‘You can’t take away our history anymore.’ A conversation with Miami photographer Johanne Rahaman

The following interview is produced in partnership with Commissioner, a membership program that’s growing a community of new local art collectors and sharing the stories of Miami arts and artists. The interview was conducted by Commissioner and WhereBy.Us co-founder Rebekah Monson and it has been edited for length and clarity.

Johanne Rahaman is a documentary photographer whose current project, BlackFlorida, is an ongoing photographic archive of shifting urban and rural spaces occupied by the Black communities throughout the state. Rahaman’s work has appeared in Vogue Magazine, National Geographic, and the BBC, and she has been featured in The New Yorker, Hyperallergic, and various media outlets. Rahaman is the second commissioned local artist of Commissioner’s second season.  

What got you started on your journey with documentary photography, and how did that become this project, BlackFlorida?

I started doing photography in 2002, and I wasn’t really quite sure what I wanted to photograph. I didn’t have a clear direction. But I knew that I liked photography and I started shooting in Wynwood before it was Wynwood, before it became what it is now, and would spend many days just walking around there. I left Miami in 2006 for Woodstock, New York, and I stayed there for about four years and moved back in 2010. And I’ve been here since. I always feel like an outsider in Miami even though I’ve lived here for 20 years total.

I was homesick for Trinidad and the only place that reminded me of where I grew up, Laventille Hills, was Liberty City. So I started coming home from work, I’d change, and get in the car and drive to Liberty City. And I started photographing. It was more like nostalgia for home. In the process of trying to capture the nostalgia, I felt this need to go a little further away from the city, and I ended up in Pahokee. 

I started to connect with people in a different way and I would spend so much time just talking with them and finding similarities other than just the visual or the obvious. And I wanted more. I wanted to see more. I was showing the images online, on Instagram and people would reach out to me and say, “Hey, you know you need to go to this community. You need to go to that one because of this narrative of the Black community there.” They’d tell me the history of this place, the history of that place. 

The Black community really guided me through what I needed to photograph. And so by the end of 2015, I was doing the work, I was creating the images because I was interested in it. I was enjoying it and it sparked my curiosity, but I didn’t really have a name for it because I wasn’t trying to create a project. That’s when I called it BlackFlorida, because that’s what it was.

The further away from Miami I went, the further away I wanted to go. I’ve reached as far as Jacksonville and Key West. I’ve made so many connections with people who have become a lot like family to me.

There’s so much diversity among these Black communities that shines through in your work. The moments that you’re capturing show this broad, incredibly vibrant traditions and experiences and cultural values. You’ve unearthed all these different geographic places and all these different meanings of Black experience in Florida and in Miami. I don’t think that’s a thing that we get in traditional media very often. And I wonder, were you also inspired by lack of representation? 

Nuance was a really important thing in the project because it’s something that’s overlooked by mainstream media. So I wanted my work to represent something that is not often associated with us. You see crime, poverty, you name it. That’s what mainstream media often use to represent us — a single narrative. It’s imbalanced. 

I am aware that those things do exist. But I use my project to focus on everything that happens in spite of that. The families that send their children off to college. And the star football or track athletes that come out of communities like Pahokee. Prominent members of society who grew up in Perrine. The ones who create legacies and their names are not often or never even mentioned. 

Just the everyday people who are doing their thing every day. Going to work, working two or three jobs and coming home and staying afloat. That’s the story of my family too. For many folks in my family that’s what they do. They work and they come home and take care of their families. 

That is a unique facet of documentary work that truly shines in BlackFlorida — the ability to elevate and help us discover the beauty of the ordinary. Are there threads that you see in your work as an artist that tie BlackFlorida together, that tie Black communities in Florida together? 

Family. You know, whether that family is the people that you are related to by blood or the people that you connect with every Sunday in church or at the Elk’s Club in Key West on a Saturday night – a lot of people don’t go to the same church, but they all run into each other at the Elk’s. Family is the main thing, there’s a lot more connection, a lot more family in the Black community than we are given credit for.

I started going to Key West, for instance, in September and I felt a really strong connection with the people there. I started to realize that Key West is colonized by the United States but it’s not a part of the United States. It’s an island, and the US has built a bridge connecting to it, a road connecting to it. But it exists on its own and it’s been recolonized, but there are still  lots of island people who just are happy to sit down and talk to me about their legacy on the island. The conversation should be one hour long, but it ends up being two hours inside and you say goodbye for another hour outside. 

It’s kind of like Trinidad. So I find myself reluctantly leaving there anytime I go. It’s really special, that place, and the people really stand out in the project. I’m going to have a difficult time moving on to the next community once I have to leave Key West. 

You said you are an outsider in Miami, and yet you have done this really deep dive into our city that most people can’t even imagine. You probably know this place better than most. Do you still feel like an outsider? 

Yeah, absolutely. I was living on Miami Beach for a while and I just moved almost a year ago into Biscayne Gardens. And I feel more at home now than I have in a long time because I’m surrounded by people from Jamaica and Haiti and Trinidad. I feel a lot more settled in Miami here. 

Miami is a big city and it just doesn’t feel like it’s shared equally. I might be accepted in most places here, but there are so many people that I connect with and I can relate to who wouldn’t be welcome in these spaces where I can be welcome.

Do you see your art as a way to bridge that gap?

I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s bridging the gap. I think it feeds a curiosity. And it also helps people to start to look at the people I photograph and see them in a different way because they’re seeing them the way I see them. I don’t know if it’s bridging the gap, but I know it’s changing some perspectives. I don’t know if it goes beyond that. 

What would you like to see in Miami or in Florida? As an artist who is working from these stories in real-time, do you have different hopes for these communities because of your work documenting them?

Hope is a tricky thing. My intention is to document what is and to convey the truth of the people who I photograph to the public. And also to encourage [the communities] to do what I’m doing, so that when I leave a place like Key West, I would have left it with the knowledge that I have, of what I do, and the skills with someone there who can continue the legacy of the project.

If I just create the work and then I move on to another community, then that makes me a bit of a Black colonizer, which I don’t want to be. So I’m creating the work, but I’m also constantly finding ways to educate people to do what I do — to demystify photography and teach them that you don’t need a camera, DSLR or whatever to be a photographer. You can use your phone and be as good a photographer as any other, if not better. You can use your phone to record interviews with your family or record yourself telling your story. I teach them to digitize their collections and I also teach them how to protect the photographs because two-and-a-half years ago we were covered by a storm, by floods that seem like the entire sea. I don’t know how many of us have our photographs, our family photos, protected from something like that. 

You can buy land and gentrify neighborhoods and push people out, but you can’t take away our history anymore. Our history was taken away from us a long time ago and we’re reclaiming it. We know exactly who we are. If we record that and we start protecting it and preserving it, then it doesn’t matter where we go. We’ll take our stories with us because they’re ours. So I try to teach, to pass on that knowledge to preserve who you are and the stories that we tell between each other. That’s so important to protect.

You can also check out our conversations with artists featured in the first season of Commissioner here, and our interview with A.G., the first featured artist of Commissioner’s second season, here.