A Simple Directive Sparked a Storied Career: ‘Now, Take the Picture.’
A new retrospective honors Michelle V. Agins, a Pulitzer-winning New York Times photographer who captures tales that might in any other case go untold.
Photographs by Michelle V. Agins
Text by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff
Michelle V. Agins was solely a baby when she caught a homicide on digicam.
She was about 10 or 11 years previous, she lately recalled, and was sitting up one evening on the prime flooring of her residence constructing on the South Side of Chicago, experimenting with time exposures on some new tools. She noticed a acquainted face by means of her window — a man named Red, in the alley beneath, flanked by a man to whom he owed cash.
“I heard Mr. Red saying, ‘Please don’t kill me. Here’s all the money,’” Ms. Agins stated. “The guy says, ‘No, too late, too late, man.’ And he turned him around and shot him in the back of the head.”
The cash that had been in Red’s arms went in all places, with a few of it floating into Ms. Agins’s household’s yard.
Instead of being scared, Ms. Agins did what a notably pragmatic younger individual would do: She advised her grandmother, whom she lived with, that there was cash to be collected downstairs.
Ms. Agins at her stoop in Brooklyn, holding the Kodak digicam her grandmother gave her when she was a lady. Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times
And after her grandmother went downstairs to attempt to perceive what Ms. Agins was speaking about and noticed the physique? Well, Ms. Agins defined that she’d truly captured the homicide on movie. Her grandmother, terrified, took the digicam away.
“I didn’t see that camera for, like, two or three months,” Ms. Agins stated. But for her, it was a defining second: a realization that information images may present proof and inform vital tales in Black, working-class neighborhoods like her personal.
Ms. Agins, 68, is now one in every of the longest serving workers photographers at The New York Times, having began in 1989. Her physique of labor is about to be honored this fall at the Photoville Festival in New York. The retrospective, created in partnership with Ms. Agins’s colleagues at The Times, will mirror on an immense physique of labor — and acknowledge the indisputable fact that, as one in every of the first Black photographers at The Times, she served as an emissary for the paper in a means that few Black journalists of earlier generations had the alternative to do. Much like pioneers resembling Don Hogan Charles, the first Black photographer employed by The Times, Ms. Agins has spent a lot of her profession documenting Black tales and providing readers a glimpse into Black American life in a means they’d by no means been granted earlier than.
“I like historic storytelling, because our history sometimes disappears,” she stated. “We forget about people unless they’re getting shot down or hurt. I want to bring people into the forefront before any of that stuff happens.”
Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
For a collection in 1991 on violence in Black communities, Ms. Agins photographed the arms of a 16-year-old lady who had been shot and killed in Brooklyn, lined in mementos left by family members.
After Serena Williams misplaced the U.S. Open to Naomi Osaka in 2018 in a heated match, Ms. Agins captured her advanced response.
In 1992, Ms. Agins photographed a Brooklyn mom as she helped her daughters put together for varsity.
Ms. Agins lined a Covid-era marketing campaign occasion for Kamala Harris in Philadelphia in 2020 …
… and a 1989 occasion for then-mayoral candidate David N. Dinkins, who appeared with Jesse Jackson in Queens.
“Even when I’m on last-minute, grip-and-grin assignments,” stated Ms. Agins, “I still try to find a story in those moments.”
For The Times, Ms. Agins has photographed celebrated Black figures, from Prince and Herbie Hancock to Serena Williams and Kamala Harris. She’s lined breaking information, together with the 1989 Bensonhurst protests over the homicide of Yusef Hawkins and the 2004 coup in Haiti. She was additionally a part of a workforce that received the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for the collection “How Race Is Lived In America.” She considers her digicam to be a a part of the ongoing dialog she is having with the world round her, she stated.
Ms. Agins recalled how she grew up underneath the watchful, fearless eye of her Jamaican grandmother, whom she now calls her “pride and joy,” and her cigar-smoking, hard-working grandfather. Ms. Agins was generally known as an clever baby; her nickname round her neighborhood, she stated, was “professor.” Her mom, whose father was white, gave her up when she was simply two weeks previous, apparently partly due to her darkish complexion. Her grandmother used to inform her, “You’ll always be my brown baby, no matter what.” It was this love, Ms. Agins stated, that counteracted such an early rejection from her mom — and the ache of her mom’s eventual demise, which got here when Ms. Agins was solely eight.
That identical 12 months, her grandmother gave Ms. Agins her first digicam. It was a boxy Kodak brownie, which she remembers as having a flashbulb scorching sufficient to burn fingers. Her grandmother purchased the digicam with winnings from a church social. Ms. Agins instantly took to the streets and began taking footage. Having a completely different lens, actually, by means of which to expertise the world modified every part for her. “The camera really was my first bridge to making friendships in my neighborhood,” she stated.
