On the Front Lines of the Black Lives Matter Protests

Burner Kamal X offers a personal tour of his powerful photography.

Self-portrait. All photos by Kamal X

Kamal X is an Oakland-based photographer who’s been to Black Rock City twice. Recently, he hit the streets in the Bay Area to document the Black Lives Matter protests and the fight against institutionalized racism and police brutality. “I felt it necessary to document what’s been going on through my lens as a Black man,” he said. “I want to make sure all narratives are given a fair shot at being displayed during this moment in history. He walked us through 10 of his favorite shots and told us the story of each.

“This one was a couple of days after the [George Floyd] protests first started, so there was more of a rawness to the protest and more of anxiety in the air because COVID’s going on at the same time. People were going out there and saying, ‘OK, we’re going to be out together and do this. Even in spite of the COVID fears because we know we have to fight for what’s right.’ I felt that energy.”

“We were marching towards the police station. A group of us at the front [encountered this] standoff. For me as a photographer, and as a person, it was the first time I saw the conversations that can happen between officers and the general public…[In this case, the tone] was very reflective, not really anger. There was a lot of conversation looking for understanding. And I think this is why this photo was so important, because they were really having a dialogue. One of the officers was actually speaking back like, ‘Yo, I understand, but this is what we have to do. You know, order.’ It was a very surreal moment with the protester opening his hands. And he’s like, ‘This makes no sense to me. Like, why is this still happening in 2020? Why are we not getting any answers? Why do you have riot gear on when we’re just fighting for what’s right?’

This was one of the more back-and-forth conversations that I’ve seen. The officer was able to be empathetic and compassionate. He knew that this wasn’t a bad guy. This was someone that was just trying to find answers and was hurt and in pain.”

“I’m 6’5” so I have to be very, I would say, cat-like to a degree in terms of being close enough to get something but not disrupt the image, not make [the subject] look at me and feel uncomfortable. ’Cause once that happens, you don’t get the truth anymore. That’s something I just had to learn over time. Like for this shot, I was in the middle of the street when I was like, ‘What’s that over there?’ My body was below him, and he never even noticed me. So it’s like a learned behavior, don’t make a scene. And wear dark clothes, too.”

“I really connected with this one cause he was really angry. There was a whole line of cops, and, you can’t see it, but he’s giving them all the middle finger. But the way this photo ended up looking to me is like he’s holding up a gun or something like that. Whenever I see this photo, I just feel the raw emotion of how angry he was. There was a rage in the air. There’s a power to rage, especially when it’s used in a way that makes sense and no one actually gets hurt, you know?”

“This is something else I saw a lot of: someone would try to explain to a cop, ‘Yo man, I know you want to be on our side, take a knee with us. This needs to stop. We need to change this. Just show us something.’ This photo, it’s one moment. But this is a moment where he was trying to ignore. You can see it in his face. He’s taking it in, but he’s also like, ‘What do you want from me?’…There’s like this balance of listening and I care. I’m also a person of color. I feel you, but also I have to be here. So it’s this weird dichotomy of emotions that I know they’re dealing with. Just like all of us are dealing with.”

“This one is from the protest that started at Mission High School. I didn’t know where to stand because I was finicky about the COVID. So I was trying to stay away from people. I remember this just felt like his spirit was so alive…I just happened to be on the right street in front of the whole parade; there’s like a caravan behind it with drummers and everything. And when I saw it, I felt something in my heart. I wanted to do something that showed that he’s still with us in spirit. With the sun behind him, it just makes me feel like his spirit is alive, and we’re doing right by him by standing up and fighting injustice and coming together in such a powerful way.”

“Some photos you take and you just know like, ‘Oh, this is it.’ To me, this photo is about how strong we are and just how important it is for us to stand up. The reason why I love it is because there’s buildings, and he’s as big as the buildings. With his fist, he just stands out more. We’re just so huge and powerful, and there’s so many things about us — the love, the forgiveness, the peace, the creativity… All of the things all of us have, really, but unfortunately for us, it’s been suppressed in so many ways. So to see that in that moment, I just felt like that was like an awakening or a standing up; just raw reality believing in something bigger. Like we’re going to break the ceiling, so to speak. We’re going to create a new world, and be strong and powerful together. ”

“This photo says it all. To me, it says our future. It shows that he’s paying attention and seeing this. I saw a lot of kids out there. It’s a beautiful thing. It makes me feel like, man, if I was that young and I was seeing this, how would that have shifted my life? How would that have changed my view of what’s going to happen? Cause this is our future, this is who’s going to be leading us.”

“I don’t want to bash the police, but this photo is probably one of the more stronger ones that I have. He doesn’t want to be there. You can tell he’s a good guy. He’s not like trying to hurt anybody. It’s like, damn, the level of the conflicting emotions that they have to be going through right now…this is one of those photos that really gives an eye to that.”

“I like this one because it just shows the times we’re in with the youth, in terms of the phone up. We’re broadcasting; we’re present. It says a lot about this type of revolution that’s happening versus how it has been in the past. Also, it’s so important, because if things aren’t recorded, we wouldn’t be here today.”

You can see the entire gallery here and follow Kamal here.

Interview by Mia Quagliarello

Dispatches on impact and innovation from Black Rock City and beyond.

Beyond Burning Man
Burning Man Project

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The nonprofit Burning Man Project facilitates and extends a global cultural movement united in the pursuit of a more creative and connected world.

Beyond Burning Man

Dispatches on impact and innovation from Black Rock City and beyond.