Photographer Cheriss May finds new perspectives in the sameness

‘This is my passion and my purpose. To have that gives me strength.’

Alum Cheriss May went to Howard University’s 2016 homecoming game dressed to impress in a fresh new school sweatshirt. During halftime, the Golden Delight dance team from North Carolina A&T State University, Howard’s opponent, took the field. “It had been raining, and the ground was muddy and wet,” May said. “I laid down on the sideline, and when they came out to perform, I remember clicking, knowing I had something special. I messed up my clothes, but it was worth it.”

Jan. 6 started out like any other day for Washington D.C.-based photographer and Howard University adjunct professor Cheriss May. On assignment for Getty to cover the ceremonial Electoral College vote count for president inside the U.S. Capitol, May remembers the morning began quietly — but security was high.

“I thought that the Capitol was the safest place in this country, and [Jan. 6] turned all of that upside down for me,” said May, who had also been at the Capitol during the height of the George Floyd protests, when building security was at its peak.

Folkus is an ongoing series created with Getty Images that features Black photographers who put the focus on folks like us.

May was barricaded for hours inside Congressman Jim Clyburn’s office while insurrectionists ran amok. May tried to get word out to her loved ones but she couldn’t get a cellphone signal. “I felt like my life was in danger. I felt trapped,” she said. May remembers kneeling on the floor, camera by her side, as unidentified people tried to break in. This happened three times. The final time, the doors opened to FBI and Capitol police with guns drawn. 

“My life flashed before my eyes three times that day,” May said. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it out of there. What has helped me is the work. It helps me to live through it and to move forward. This is my passion and my purpose. To have that gives me strength.”

Long before May understood she was a visual storyteller, she fell in love with the power of photography to create connection and foster community. After studying advertising and graphic design at Howard University, May worked in features and sports for several newspapers before making the leap to professional photography in 2010. Over the past decade, she has worked as a portrait and editorial photographer, chronicling scenes of contemporary Black life with an artist’s eye and a warrior’s heart. In May’s hands, the camera becomes a tool to uplift, inspire, and speak truth to power.  

These 10 photographs from May’s career archives bring together luminaries then-President Barack Obama and then-first lady Michelle Obama, U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and actor Chadwick Boseman alongside survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre, Frederick Douglass’ living descendants, protesters and activists. “I wanted to start with joy and end with joy,” May said of her collection. “There are so many things in between those moments that is our life: pain, death, legacy, possibility, and the audacity of hope.” 

Against the stark, muted backdrop of the sky in Washington’s Lafayette Square Park on Sept. 6, 2020, May noticed a Black man with his face masked by the U.S. flag, standing in front of a small group of protesters. He spoke a language May didn’t, but she felt a connection to his experience. “When I looked at him, it seemed like the flag was suffocating him and he couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I got down on the ground to take the photo, because I wanted to show him larger than life, focusing on his mask. I instantly thought about Langston Hughes poem, I, Too.”
Could you take us back to your childhood and share some of the guidance your family imparted on you as a young Black girl growing up in the 1980s?

I was about 8 years old when I got my first taste of racism. My parents wanted to give us better opportunities, so we moved from Kansas City, Missouri, to a suburb called Lee’s Summit. We were the only Black family on our street. I remember one afternoon in grade school, my brother, who was 4, and I were coming home on the school bus. He was asleep and one of the kids said, ‘Look at the little monkey sleep.’ Other kids joined in laughing and continued with hateful remarks, and throwing around the n-word.

When we got off the bus, I told my parents what happened. They sat us down and told us about racism, and how, ‘You’re going to experience this again, but don’t let it stop you from pursuing your dreams. Know that you belong there just as much as the other kids.’ It’s a conversation shared by other Black families. This is how the world is. It’s not going to be kind. It’s going to be hateful even, but don’t let that deter you from what you need to do. My parents instilled in my brother and myself the confidence to rise above, have a strong sense of self and know that whatever we put our minds to we could do.

How did you develop a love for photography?

My mother was a high school business teacher. She was also the yearbook advisor, so she had a camera and let me play with it. I remember being so excited to take pictures and see how they looked. I would show up at all the family functions with a camera and pose people and photograph the scene. I would get them developed, bring the prints to the next family function, and spread them out on the table. Everyone would look through them and pick them up, laughing and pointing. I liked that kind of togetherness that brought out happiness and joy.

My family saw my strong interest in photography and were very supportive and encouraging. Every Christmas, they would upgrade my camera. I don’t even know how good my photos were back then — but to them I was one of the best photographers. They would pour into me and give me compliments. All that positive feedback and reinforcement helped me to think, ‘I can really do this!’

