Photographer Adraint Bereal reflects on creativity under capitalism

What is it like working as a photographer who is Black within a structure that favours milestones over meaningful change?

by Adraint Bereal
13 April 2021, 8:00am

Adraint Bereal is a photographer based in New York who graduated from the University of Texas in Austin last year. Whilst studying, he created a photo story about being part of a small Black community in a predominantly white college, which he released on i-D in 2019. His work has since appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dazed, and our Quarantine in Photo series. Here, reflecting on the mood felt in the wake of last summer’s protests, Adraint writes about working as a Black photographer within a structure that favours milestones over meaningful change.

a man wearing a suit stands on a podium that has number 1 written on it, either side are 2 (left) and 3 (right)

After the Black Lives Matter uprisings last year, and long before then, I've thought in depth about how we can successfully achieve our visions without the coercion of capitalism. We had a lot of moments that looked like progress in 2020, but were really just temporary fixes to a problem that could not change in the span of one 'radical' summer.

When I think about the type of career I want to build for myself, it has a lot to do with the freedom to express myself in a way I see as the best fit. Entering the world of photography has been simultaneously invigorating and uninspiring. This unfortunate fixation on someone being the first and the youngest creates a delusion around assumed access.

"Responsibility without power is a mockery and a farce," wrote sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois. Will we have proper time to grow and nurture our gifts? When each institution that we’re granted access to is still owned by the prior stakeholders, who is really in control? Are 'first' and 'young' the path to power and true growth? Is this really all we have to offer as the image-makers of the future?

a man wearing no top and blue jeans sits on a cardboard box against a red backdrop

I dream about creating my vision without the transactional conditioning of capitalism, and you should too. But I will also say that I am guilty of this. We might be 'getting money', but we should be careful about the mirages we sell to our communities, especially when it means selling our identities back to us. What will be left of us?

There's a responsibility that rests on the shoulders of photographers who are Black not to be lazy about propping up false images. As image-makers, we have a responsibility to perception, and it's better to tell the truth than to feed a lie. Buying from Black-owned businesses does not mean subscribing to capitalism but, at the same time, it's unfair, isn't it? It's unfair that we shouldn't get to indulge the same vain luxuries that come with participating in the democratisation of telling the world what it means to be Black in America.

And it is unfair that we might hold the 'youngest Black photographer' accountable for pretending to be an agent of change in the face of cronyism and ignorance. It is disappointing to see advertisements and magazine covers be enough to satisfy our years of effort. Shaking the table and shaking hands are two different things.

Some of our focus seems to be on false progress; here we are, a year later, assimilated into what we preached against. I may never be the 'first', 'youngest', and that's okay. My identities are sacred to me. So, if I have to dance the dance, I hope I can save myself from the dance when I can. I aim to hold the door open and lend a hand when and where I can.

a man wearing homemade medals and no t-shirt rests against a box with the number 1 on it


All images courtesy of Adraint Bereal