Brandon Bell is achieving his photographer dreams early in his career
‘I feel so blessed because my images are published everywhere’
As a young boy growing up in Long Beach, California, Brandon Bell remembers paging through National Geographic books, telling his mother, “One day I’m going to work for National Geographic.” How that was going to happen, Bell did not know.
“Where I grew up, we didn’t have journalism programs,” he said. “I had never seen a professional photographer in my life. I didn’t even know where to begin to access one, but I knew for sure that I wanted to tell stories.”
Folkus is an ongoing series created with Getty Images that features Black photographers who put the focus on folks like us.
Bell followed his calling with the faith of a true believer. He enrolled at Long Beach City College, then later California State University, Northridge, to study geography. He learned about refugees forced out of their homelands by violence and disaster. He planned to volunteer with Syrian refugees, but life had other plans.
On May 28, 2020, the self-taught photographer spent what little money he had to travel to Minneapolis to document the uprising in response to George Floyd’s murder by former police officer Derek Chauvin. What began as a two-day trip forever changed his life. Bell finally met a professional photographer — one whose support would catapult him into a full-time career as a photojournalist.
Since then, Bell has worked for Reuters, the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times. He currently is a staff photographer for Getty Images, traveling the nation and integrating himself into communities to create intimate portraits of rage, despair, grief, determination, courage and strength. Bell faced down the National Guard’s military tanks on the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, during the August 2020 Jacob Blake protests, and was hit by police officers’ rubber bullets in Minneapolis. Those dangerous incidents reaffirmed his mission as a photojournalist.
Bell, 29, achieved his childhood dream of seeing his photographs published by National Geographic just a year and a half into his career. The Guardian named him among its favorites for 2021 photographer of the year. But Bell is just getting started in a field where Black photographers remain underemployed. Here he looks back at his singular journey, one that is just as cinematic as his photographs.
How did growing up on the South side of Los Angeles shape you?
I was born in Inglewood and raised in Long Beach. My parents divorced when I was around 6 years old. My mom raised four children as a single parent: me, my younger sister and my two older brothers. In Los Angeles, if you’re not looking to rise out of the muck and the mire, it’s very easy to get trapped in the streets. I was just reckless throughout high school. I ran away from home all the time. I was confused on who to trust and who to believe. I was in the party environment and almost lost my life a couple of times at different parties where there were shootings. Gangbanging was heavy and I had to snap out and learn to apply myself.
When I got to college, I was ready to have a different life. I’ve always desired to tell people’s stories and help underprivileged communities. After I received financial aid during my first year of college, I decided to take my last 700 bucks and buy a camera. I remember my mom saying, ‘You would rather be on the bus with a camera than have a car?’ At the time, my mindset was, ‘Yeah, because someday this camera is going to pay for a car.’
How did you get interested in photography?
When I was young, like 4 or 5 years old, I was fascinated with movies. I would watch the same movie over and over again. Titanic was my favorite and I would put it on and watch it all the way through. As soon as it would go off, I would rewind it and attempt to watch it again, but my mom would be like, ‘No, find something else to do!’ As I got older, I realized I was fascinated with movies because I was drawn to the art of storytelling. I was studying composition, lighting and color without even realizing it. And every time I watched a movie, I would see it differently.
I always wanted to be a photographer, but I didn’t think I had the skills to interact with people to make intimate work. When I bought the camera, I started with video, but eventually forced myself to learn photography, even though I was scared as heck. I was studying geography in college, particularly the geography of Southeast Asia, and decided to spend the summer traveling up and down India training myself how to see through a lens.
When did you begin to think about photojournalism as a practice?
I never studied photography in school because I thought that the way I saw was natural and I didn’t need to be trained per se — maybe some guidance but not necessarily devote my school career to learning about the camera. I gravitated toward the plight of underrepresented communities. When I was younger, my dad would take me to different homeless shelters and we would spend the weekend down there, sitting with them in the harshest conditions of deep LA.
Once I had a camera, I brought it everywhere I went. I even took it to the restroom at times because, you never know. I started going to the journalism department [at Cal State Northridge] to meet students and get involved in the student newspaper. I was hungry to have mentors, so I would sit outside the journalism professors’ offices and wait for office hours just to talk to them and get their perspective.
At the end of 2019, I took an internship in Washington, D.C., to get on Capitol Hill to be in an environment where I could help work toward changing policy. Then the pandemic happened, and shortly after that George Floyd was killed. That’s where my career really begins. I never made the transition from studying — I just plunged in.
What was the moment you realized you had to go to Minneapolis?
Two days after George Floyd was killed, I was in downtown LA and came across this protest. It got really intense. That was the first time I had ever photographed a protest. I went home, looked at the images and thought, ‘This is going to be part of history someday. I don’t know what it means but it feels like a big deal.’ Then I turned on the news and saw what was going on in Minneapolis. I was so hurt by it. I turned off the TV, sat there and was like, ‘I have to do something.’
