TIAA #4: “Suspicious Black Male in a Hoodie”

Tosin’s Images & Anecdotes (TIAA) is my self-assigned photography challenge of 2022. The immediate objective is to select one image from my inventory (a cityscape, landscape, portrait, oddity, etc.) each week and write something about it. This “something” could be the story behind the photo, a triggered memory in relation to the photo, or simply a reaction or reflection based on the subject matter featured. The long-term objective is to encourage myself to add more content to “La Vue Atypique”, which celebrates its first decade in publication this year.

“Suspicious Black Male in a Hoodie” / Seattle, Washington, USA / January 18, 2013

What can I say about the photograph above?

As I discussed and illustrated in a previous article last month, the winter season often sees Seattle flirting with heavy, thick masses of fog settling over the city. The fog can be so dense that one’s visibility can be severely curtailed, sometimes creating optical or mental illusions of what lies beneath or beyond the mists.

For the TIAA photo challenge this week, I’ve decided to feature an image depicting an urban landscape of downtown Seattle adjacent to the traffic along the Interstate 5 thoroughfare. The time the photo was captured was 8:43 pm on a Friday night in January. As I type this, I cannot believe the photo is nine years old. I have photographed so many scenes in my life that I often surprise myself when I come across images that I thought I had captured one or two years ago, only to realize it’s been closer to a decade ago or more.

Back in early 2013, I was much less jaded against Facebook (and still had an account with them — not these days, though)! I had posted this photograph in dedication to Trayvon Martin. He was a young black teenager who had been shot and killed a year previously, simply for walking through a neighborhood near Orlando, Florida. Wearing a hoodie as he walked, the man who would soon murder him believed Trayvon’s attire made him appear suspicious. Therefore, based on the murderer’s assumptions, Trayvon clearly didn’t belong in that neighborhood. The story garnered the attention of the entire nation and shocked the same nation when the murderer was acquitted by a jury in the summer of 2013. What followed was an incensed period of raging, racial tensions that spiraled the United Stated into societal discord in regards to racism, discrimination, and gun control laws — a “period” that has not seen any signs of ending since Trayvon was only one of hundreds of black children, teens, men, and women who have been murdered with no accountability for the murderers time and time again over decades.

I won’t detail Trayvon’s story here because if you live in the United States and Canada, you probably know the story. If not, you probably recognize his name. If you don’t, I highly recommend learning about him, starting here.

Trayvon’s hoodie made him look “suspicious” apparently.

In the photo above, you see a black man wearing a hoodie while leaning against a guardrail on an overpass above the highway. He’s standing there, hands stuffed in his pockets, with his hood covering his forehead. You cannot see his eyes as the hoodie’s shadow obscures them. You can only make out his nose and mouth.

How does that make you feel?

Depending on your perspective, you could deem that he’s just standing there, or waiting for someone, or maybe he’s loitering, or trying to keep warm on a cold winter night.

You might also think he’s suspicious for many different reasons. Only you know why you would react to seeing this man in this particular stance at this moment. Would you avoid him if you were walking down the sidewalk, or maybe turn around and walk the other way because he looks suspicious or even menacing? Does his presence bother or threaten you enough to conclude that he’s a real problem and law enforcement may need to be involved?

Do you even know who he is? If you’re uncomfortable and threatened, maybe that doesn’t even matter? Who gives a damn who he is? Dawdling, good-for-nothing troublemaker. That’s certain. Look at him. No! Don’t look at him. You need to protect yourself because he’s suspicious and menacing.

Pause for a moment. Ask yourself if you would feel this way if you knew the fellow was white.

Does that change the entire dynamic? Are you more relaxed? Does the tension fade? Everything is much more…typical and innocent.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. It’s not my intention to accuse you, the reader, but I wanted you to follow my narrative. If you felt even an ounce of discomfort, then this article has not been in vain. Whatever that discomfort you experienced is minuscule compared to what hundreds of Black, Asian, Latino, Jewish, Muslim, and Indigenous people experience when they are targeted for looking “suspicious”. These assumptions can lead to a violent loss of life, and this has been the case repeatedly to this day.

By now, some of you have probably surmised that the “suspicious” and “menacing” black man in the photo is me. Am I still threatening to you now? (I know for many of you, the answer may still be “yes”, especially if you haven’t met me in person, but this is another topic for a later picture in my self-assigned photo challenge).

A tighter crop of the original photo.

For the photograph of the city in the fog, I thought incorporating a human being into the subject matter would add more interest to the viewer. In reality, donning the actual hood of my hoodie protected my bald head and ears from the cold while providing some intrigue for the human element of the photo.

Part of the reason why I’m sharing this image and narrative is because it reminds me of how vigilant and alert I have to be whenever I’m out and about, no matter whether I’m in Seattle, Vancouver, San Francisco, or any city in the world. I can never take my own safety for granted. The photo also reminds me of friends and family who worry about me when I go out on regular bike rides in and around the Seattle metro area, and that’s almost always in broad daylight. Cycling during this time of day is so routine, yet I keep an eye on every individual whom I pass — a little bit more for my safety than theirs. This now reminds me of Dijon Kizzee. There are too many examples.

My hope is that we’ll reach a time when it will never be “suspicious” to see any nonwhite human being partaking in the same activities as a white person. The amount of weird stares, glares, and glances I receive walking around with my camera gear is so commonplace that I overlook them because I must overlook them. Photography is my purpose in life, so I have no choice. As a result, I don’t have much time to invest in wondering what people — specifically, white people — are wondering when they see me with a camera and tripod in tow.

Hopefully, it’s obvious…but I never assume.

Five articles down for the TIAA challenge. 47 remain!

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