Cinematographer Bradford Young on the power of the camera being vulnerable

The Louisville-born cinematographer, known for his work on 'Selma' and 'Arrival', thinks the cinema of today has lost its way.

by Tracey Rose
23 November 2021, 8:33pm

This story originally appeared in i-D’s The Darker Issue, no. 365, Winter 2021. Order your copy here.

Bradford Young is an award- winning cinematographer best known for his striking, contemplative big-budget motion pictures like Arrival, Selma and A Most Violent Year, in addition to his work on important indies, such as Pariah and Mother of George. His most recent endeavours include the creation of a lens company, Tribe 7, with technologist Neil Fathom, and making work with Ummah Chroma, a dynamic new collective of black filmmakers and collaborators. He studied at Howard University under the mentorship of filmmaker Haile Gerima, and remains one of the most sought-after cinematographers working today.

Bradford wears a white shirt with a beaded chain and a bucket hat as he sits on a sofa.
Bradford wears all clothing model’s own.

Can you talk about how you prepare for a project? After you receive a script, what's your process?

First it just has to speak to me. Hopefully by the last page I have found a moment of myself in there. Then I’ll speak with the director and I'll read it again like a cinematographer, because first I have to read it as a lover of stories. Then, I pull out an archive. I aggregate and pull material from all types of sources.

How do you feel about the state of cinema right now?

I think we've lost sight. The efficacy of capturing actors is what it's all about, but that's also what destroys us and destroys the art form. There's a lot to gain from the camera being vulnerable and the actor being vulnerable, but you’ve got to know how to harness both of those elements.

So I don't work with actors, not in that way. I don't want to. I want to understand what it is they need to do, and I want to understand the story they're telling and what that space is, and once I understand that, then I know how to light it and where to put the camera. I know what kind of relationship the camera needs to have with the subject.

“You can get very lost in the commerce of art when you’re in any of the major cities. After over a decade working in New York I was missing the very elemental beginnings of why I loved working in that business.”

The camera has a purpose. It has an agency. It’s a determinant. It is a vector. It's the thing to get around and it's a thing to go through. It has all this ability and what I don't see people doing now is stretching and using it, even imperfectly, as a vessel to tell another story.

The one thing that brings us together on set is a camera. It's not an actor. Sorry, that's theatre, that's radio. The thing that brings us together is a persistence of vision, the science of filling in gaps and trying to figure out the in- between. That's where people put their own stories.

Is there anything you want to do that you haven't done yet as a cinematographer?

I still have this dream of going somewhere with a caravan of family and friends and making a film in an unmanaged way, and doing it in a way that feels nurturing and fulfilling. We might come out with nothing. But to even go out and try would be revolutionary. It's just kind of a Trojan horse to build something else.

And outside of cinematography?

I just want to teach. I want to give to other cats what Haile gave to us. It’s time to teach, to listen, to be heard, to build community.


Photography Schaun Champion
Make-up Meagan Shea