By day, 37-year-old Oakland resident Amir Abdul-Shakur is a program manager at the Y. Come nights and weekends, his tandem hobbies of photography and activism meet when he hits the streets to document the racial justice demonstrations that have become central to the daily lives of his family and so many others.
"This is our civil-rights-great-depression bundle package—this is going to be documented in history. As a creative, I feel like I have a moral obligation to be out there," says Abdul-Shakur, who at first paid little attention to the immense response garnered by his powerful images on Instagram.
But when his photograph of a young woman wearing a mask that spoke volumes ("I Can't Breathe") went viral, corporate brands including MTV and Lyft took notice and shared the image, and local curators reached out and are now planning exhibitions. Abdul-Shakur, aka Amir the Photographer, could no longer downplay his calling—to capture the dignity of the Black Lives Matter movement in a way that he says mainstream media has failed to do.
"My purpose is to humanize people, specifically Black people," he says. "I want the images that come out from my community to be representative of our full experience. I'm focused on bringing out the beauty."
The portraits that now paper his Instagram feed are mostly of people the lensman has just met at protests. In the span of 30 seconds to two minutes, he asks the subject to trust that he will treat them with care, and it isn't easy work.
"I'm the one taking the photo, but this photo will mean something to somebody else. I'm taking pictures of somebody else's son, of people who don't get photographed often, of Black men. To have that kind of responsibility is a heavy burden at times; I want to get it right." The process, he says, is draining. "It hurts taking pictures of a girl holding up a sign, Am I next? This shouldn't be something she's worrying about."
As a Black, Muslim, cisgender man, intersectionality guides Abdul-Shakur's work as he seeks to overturn stereotypes by capturing the many different people participating not just in BLM protests but also in the LGBTQ+ community. He calls himself a visual abolitionist.
"People expect toxic masculinity or religious patriarchy to be displayed in my aesthetic but, as a photographer, I consider myself a Black unicorn of sorts," he says. "I dance in the intersections because that exemplifies my own experience. My wife is Latinx, my son is biracial, I have queer coworkers, gay potnas, and I'm Muslim." He's also a dad, whose family has long been part of the nationwide conversation around police brutality.
In 2017, the Abdul-Shakur family was featured in The Talk: Race in America, a PBS documentary about the conversation known too well among parents of color and their children, especially sons, about how to behave if they are ever stopped by the police. The family's portion is especially poignant as Abdul-Shakur's son, Zaire, expresses a desire to be a police officer himself when he grows up. In light of the recent protests, the documentary has since been re-released, with a follow-up project in the works.
"You can't hide the racism," says the father of a son who, he says, sees the world clearly for what it is. He "understands that things are not normal and that this is just wrong. My son just naturally wants to help people. He recognizes now he can do that without wanting to be a police officer."
While he balances family and community with the pain he feels during these turbulent times, Abdul-Shakur ultimately finds healing in photography and chooses to acknowledge his responsibility as a blessing. "I recognize that this gift of photography comes from Allah (swt), by giving me a certain eye to find beauty in people."
// Follow @amirthephotographer on Instagram.
For more profiles on Black lives in the Bay Area, featuring photography by Amir Abdul-Shakur, go to 7x7.com/locals-we-love.