Passionate Pursuits: Damien Jackson

Damien Jackson’s photos, taken on the islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in Atlanta, and in Brooklyn, represent his experience as a Black man growing up in America as the son of immigrants.

Capturing Joy in Black and White

By Ginger Skinner

More than a decade ago, when Damien Jackson, M.Ed., first picked up a camera, he saw it as a way to bond with his children and chronicle their growth. “I’m happy that I found photography that way,” says Mr. Jackson, the assistant dean for student finance at Einstein. “Without it, I’m not sure how I’d express the things that feel important to me.”

Damien Jackson, M.Ed.

Over the years, Mr. Jackson has gravitated toward images of Black fathers and their children to correct the stereotypical portrayals often put forth by mass media. “I use my camera to document that relationship and to tell our story,” he says. 

Many of his photos are converted to black and white. “I believe black-and-white images help the viewer focus on the emotion of the scene and help me relay that emotion more effectively—the pain or the happiness,” he explains. 

He draws inspiration from photojournalist Gordon Parks’s iconic images of Black American life in the mid-20th century. “His way of composing images, and his use of light and shadows to tell stories and evoke emotion, are brilliant and have greatly influenced how I approach photography,” he notes. “While color is beautiful, it can add noise and distraction to the image, in some ways muting the emotion.”

Closer to His Roots 

These days Mr. Jackson has turned his lens toward another deeply personal project: a series of images of young men of color between the ages of 9 and 16, taken on islands in the Caribbean. “In these photos, young men are creating memories, diving and flipping off a wharf into the sea. It feels like a throwback to a simpler time before cellphones and gaming systems,” Mr. Jackson says. “I want to show Black people enjoying life, carefree and full of possibility.”

The project has brought Mr. Jackson, the son of immigrants from the islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, closer to his Caribbean roots. “There’s one image in the series of a young man jumping from high up into the water against the vastness of the ocean,” he says. “He’s communing with the water. Those moments of joy brought back memories of my dad and uncles talking about their times swimming around the island.” 

Mr. Jackson, a self-described “latchkey kid,” says he rarely left his West Indian neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., when he was growing up. But that changed as he got older. “I’m now comfortable being uncomfortable. I relish the feeling because it means I am learning something new—languages, cuisines, customs. There is no better feeling,” Mr. Jackson says.

Back in Focus

While the global COVID-19 pandemic temporarily prevented Mr. Jackson from traveling, it didn’t stop him from working on another project that he hopes to turn into an immersive exhibit. It pertains to the forced migration of thousands of people of St. Vincent (known as the Garifuna, or Black Caribs) by the British in the 18th century, their subsequent exile to Honduras and Belize, and their eventual migration to places such as the Bronx and Chicago. He plans to interview and photograph many of the descendants.

The uncertainty of the past three years has made him want to freeze moments in time for posterity. “The pandemic wiped out entire families,” Mr. Jackson says. “I started to see how fragile life is. And if you’re not able to chronicle life, it’s gone forever.” 

To that end, Mr. Jackson is using his photography and videography skills to honor his grandmother, who turned 100 last year. “She is our matriarch, and it’s important that I capture her essence so that all of her descendants have a clear picture of what Mary Floretta Ballantyne means to our family,” Mr. Jackson says. “It’s my hope to do the same for as many families as I possibly can. I think of it as a lifelong project.”

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