James Graham’s black and white photographic self-portrait is as simple as it is powerful: The artist, a black man, is wearing a black t-shirt and emerging from a black background, grasping chains that hang from around his neck and extend down over his right arm.
His characteristic facial features, almost glowing in the darkness, evoke feelings of stoicism. There’s a touch of sadness in the eyes. The streaks of gray in his dark beard add to the gravitas of the image.
Inspired by a picture taken by his friend and fellow photographer Kyunnie Shuman, as well as the continuing issues of police brutality and inequality that plague our country, Graham’s portrait aims to convey feelings that extend deep into the native Savannahian’s personal history.
"There was a lot of injustice in Savannah growing up," he told me by phone for this week’s episode of Art on the Air. "And the chains simulate just, you know, we’re still in the fight because of the world today. All it takes is one thing and you’ll see that, ‘Oh, we thought we were way down the road, and really we’re at a stop sign.’ So the whole chain thing was just layers and layers of me still pushing forward. Chains might be around, but one day we’ll be able to break these chains."
The social-consciousness behind the artist’s work, as well as his understanding of an image’s ability to get to the heart of an issue, was something Graham caught onto early on in his life. His mother was active in the community and extolled the virtues of unity and positivity.
Meanwhile, his father, an ex-military man who instilled a sense of responsibility and hard work, always had cameras lying around the house. And he was the first of his friends to get a camcorder, thereby affirming his status as chronicler of their adventures.
"I grew up in a family-oriented neighborhood where we were always close," he said. "So we were always messing around, just taking pictures. And of course we all thought we were going to be stars one day, so we were just having fun with the camera."
To Graham, however, photographs and video were something more than that.
"Back then I was fascinated with just taking pictures and how powerful a picture was," he recalled. "How you could take a picture of something and when you actually get it developed and look at it, it tells all these stories. It tells stories of who the person was, or how powerful this picture of this thing was, and the affect that it has on the community."
As fate would have it, he ended up working in operations at SCAD, where he was constantly exposed to students engaged in photography and video projects. Graham found that they were often coming to him for advice on how to get the right angle or the perfect shot. Many of them encouraged him to actually attend the school, which he ultimately did, earning a degree in Film and Television in 2010.
The formal training refined his technical abilities and helped him hone in on his storytelling approach to photography.
"When I’m taking [a picture], it tells many stories," Graham explained. "It’s just not a shot of ‘this building.’ But ‘this building’ used to be a gas station that also was the neighborhood gas station that supplied all the good stuff and memories for this big neighborhood or this area. It has all of these stories behind it."
A lot of the time that means that the pieces are full of wistfulness and nostalgia, depicting things like a group of kids playing spin the bottle or overgrowing plant life obscuring a "No Trespassing" sign. But other times it means that the viewer might be forced to confront challenging subject matter, as in the case of his recent self-portrait.
"I’m never thinking about, ‘Well, I shouldn’t shoot this because this is depressing, or this is gonna make people wiggle in their seat,’" Graham stated matter-of-factly. "If I see something that I get enlightened with to shoot, then I’m gonna take the picture."
"It’s going to take feeling uncomfortable. It’s gonna take courageous conversations," he added. "It’s gonna take that type of stuff for a period of time to move forward in the direction that we need to move in as a society."
Learn more about James Graham and his work by looking him up on Facebook or following him @yardboy161 on Instagram. You can listen to our entire conversation embedded here. Next week I’ll be speaking with weaver Katie Glusica.
Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.