Could you speak about how your mentor, Fred Watkins, opened your eyes to photojournalism?

I was taking pictures at an event and a male photographer pushed me out of the way. Fred came over and lit into him, ‘Hey, man, don’t do that.’ Afterward we exchanged numbers and stayed in touch. Fred started mentoring me without me having to ask. He would drop nuggets of wisdom all the time: tell me protocol and etiquette working in political spaces. Fred was mentored by photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks, who gave him advice that he in turn passed on to me, like, ‘You belong there as much as any other photographer. Stand your ground. Do what you’re there to do. Keep on going. Don’t let anybody push you around.’

Early on Fred told me, ‘Always look for a different perspective.’ That really stuck with me. Things can be very repetitive at press conferences, especially if you’re covering the same person. Fred helped me think about finding ways to say or show something different within that sameness.

Fred also shared opportunities. One time, he told me he had a trip coming up to South Africa to be the photographer for a Black press tour, but had a conflict and couldn’t go. He asked me if I wanted to be the photographer. At the time I was working as a graphic designer for a newspaper, and I said yes without even checking my schedule. It’s one of those things I felt in my spirit. I made up my mind that if they said no I was going to resign. It was a bold decision because I wasn’t thinking about how I was going to pay my bills — but they ended up saying yes.

May remembers sitting on the floor in front of a Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee hearing, taking photos through tears as Tulsa Race Massacre survivors Hughes “Uncle Red” Van Ellis, a 100-year-old World War II veteran, and his sister, Viola “Mother” Fletcher, 107, testified May 19 on Capitol Hill. May wasn’t assigned the story, but she had to go. “I’ll never forget Mother Fletcher said, ‘I still smell smoke,’ ” May said. “Uncle Red saying, ‘I love my country, but my country didn’t love me back.’ ”
May photographed Tarence Bailey, the five-times great nephew of Frederick Douglass, during an Oct. 2 pilgrimage to the Wye House Farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where a 6-year-old Douglass was left by his grandmother to live and work. “But also coming there, walking on that land as a testament to what they went through for freedom,” she said. “It reminds me of that saying, ‘I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.’ Frederick Douglass did what he did so his descendants would be free. I knew I had to photograph Mr. Bailey on that land.”
May said she knew Chadwick Boseman as Chad, her barefoot, guitar-playing, introspective neighbor at Howard. “We exchanged numbers, but I didn’t stay in touch,” she said. They reconnected on July 25, 2017, when May photographed Boseman at the 108th NAACP Convention in Baltimore. “Chad always seemed to be in deep thought,” May said. “We now know he was sick and that could have played into what we were seeing: to keep going and play iconic roles that were superheroes — both real life superheroes and fictional like the Black Panther.”
On June 27, 2020, May photographed protests at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington following the killing of George Floyd. “There was a lot going on in different places at the same time, and I was like, ‘OK, what’s my focus? What’s the story here?’ ” May said. “When it’s loud and chaotic, I find the most powerful stories in the quiet, in-between moments.” May spotted a woman named Shelly. “She stood there with all of her power, confidence and support, and this is what she gave me. I didn’t direct her. I want people to be authentically themselves.”
May noticed Mike D’Angelo, left, standing at the top of a streetlight with a bullhorn near Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington on June 13, 2020. A man in the crowd below him asked the purpose of the protest. “The man wasn’t having it. The crowd started to get agitated, and yelled at the man, who ended up leaving. Then another man came up and hugged Mike,” May said. “Afterward I asked Mike who that was and he told me he didn’t know him. That made this moment even more powerful — no words needed to be spoken. Black men are often seen as aggressive and this moment showed their sensitivity, support and love.”
“I saw Rep. John Lewis (of Georgia) many times and one thing I always noticed was that in the midst of everything, he was always in deep introspection …” said May, who photographed Lewis at the Voting Rights Advancement Act introduction on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 26, 2019. “I try to bring people into what I see, feel and connect to, who that person authentically is. I saw the quiet strength of an icon who did so much to stay in good trouble. One thing I always admired about him, especially as an educator myself, is that he had a heart for the youth. No matter where he was, he would always make his way to tell them, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing. I’m proud of you.’ ”
May’s cousin J. Jioni Palmer hosted what he called a family protest in his neighborhood on June 2, 2020 after his sons Middleton, 8, and Caldwell, 5, started asking questions following the killing of George Floyd. “I noticed Madison White, this teeny tiny girl, marching with her dad,” May said of the 3-year old. “It was so powerful to see something so big come out of such a little body. She wrote the sign and she held it. She wasn’t saying anything, but spoke so loudly. This is what it is about — showing these kids the power in their voices and the power of protest.”
“We really had a Black president. I really didn’t think I would see that in my lifetime,” said May, who famously captured first lady Michelle Obama casually adjusting the bow tie of her husband, President Barack Obama, before China’s President Xi and Madame Peng Liyuan arrived for the official state dinner on Sept. 25, 2015, at the White House in Washington. “I look at this and it’s the audacity of hope. There are little nuances Barack and Michelle would do that were Black culture, things that are a part of the fabric of our lives. When I took that photo, it was like, ‘Wow, we are really here.’ ”
Can you take us back to 2010, when you turned a layoff at USA Today into an opportunity to change careers and dedicate yourself to photography?

