Cover Story: A year and some change

Black Lives Matter' sparks changing of the guard in Atlanta's civil rights legacy

Here’s the story behind last week’s cover image. It was shot by local street photographer Julian Plowden. Over the course of the past year, the 23-year-old Marietta resident’s coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement has taken him from Atlanta to Ferguson to Selma to Harvard. When we talked last Thursday, on the day the cover story “A Year and Some Change” came out, he was at Princeton University working with Bloc, a new collective of student leaders from across the nation working to create a professional network and app to help black millennials leverage resources (OurBloc.co).

The photo he took last August during the first march and rally organized by It’s Bigger Than You symbolizes the story of young activists emerging into the forefront of Atlanta’s civil rights leadership over the past year. In the shot, a toddler, sitting on what appears to be her father's shoulders, mimics the adults in the crowd by raising a black power fist in solidarity. Plowden, whose images documenting the movement have been exhibited locally at the Hammonds House Museum (LiFT Art Salon Series), Emory University's MARBL Collection, and will soon be on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris, talks about what made that picture so compelling to him, why he had Angela Davis sign an original copy, and how the course of his own life has changed as a result of his surreal evolution from ATL street photographer and student to documenter of history. 

Let's start with the cover image. Do you remember taking that shot? What’s the story behind it?

Julian Plowden: That was the large march last August at the CNN Center. During the entire speech before the march, the skies were gray. When we started marching, that’s when you heard the first thunderclap. And you could tell it was seriously about to rain. But everyone surprisigingly stayed together. Of course, there just happened to be a lot of women out there. And since it was about to rain and people had their hair out, I thought, Ok, I guess we’re not about to march then. But people actually stayed together. It was more like thunder and lightning, but you looked around and people were hand-in-hand and kept on moving. It just felt like a really powerful moment. It felt very inspiring.

That specific photo was taken shortly after it started. I started to see the kids were kind of mimicking the adults, and they were really getting into it. I was thinking, did they really understand the speeches at the CNN Center? I think a lot of them were moved, and I just saw this little girl on what I believe could be her dad’s shoulders raising her fist throughout the march with everyone else. It took me a few tries but I caught her doing it. I watched her for a little bit to make sure ’cause I wasn’t sure at first if she was just stretching or something. But when I realized it I was like, 'My God, she’s really doing the power fist. I’ve gotta get this.' For me it was a lot of moments of disbelief — like, 'Oh my gosh, these black women are really about to march in the rain,' or, 'Oh my gosh, even the little kids are getting into it and raising their power fist.' It was like being in a movie. The entire experience was surreal. 

Was this the first march that you covered?

Yes, I would say it was. I went to the Trayvon Martin rally in Atlanta the previous year. That was my true first one, but I got there so late I don’t really feel like it counts. The Michael Brown one I really attended and was there from the beginning. I’m 23 years old now so I didn’t grow up going to protests and stuff like that. So the Trayvon Martin rally was my first in the sense that I was old enough to even go and participate in something like that. After that, when the Mike Brown situation came around I came out with my camera ready to shoot just in case. At first I was a little apprehensive because all the professional media was there. I thought, 'I don’t need to do it now because surely they have professional photographers.' But I actually just took photos anyway because of the whole experience being unbelievable. I realized that I should go ahead and try to capture the moment — if not for anyone else then at least for myself. Just to remember it. 

Images have really been the main source of information for defining the original Civil Rights Movement. Have you thought about the role that you’re playing in terms of not only preserving the history but shaping how this story will be told to the next generation?

Definitely. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. It took me awhile. After that first march at the CNN Center, [http://clatl.com/atlanta/aurielle-lucier-the-free-radical/Content?oid=13050107|Elle Lucier] of It’s Bigger Than You asked me if I wanted to go to Ferguson, Mo. with them when they responded to the national Black Lives Matter call. That was my first real choice where I had to think about it. This wasn’t just going Downtown to some march. I thought, 'Am I really about to get into this?' I had posted my photos to Tumblr a little while before that and people were really receptive. I think the post on Tumblr has over 100,000 notes and reposts — maybe over 200,000 now. But I just thought at the moment with my experience as a street photographer, someone needed to be there with them to capture the moment if they were going to go to Ferguson.

