Johanne Rahaman is used to being invisible. Before she was a resident, and finally a citizen of the United States, the 47-year-old, Miami-based photographer practiced living under the radar, purposefully unseen. “Invisibility is what I’ve done for so long,” Rahaman told Jezebel. Purposefully or not, it’s that sense of being unseen that drives Rahaman’s photography: for the last few years, she’s been photographing Florida’s black towns and communities, creating what she describes as “snapshots of a community in my time,” for her ongoing project, Black Florida.
Black Florida isn’t simply a collection of photographs, it’s a long-term project dedicated to both rendering black communities visible and preserving those images for future generations. Rahaman describes Black Florida as an archive of sorts, of both photographs and oral histories that amount to a “collection of a community’s history.” Though the archive might seem like a neutral place, Black Florida reveals that it’s deeply bound to visibility—a concept that is tied to both political power and cultural authority. Who the camera sees and how he or she captured, is tied to the history of photography, one in which bodies of color are visually tied to a range of negative visual tropes, from disease to social ills and scientific experiments.
Rahaman’s project is a clear rejoinder to that part of the history of photography, purposefully conjuring up the photojournalism of Gordon Parks or the glamorous black and white photographs of the Harlem Renaissance by James Van Der Zee. “Since segregation ended, the entire working class black community hasn’t really been looked at in a compassionate way, especially in the eyes of photographers,” Rahaman says. She’s interested in counteracting photographic sensationalism and turns her camera away from what she describes as “images of negating,” instead refocusing her lens towards the joy of black communities (she cites Parks as a conscious influence).
Rahaman seeks out the invisible—particularly underrepresented vibrancy of black communities. Families, confident young women, happy children with ice cream, and old men resting on chairs all dance before Rahaman’s lens. She finds those joyful moments in places that photojournalists don’t usually see: at a community festival on a rainy south Florida day, beauty shops and bars, and in homes to which she’s been invited. Rahaman elicits the confidence and joy in her photographs by building relationships with her subjects. “I’m not an image thief,” Rahaman says. Instead, she builds relationships with communities and gets very involved in people’s lives. “It’s like getting a bit of family,” she says.
Indeed, it was that search for familial belonging that led Rahaman to begin Black Florida in the first place. When she first moved to Miami from her native Trinidad, Rahaman used to drive through Liberty City, the historically black neighborhood that recently served as the setting for Moonlight, seeking comfort in the midst of her own invisibility. Black Florida, Rahaman says, “started as a form of escapism. I would drive into Liberty City because it reminded me of home, it was the closest thing to the neighborhood I grew up in, to the neighborhoods surrounding the Laventille Hills.”
She began taking photographs in 2002 but, at the beginning, it was more of a hobby than anything else. The hobby became a serious endeavor in 2013. Despite her rigorously composed images, Rahaman says she still doesn’t consider herself a professional photographer, but adds that Black Florida is “not a hobby.” Instead, she describes it as “an extension of who I am.” That’s in part because Rahaman doesn’t operate like a traditional photojournalist. Instead of parachuting into communities on assignment—often looking for conflict or tension—she values relationships and personal introductions. “I don’t just photograph people, I build relationships with them, I talk to them,” she says.
That interpersonal aspect is central to Rahaman’s process and the building of Black Florida. Done largely through introductions, her entry into communities is more organic. Perhaps that’s why her photographs have an empathetic candidness often missing in the representation of black people, particularly black women. Though Rahaman has a set of communities mapped out for the next five years—working north by following the train track, Florida’s traditional racial demarcator—with plans to eventually move to northern Florida and into the panhandle, she tends to zig-zag across the state, happily detoured when someone is willing to make an introduction in a community that’s not on her route. “If I meet someone [while photographing] who has a connection to another place, even if it’s a little off route, I have to follow it. It connects them to the community I met them in,” Rahaman explains.
Right now, Black Florida is just Rahaman—she works alone, spending her weekends traveling to different towns and communities, using a small digital camera and her iPhone to create the future archive. She says she shoots primarily in digital to handle the “magnitude of the work.” But she eventually hopes to get enough funding to make Black Florida a full-time project, to expand it enough so that the oral histories Rahaman’s recorded can live online, along with her photographs. She adds that she’d like to eventually model Black Florida after Zora Neale Hurston, the novelist who lived and wrote about Eatonville, a small black town in central Florida that Rahaman has photographed. “I’d like to be able to get an RV and live in the town for months at a time,” Rahaman says. Her overall goal is to give the photographs back to each town so that there’s a permanent archive, one that’s collaborative and reflective of the lives lived in black towns.
Until that’s possible, Rahaman will continue to follow the train tracks or zig-zag across the state, creating snapshots of black communities and, in the process, rendering them photographically visible.