I come from a family of educators and entrepreneurs. I was raised with that entrepreneurial spirit, so it wasn’t that scary to step out on my own. It was something unknown, where I didn’t know if it would work out, but I stepped out on faith and had to try. I had a support network of family and friends who were very encouraging. One of my best friends told me, ‘This is your time. You can do it.’ Having so many people in your corner cheering you on, you start to believe it yourself.

Can you speak about how your graphic design studies at Howard University and early career in newspaper graphic design helped to hone your eye and storytelling skills as a photographer?

As a child, I was always enamored with patterns, colors, and fonts. How they all worked together — it caught my eye. When I take pictures, I’m looking at those same things. When I got into photography full time, I would think about the story, but also how I would lay it out on the page. I play with negative space a lot. One of the reasons is I am thinking about someone reading the photo who can place themselves in that space to create a connection or a conversation with the person in the picture.

Can you speak about your decision to make Washington, D.C., your home, and share what makes D.C. such a vital place for Black arts, culture, and politics?

Kansas City will always be home. That was my start, but D.C. is special. It’s the perfect intersection of culture, history and politics. This is the city where whatever your interest or culture is, you can find it. Howard instilled in me a confidence to know that I come from a beautiful legacy and it is my responsibility to do those things that my ancestors fought and died for me to do. 

With that great responsibility comes a love and pride to be able to open those doors and help create opportunities for those that come after me — and to be able to enter spaces where traditionally you wouldn’t see a Black woman doing the work. I always think about in doing that I am creating space for others to come after me so that it’s not foreign when they get there. 

You didn’t include any photos from January 6 in the collection, but could you share your experience that day?

It was something that will be with me forever. I will never forget that day. The morning was very quiet. Security was high. My friends and family were sending messages saying, ‘Please be careful’ and I told them, ‘I’m fine. I’m going to be inside the Capitol. Nothing ever happens here.’ I said that with such confidence and clarity. 

I was in the balcony overlooking Statuary Hall where former Vice President Mike Pence and members of the Senate and staff just walked through leaving the House Chamber. I was uploading my photos when I heard some commotion below. I looked over the balcony to see Capitol Police scurrying about, piling up bike racks to block the hallway. I thought they were doing that out of an abundance of caution. Then I saw one of the officers draw a gun and closed my laptop. 

Two of Congressman Clyburn’s staffers brought me into his office. They pulled out the furniture to barricade the doors, and at that point it hit me that this was really serious. All the lights were turned off, the TV was muted and everyone was quiet. We could hear them in [Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi’s office, hollering and cheering. People came to the doors of the office and tried to get in on three different occasions. I had my cameras with me and was standing in direct line of the door. Then I thought let me move to the side in case something happens and they start shooting through the door. I remember taking out my phone like, ‘Should I make a note for my family in case they find my phone?’ 

We were there for over two hours. Someone yelled at us on the third attempt to open the door but didn’t identify themselves, so we didn’t know it was the police. I told them to put their ID under the door. I got on my knees with my cameras in my hands because I was going to start taking pictures as soon as whoever it was came through the door. They breached the door and came in with their guns drawn. They yelled at us to put our hands up, then checked our IDs. After checking everyone, they led us out through back stairways to the tunnels of the Capitol to an office building where we waited for a few hours for the all clear to leave. It seemed like the longest day ever.

The very next day, I had an assignment to take a portrait of [former U.S. Rep.] Gabby Giffords. It was so apropos because I was with someone who by all means should not be alive. She is a picture of resilience and what it means to keep moving forward. We talked about what happened the day before and she hugged me, rubbed my back, looked at me, and said, ‘Move ahead.’

Cheriss May is passionate about visual storytelling. Her work centers on the intersection of race, culture and politics. She documented the Electoral College vote for president inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Although traumatic, May continued to work. She finds strength telling the stories of people – passionate in what they do, resilient in the face of challenges.

Photo of Cheriss by Gorden Campbell | Story text by Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, and Dazed, among others.