It was another surreal moment. After that happened I realized I wanted to stay involved and keep on doing what I could with my camera to help out the activist. Elle and I started working with I ,Too, Am Harvard Blacktivism Conference on microaggressions. Up there I met this filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris, who made the film Through a Lens Darkly with the help of Deborah Willis (Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present). I ran into him there and told him what I’d done with Elle and he invited me to come to his film screening. In his film he talks about the importance of the black photographer, and I learned that the reason we have photos of W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington Carver, a lot of famous black intellectuals, is because they were strategic in stressing the importance of good media representation. So immediately I felt a strong sense of commitment and responsibility for my photos, because I now knew that it’s something icons I looked up to and believed was important. I unknowingly had gotten into it before even knowing how pivotal it was. From then on, I was even more energized. Now I know I’m doing the right thing. I know I need to capture photos of them all as they're doing the work right now. I could be in their position doing the work, but it’s really important that someone is there to capture that narrative.

That all happened within the course of two or three months of me shooting at the CNN Center. I met the right people, I guess, and had an immediate understanding that what I casually went out to capture as a street photographer and black person was something of far more historical gravitas than I believed at first. 

What's one highlight that still resonates with you from your travels to places like Ferguson and Selma this year? 

I got to see Angela Davis speak. Angela Davis actually signed that photo that’s on the cover of Creative Loafing. She signed the original photograph. I specifically asked her to because I felt it related a lot to feminism and I just wanted to — within the black movement struggle black men are historically centered a lot and that's fine, but one thing I’ve learned from going to protests is how intersectional it is. So I decided that if I was going to approach her I specifically wanted her to sign that photo because it’s one that’s really popular and it could impact a lot of people on a different level than what’s traditionally been promoted regarding civil rights — which is just black men. It was a strategic thing. I really wanted her to sign that photo. 

You’ve mentioned street photography a couple of times. I’m assuming that means you were a photographer before all of this. If so, what kind of stuff were you shooting?

I got a camera because I started Southern Polytechnic State University in architecture and we had to document our portfolios for architecture. Because of that I would shoot around for fun until I was asked to join the student newspaper. I’ve been shooting now for three years in the fall. And maybe a year in I started doing street photography. When I came to Atlanta from Columbus, Ga., a lot of the images I saw of Atlanta were cool but I felt like there were so many neat places in Atlanta that I could give people a new view of the city. People would often message me on my website CandidInAtlanta.com and my Tumblr and say, ‘Oh, these images of Atlanta are like I haven’t seen the city before.' 

It’s really photos from walking around the streets of Atlanta late at night. I’ve stayed in Atlanta all night before, just walking around taking photos. Also because I don’t have a car I’ve gotten stuck down there at the end of the day. I may be photographing for an event, like WERC Crew on Edgewood Ave. or something like that, but I wouldn’t tell people I didn’t have a ride. I’m just doing the whole starving artist thing. And I would just get on the first bus or train back to Marietta at like 6 a.m. and go back there. I also ran cross country in high school so walking for miles isn’t that big a deal. I would just go hiking through the city, basically, doing street photography.

Why do you define Black Lives Matter as a movement? 

There are a lot of other young, committed, black college students and intellectuals in general who have become active and passionate in the same manner that I have through taking different paths. I call it a movement because this may be normal for folks who were alive 50 years ago and have seen the Civil Rights Movement, but for a lot of us in our early 20s this is all new to us. But I was willing to go out and do so much, and I found that there’s a whole community of people that are doing as much. And I’m not slowing down any time soon, so I don’t expect them to. I’ve even seen middle schoolers protesting over the past few months. Since it’s reached my generation, which I feel was kind of out of touch with current events, I feel like it’s definitely a movement. It's sparked awareness within a lot of youth and you can’t really turn that off now that it’s happening. And it’s positive, too.

I came into this whole movement with a different context maybe than some people would where they may think, ‘This is what I have to do to help out.’ I just looked at the skills I had and tried to see how I could use that to help out. Instead of trying to be the next MLK, I just thought how can I be Julian Plowden for the movement. The more I thought about it, the more the ideas escalated. And now I’m at Princeton and don’t even know if I’m going to return to school next semester ’cause I’ve got to pay for the classes. But it’s kind of been a worthwhile adventure and I don’t see it slowing down.

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