The Importance of Black joy
An Interview with Parker Thompson
"Always Been is a celebration of Black humanity and joy and lies in contrary to the American historical record and its in relationship to Blackness” —Parker Thompson
I have always felt privileged as a child growing up immersed in the fine arts. Seeing “Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh was a powerful point in my childhood. From museums to student exhibitions, art has always been a part of my life, so when I had the opportunity to interview Parker Thompson ’24 about his “Always Been” collection, I was humbled. Thompson is not only a photographer and full-time student majoring in History, but also a researcher and collector. He is the curator behind the Instagram account and project “Always Been” which serves as an archive of Black vernacular photos that focus on Black joy, love, and life. Thompson’s work was recognized earlier in the year, and the Griffin Museum of Photography offered a space for an exhibition, which opened Jan. 12 and is running until Feb. 26. Since the start of Black History month, Thompson has been garnering attention to his project, which he appreciates, as more people learn about the importance of this project and celebrate alongside him. He has been mentioned in the Boston Globe, BrandeisNOW, Brandeis University’s YouTube video and LenScratch. I sat down with Thompson on Feb. 8 to ask about his love for photography, his project and exhibition, as well as his own identity.
Like me, Thompson expressed he was always drawn to art and photography from a young age. He grew up with a single mother and was immersed in a film environment as his mother was finishing film school. He explains that he is “mostly self-taught” as he learned how to use the camera through Youtube and the internet.
“I can’t imagine growing up without [the internet]” Thompson adds, though he attributes his foundation to his mother. Throughout high school, he had been invested in fine art photography and he distinctly remembers going to his local college library to look at their photography collection.
Thompson has been collecting photographs for fun as a personal project and exploration of what it means to be Black. He would go to antique stores and junk shops to purchase old photographs, and the project “Always Been” would grow out of an examination of the photos. On a closer look, he realized how rare it was to find photos of Black people that showcased people simply living life rather than constantly fighting for their rights or being in a position where enjoying life was seemingly impossible. He wondered why photos that celebrated Black life were absent in his own life as well as the larger photographic community. He decided to create a community to share his collection with.
His process for finding the photographs includes buying in-person, but most often using saved searches on eBay where he’ll get notifications about new listings for words or phrases like “black Americana” or “African-American” under vintage snapshot photography category. Thompson has been able to maintain the Instagram account through grants and fellowships from Brandeis and other institutions. He draws inspiration from an Instagram account called Black Archives run by Renata Cherlise, which pulls photographs from archives across the country. Thompson realized how many people would be interested in and benefit from an account that is a collection.
His reaction to having an exhibition was shock and gratitude. It was a Brandeis student doing an internship at the Griffin Museum of Photography who suggested Thompson contact them. A year ago, he did not expect anything to come out of the meeting. Fast forward to today where not only does he have an exhibition, but he has received positive media attention and heard peoples reactions to his work.
Thompson is influenced by several artists and historians; he was most inspired by his friend Jacob Klanke — a non-Brandeis student — who he met through Instagram; a fellow collector mainly of Native American photographs. Klink runs a project of his own called “Discovering Lost Souls” that bears resemblance to the “Always Been” project. He also mentioned that an essay by bell hooks titled, “In our Glory: Photography and Black Life” is the underpinning for everything that informs his work and the project as well as Debra Willis who spearheaded the study of Black Photography. He shared that one thing he would want to change is to find a platform that provides a more meaningful engagement. Between Instagram and meeting individuals in-person, there is a bit of disconnect with various audiences who are not on Instagram or not able to go in person to the exhibition. “In the future, I look forward to developing methods to find the space,” Thompson said. As far as his future is concerned, he already has plans. Thompson plans on working in a curatorial position at a museum, and he is very interested in continuing his collection and finding a safe archival space for the images currently in his possession.
His advice to creators and artists of color is to “just talk about [your art and work].” Talking about the work you make, and making your passion known is so important for people to find your work. Another important nugget of advice is to cold email as much as possible, as “not only are you building connections and friendships but spreading the word.” His last piece of advice is to take advantage of all the grants and money Brandeis has available for students; it can alleviate the financial aspect so artists can focus on their art.
During this interview I was astounded by Thompson’s experience and his passion. The work he is doing is so important to change not only the way the Black community is seen now but shift the way we see our history and past. I also found myself nodding along to his reflections on his childhood as I have lived them.
Similarly, I grew up with a mother who was talented in the arts — though more focused on drawing and painting — and I owe her for my passion for drawing and storytelling. I am also a Black artist who is primarily self-taught through YouTube and the internet.
Listening to Thompson share his story and the intersections of how his personal life and identity informs his work using photography as an art form was powerful. I hope he can inspire all of us as much as he has inspired me.