Art, Politics & Society

Image Is Power: How Kwame Brathwaite Changed The Narrative With Photography

Certainly, we have all heard the phrase Black Is Beautiful. It is often used to lift the spirit of Black people and deter the negative stereotypes often associated with them. While still a popular phrase today, it has its roots in the ‘60s, with one particular man right in the thick of it: the photographer and activist Kwame Brathwaite.

Since he was a young boy, Kwame Brathwaite was fascinated with the camera. While being involved with jazz at the time, he saw his friend taking photos in a dimly lit club. He was astounded that his friend could take photos in such a dark place. Thus, an obsession was born. Brathwaite would soon become inseparable from his camera, sometimes taking hundreds of photographs in a week.

Kwame Brathwaite, Naturally ’68 photo shoot in the Apollo Theater featuring Grandassa models and AJASS founding members (except the photographer), 1968. Center from left: Frank Adu, Elombe Brath, and Ernest Baxter.
Courtesy the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.

His obsession with the camera led to Brathwaite’s nickname as Keeper of the Images. His friendship with musicians led to the creations of some of the most intimate photographs of musicians. He became one of the top concert photographers and helped shaped the images of the likes of Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, and more. Some people know him as the photographer that documented the many protests and activist movements that happened in Harlem and other parts of New York City. 

To others, Brathwaite is known as the man who helped them see that they are beautiful. 

After Brathwaite graduated from the School of Industrial Art in Manhattan, he and his brother formed the African Jazz-Art Society and Studios (AJASS). A collection of Black creatives who love to talk, share and play music, the group was also involved in activism. Even their name showed their political leaning. At the time, the word African was rarely used in favor of more then-commonly used words like colored or negros. The inclusion of the word African in their name signaled that they were more progressive in their thinking in comparison to their peers.

Kwame Brathwaite, A school for one of the many modeling groups that had begun to embrace natural hairstyles in the 1960s, ca. 1966.
Courtesy the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles

One of the driving forces of Brathwaite’s political leaning is the teaching of Marcus Garvey. As a political activist who advocated black liberation through economic self-reliance, one of his teachings is the idea of Black being beautiful. In his honor, to this day, 17 August is known as Marcus Garvey Day. In Harlem, at the time, a beauty contest called Miss Natural Standard of Beauty Contest was held. Black women would enter the contest, where one of the criteria was that the women had to wear their hair naturally. 

In 1961, Brathwaite and the members of the AJASS noticed that the women would return to pick up their prize money with their hair already straightened to fit the beauty standard of the time. Two things happened after this: AJASS held the first Naturally fashion show and they started the Grandassa Models. Naturally ‘62, the inaugural show, headlined by Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach and was only planned as a one-time event. However, the popularity of the event led the group to create subsequent shows.

To fight back against the stigma against natural hair, the Grandassa models consist of women who agreed to keep their hair natural year-round. The word Grandassa came from Grandassaland, a word that activist and Garvey’s student Carlos Cook used to describe the African continent. 

Kwame Brathwaite, Nomsa Brath wearing earrings by Carolee Prince, ca. 1964.
Courtesy the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.

With Naturally and the Grandassa Models, they proudly display their bodies, unpoliced by white standards. The models wore African-inspired prints and hoop earrings, their hair, of course, natural. But presenting themselves in this manner was not easy. Life was initially difficult for the Grandassa Models. They were forced to go to Black men’s barbers or other women who had self-taught themselves how to take care of their hair. As the popularity of Naturally and Grandassa Models grew, so did the beauty industry available for them.

But of course, the popularity of the Black Is Beautiful movement is almost impossible without the images that Brathwaite was creating. The fashion industry would rarely show women with dark skin, let alone women with natural hair. Even Black-focused magazine of the time, Ebony, was only featuring lighter-skinned Black women with straight hair. In Brathwaite’s photos, these women were proudly, unabashedly, displaying themselves. 

Kwame Brathwaite, Grandassa models after the Naturally fashion show, Rockland Palace, ca. 1968.
Courtesy the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles

No, we will not bow down to the white’s beauty standards, the pictures said.

Many young Black girls were inspired by the women in Brathwaite’s photos. They were no longer ashamed of the way that they were born, no longer feeling compelled to straighten their hair or lighten their skin. What started as a small observation by Brathwaite and his compatriots slowly grew into a global movement resonating to the present. 

Kwame Brathwaite, Self-portrait, African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), circa 1964. Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.

While Brathwaite took photographs that drove these statements home, he was perfectly content with staying at the sideline, letting other activists become the face of the movement. Journalists didn’t write about the photographer behind these powerful images. They were more interested in those who gave booming speeches to the crowd. But with the death of his brother, Brathwaite realized that being the Keeper of Images also means being the Keeper of Stories. Time and time again, photography has proven to be a powerful tool to influence our way of thinking. Without Brathwaite and his photography, it’s almost certain that the Black Is Beautiful movement would not be able to spread beyond its birthplace, Harlem. 

But it did. And we have Kwame Brathwaite to thank for that.

Get Our Monthly Newsletter, Directly Into Your Inbox!

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form