VICE’s #BlackLove series celebrates the bonds between Black people through intimate, powerful, and uplifting narratives of love in all its forms. Through these stories, we honor the art, activism, and beauty that grows from black love.
Self-taught photographer Idris Solomon had to learn how to love. His story is one familiar to scores of Black men across the country: no father figure in his life; raised by his mother in a single-parent household. According to a 2017 U.S. Census Bureau report, more than 30 percent of Black children live with an unmarried mother, compared to 6.5 percent for white children. So when Solomon entered a serious relationship, he was forced to learn what it takes to sustain a successful relationship only as challenges presented themselves.
Eighteen years later, and Solomon says he and his partner are still figuring it out. “Neither of us ever had a father figure around growing up,” he told VICE. “So we learned from our mothers, who did the best they could. We have no road map. And we’re making it up as we go.”
There’s immense power in discussing and documenting the micro-level practicalities of fighting to be Black and happy. Solomon does this in his own work, where he captures Black people out in the the world, trying their best to figure it out and thrive. His latest projects include a profile on a Black lacrosse coach and his team, a Black-owned funeral home, and Black teen muralists. Experiential photography, you could call it. His out-and-about documentary-style photojournalism feels akin to the work of legendary Black photography Gordon Parks. Photos that illustrate how Black people living their lives—playing sports, performing ballet, creating hip-hop—are radical acts of self-love within themselves.
And on the topic of Black love, Solomon draws from his two-decade relationship to offer this piece of advice to readers: “Remember that you are always changing, and your partner is always changing. You’re not going to be the same people as when you met.”
Solomon talked to VICE about using photography to alleviate the crushing loneliness of working in corporate America and how 90s and early-aughts Black rom-coms like Love Jones and Love and Basketball are excellent how-to guides on Black love.
VICE: Tell me about yourself.
Idris Solomon: I’m a self-taught photographer. For most of my career I’ve been doing graphic design and art direction (I currently work as an art director), and photography is something I’ve always been interested in. One day, I just decided to buy a camera and start telling stories about my community that I felt like weren’t being seen. The thing is, when I picked up the camera, I wanted to find other photographers that looked like me, and I wasn’t finding them very easily.
Can you talk about the difficulty of finding Black photographers to look up to?
I have this frustration around having to really dig deep for black photographers that aren’t Gordon Parks or Carrie Mae Weems. Why? I took a photography class where the teacher showed us all these “legends of photography,” and there was not one Black photographer. Out of that frustration, I made a vow to myself that the next generation of photographers would know my name and the names of other Black photographers. Because we’re going to make ourselves known.
What aspects of Black identities do you focus on in your work?
I got a Fulbright fellowship in 2016. I compared and contrasted hip-hop in Ghana to hip-hop in the U.S. How there’s this conversation happening, because hip-hop essentially is West African. Ghanaians look to hip-hop for inspiration, but what’s ironic is that what we’re doing here in the states initially came from West Africa.
You’ve also focused on under-highlighted communities here in New York, fields that might not commonly be immediately associated with Black identities. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
I’ve done some work with a funeral home in East New York, Brooklyn that was run and organized by a Black man. I’m profiling a muralist in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint/Bushwick area. He’s white, but he mainly works with Black and brown students and teaches them how to insert their voice into their art. So that when they do public murals, their voice and culture is being represented in them. Then, the people that move into these neighborhoods understand that there was a whole community there before they came.
I’m also doing a video project on a lacrosse club in Brooklyn that’s owned and managed by a Black man. I’m focusing on the Black and African players in the sport. I like to examine subcultures of blackness. I could easily go down the hip-hop route or a young kid playing basketball. But those are narratives that we’ve seen before—and there’s nothing wrong with them—but I want to focus on stuff that is not as accessible. My goal is to show that Black folks are multidimensional.
And how has your own understanding and relationship to your Black identity expanded through your work?
A lot of my growth is owed to the fact that I’ve worked in corporate America for over a decade. I’m in these spaces where there’s not many of us. And in my role as an art director, there’s even fewer. There’s this feeling of loneliness. This question of, “Are there any of us out there?” Of course, there are. But sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. It can feel like I’m on an island.
How do you feel about the way Black love is represented in the media?
I would say there’s a very narrow representation. Especially with shows like Love and Hip Hop and Basketball Wives. There’s always drama, pettiness, cat-fights, not just in romantic relationships, but even amongst friends. Even though there are other shows that represent Black love, it’s harder for them to break through the surface.
As a Black man in a relationship and with a family, there aren’t too many shows or movies that capture my experience. In the late 90s to the 00s, there were a series of Black movies that represented Black love in a very genuine way. Those romances with Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, and Larenz Tate. Those movies meant something to me. I got to see all these successful Black folks. As teenagers we would look at them and go, “Oh, that’s BS. All of them went to college?” But one day I was sitting at the dinner table, and we were all like, “Wow, we’re all doing our thing? We look just like Love Jones!” Those movies were a big deal. But there was a very small window where they existed. Then they just disappeared.
Finally, if you had to create a syllabus featuring films, books, and other media that provide strong examples of Black love, what would be on that list?
The Cosby Show (minus the controversy)
Love Jones (it’s a very real depiction of the challenges of a relationship)
Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?
Beloved by Toni Morrison
All About Love by bell hooks
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Disappearing Acts (1999)
“Love” and “Bestfriend” by Musiq Soulchild
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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