I was staying on a friend’s couch, had $400 in my life savings and one camera, but I felt compelled to go — to be present as a Black man and be in the community. I talked to my roommate and he said, ‘I believe in you, bro. I’ll take you to the airport tomorrow morning if you need me to.’ The next morning, I got up at 6 a.m., took my last 400 bucks and got on a flight to Minneapolis. I could only afford to stay a couple of days, but I was willing to take that risk.
A friend shared my Venmo, and when I got on the plane, I saw that her whole family had donated to help me. I had 200 extra bucks and this meant I could stay two more days. She put my Venmo on Instagram and before I knew it, I had people from all around the world donating to me. My three-day stay turned into 30 days.
What was it like to be on the ground in Minneapolis last June?
When I landed, I met a random guy at the airport and neither of us had ever been to Minneapolis before. With the limited number of Ubers on the road because of the unrest, we decided to share one. When the driver asked where we wanted to go, we had no idea. While driving, we eventually saw people walking with signs and asked to get out. It just so happened to be about a 20-minute walk from where George Floyd was killed. When I saw the area, it was filled with all different kinds of families: Black, white, Hispanic, Asian. It was such a powerful feeling to be with everyone.
People didn’t know each other, but we all felt united in this. We were all there. We had no answers, but we knew we had to be there. Being in the midst of grief, tension, frustration and the energy of thousands of people marching through downtown was humbling. Being in the middle of that, behind my lens, I almost felt invincible. I felt like, I believe in this to the point that I am willing to die for it.
At night, the rioting, fires, looting and engagement with law enforcement around the city began. I was out there with just a backpack, a couple of pairs of underwear, a shirt and two lenses. No helmet. People were seeing me, and I could tell they respected me because I was willing to tell their story with integrity. But it was also dangerous because there was always a possibility of photographing the wrong person at the wrong time. Some of my colleagues almost lost their lives documenting, and their cameras were thrown into the fires.
How did your photographs get picked up by the press?
I met a photographer named David Guttenfelder who changed my life. He was the first professional photographer I had ever spoken with. I saw him on the street during the protests, stopped him and said, ‘I don’t want to be a burden, but I want to see how you are navigating this space and if you have any advice.’ He told me, ‘I’m actually on my way out, but take down my Instagram.’ When I looked and he had like 1.2 million followers, I was like, ‘Yeah, right. I am never gonna see this guy again!’
But the next night, I saw him while I was photographing the fires and destruction, and spoke to him a couple of times. A few nights later, I saw him again. That night was really dangerous because law enforcement began to heavily crack down and were even targeting journalists. It felt like something in an apocalyptic movie because there were no cars on the street. The protesters had been dispersed, so everybody was creeping around the city, trying to protest without getting caught, beat up, busted or robbed.
I had asked a few photographers if I could shadow them to learn from them. We soon hit this busy intersection, and tear gas was being thrown and people were scrambling. David turned around and gave me a thumbs-up to make sure I was OK. For the first time, I felt acknowledged. Later, he came over to talk to me, told me to put together a small body of work and said if it was strong, he would share it with some of the people he knew.
I went home that night at 3 a.m., got my stuff organized and sent him about 15 images. He got back to me at, like, 7 in the morning and said, ‘This work is really strong, I’ll keep you posted.’ I went to sleep and when I woke up, I had a notification that he had posted about me on Instagram. He shared an image of mine, and my Instagram blew up overnight. I was published in New York Magazine, The Guardian and The Atlantic. He took me under his wing and just loved me through it.
Can you speak about the challenges of trying to document law enforcement during the protests?
There’s a dichotomy of thinking for me. I empathize with the protesters because I understand the pain. I feel it. I grew up in it. But when I’m on the field — from Louisville, Kentucky, with Breonna Taylor to Kenosha, Wisconsin, with Jacob Blake — I remind myself that these officers are going through things of their own, even though they’re behind body armor, masks and guns. I want to tell a complete story, and I can’t do that if I’m not willing to understand and document their point of view.
That mindset has allowed me to photograph law enforcement very intimately, because they sense I respect their presence. I’ve seen many photographers just walk up to a law enforcement officer and snap a flash in their face, completely invading their personal space. Then when officers go at them, the journalist is like, ‘I can’t believe they’re acting like that.’ I want to always document in the fairest way possible.
I am a firm believer in nonverbal communication and body language because when I am in the field, those are the first things people understand and perceive most about me. I want them to let me get close and that’s not easy. I had to tell myself, ‘You will photograph them with grace the same way you photograph the Black community with grace because they’re human.’
Brandon Bell lives in Houston, but was born and raised in Los Angeles. He comes from a single mother who, with little help, raised four kids. Growing up seeing her plight helped inspire in Bell a heart to serve underprivileged communities by telling their stories. As a newly hired staff photojournalist for Getty Images, he hopes to continue that vision well into his career.
Photo of Brandon by Devon Rowland | Story text by Miss Rosen