the mob pushing and climbing up a wall and waving American flags. Another spread shows three images put together in one line across the page: a portrait of a young Black man wearing a MAGA hat, a group of nuns holding a “stand with Trump” sign, and a group of orthodox Jews with a “save America” poster. Cole’s images powerfully capture the drama of the unprecedented political riots and insurgency in the nation’s capital.

By the end of the book, Cole has come full circle, returning to images of BLM protestors and graffiti-covered Confederate monuments. He seems to be saying that these moments of having the courage to stand up for justice are key to our collective history. They bring together communities, inspire action, and result in social and political change.

American Protest is a straightforward book documenting a complex moment of profound social upheaval, focusing on the human experience in times of injustice. Cole’s photographs thoughtfully document the chaos, the tension, and the violence of the wider moment. They also show the courage of people compelled to take action in the face of oppression. His series furthers the legacy of the civil rights movement, giving it a contemporary context and depicting once again a nation at a crossroads.

Collector’s POV: Mel D. Cole does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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