For a collection on life in Harlem in 1994, Ms. Agins photographed neighbors as they gathered for a night card recreation. For this undertaking, “I had to hang out in order for the folks in the community to accept me and to start getting used to me,” Ms. Agins stated.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York TimesA girl named Nadine mourns a murdered good friend after his funeral in Harlem in 1994. Ms. Agins strives to seize intimate, sincere moments by incomes the belief of her topics. “I’m pretty innocent in that I just assume that it’s OK to extend my camera as part of the conversation,” she stated.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
She nonetheless had her unique brownie digicam in 1964 when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. got here to city to go to Liberty Baptist Church. It was there that she was noticed by John Tweedle, one in every of the first Black workers photographers at The Chicago Daily News. Mr. Tweedle took a of Dr. King earlier than heading towards Ms. Agins. “He grabbed me by the scruff and pulled me over. And he said, ‘Now, take the picture.’” Of course, she did.
It was the begin of a lasting friendship that noticed Mr. Tweedle typically visiting Ms. Agins’s household residence. He gave her a professional-quality Nikon digicam as a reward, which helped her safe a few of her first freelance jobs in the trade.
It wasn’t a simple path towards a profession at The Times; Ms. Agins confronted harsh rejections, beginning early. When she tried to affix a images membership in the seventh grade, she recalled being advised it was “just for boys.”
While she was in highschool, she labored as a copy lady at The Chicago Daily News; later, after graduating with a journalism diploma from Rosary College (now referred to as Dominican University), she went again to The Daily News and sought a full-time images job, having already labored freelance for the paper. As Ms. Agins remembers it, the hiring editor stated: “‘You were a nice novelty. We really enjoyed having you around. But you’re a pretty Black girl. You should go get yourself a nice husband and have you some babies.’”
For a collection in 1998 on W.N.B.A. gamers, Ms. Agins sought unusually intimate entry to their pre- and post-game rituals. Here, Kym Hampton braids Rebecca Lobo’s hair earlier than a recreation.Credit…Michelle V. AginsVickie Johnson of the New York Liberty recovers in an ice bathtub in her lodge room after a recreation in 1998. Credit…Michelle V. Agins
Ms. Agins as a substitute acquired a job with the City of Chicago, then grew to become an official photographer in 1983 for Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor. She joined The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina in 1988 and The Times one 12 months later, turning into simply the second Black feminine workers photographer for the paper. (Ruby Washington was the first.)
Her 1994 undertaking for The Times, “Another America: Life on 129th Street,” noticed Ms. Agins and a reporter, Felicia R. Lee, spend a 12 months constructing relationships in Harlem. She remembers encountering tales of each heartbreak and love. One girl named Vikki advised Ms. Agins about a time when her sister accused their stepfather of sexual abuse and he threw acid on them each. The acid scarred Vikki’s arms.
One day, Ms. Agins was with Vikki at a home after the christening of some infants. “One of the babies started crying. She picked it up and I said, ‘Don’t move, don’t breathe, don’t do anything,’” Ms. Agins stated. “When I saw the scars and her holding that baby, it made me think she was going to protect it from the kinds of things she’d gone through.”
Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
An aerial view by Ms. Agins of New Yorkers having fun with the sunshine in Central Park in 1994.
Robert Dunn reworked himself into Onionhead the clown at the Universoul Circus in Prospect Park in Brooklyn in 2000.
These residents of the Bronx gathered on a bench to beat the warmth in 1993 …
… whereas a scorching canine vendor generally known as Mr. Peanut discovered shade on the avenue in Harlem.
Ms. Agins routinely finds moments of sudden magnificence, as with a fog-enshrouded Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in 1999.
In 1991, Ms. Agins determined she needed to cowl the situation of Black kids killing one another. Specifically, she needed to take pictures inside a funeral residence. It took her six months to search out an undertaker who would give her permission to do this. An undertaker’s niece, murdered by a boy she barely knew who was irritated with the means she checked out him, grew to become her topic. But when the time got here to take the pictures, Ms. Agins struggled: She needed to be delicate but in addition to ensure the piece would have an effect on readers on an emotional stage.
“I’m sitting there and I said, ‘Come on, girl, help me,’” Ms. Agins recalled, talking of her remaining moments alone with the physique. “I walked over and realized how many of her friends had put their favorite pictures with her, their favorite candies — Now and Later — all the different things that reminded them of her.” The haunting Ms. Agins took is of the 16-year-old lady’s arms crossed in her coffin, lined in that memorabilia.
Often, Ms. Agins’s topics are these she deems “her people” — folks similar to these whom she grew up with on the South Side of Chicago. Poor folks. Black folks. Her dialog with them, she stated, isn’t over. Among hardships, hurdles and successes, she retains the urge to maintain telling their tales.