Tyre D. Nichols‘ death at the age of 29 harshly reminds us that the encounter between a Black person and law enforcement can be deadly for the individual and life-changing for their family and friends. Tyre was stopped by the Scorpion Unit, a special task force from the Memphis police department on Jan. 7, 2023, it started with a traffic stop that led to events that ended up with him being handcuffed while being beaten brutally. He died 3 days later, on Jan. 10, 2023.
When it comes to visually dealing with Tyre’s death, we are placed into the lens from cop camera footage, a cruel vantage point. Tyre was an aspiring photographer and as I studied his photography, the fact in some of his final moments being captured as he was handcuffed, helpless while being beaten by professional law enforcement officers in contrast to how his photography expounds into a place as he wrote in the About Me section of his official website, “Photography helps me look at the world in a more creative way” are two aspects that weigh deeply on how his potential ended.
Cop camera footage shows a nighttime brutal assault, a real-life nightmare that Tyre Nichols had to experience while he called out for his mother during the time he was dealing with being pepper sprayed, physically attacked, shot with a stun gun and struck with batons. This footage showed the cruelty of one man being outnumbered by cops who are supposed to abide by protecting and serving. It is sad to know that Tyre who had an inclination for photography and its visual lexicon that can speak when words might not be on one’s mind, had his own life being recorded as he was beaten. One could only wonder if Tyre was aware of the cop’s camera and that his life would end up in a medium he loved.
Inside his “Original Portfolio” via his website, Tyre has 24 photographs, all of them in color. They show a variety of locations in Memphis, Tennessee: From Peabody Place to serene landscape photography that visually explains the warmth that can be found in sunsets. There is a contemplation in these photographs, a patience that resonates into what this young man was thinking whenever he visually communicated what appears to have been an optical elation. As I studied his evening photographs in his “Original Portfolio,” I can see how he allowed the vivid signage lights to bring in his interest, a wonder that he offers to anyone who visually visits.
There is another section on Tyre’s official website that’s titled, “Its A Masterpiece.” Here we have 12 photographs that play with a visual creative place where he allows us to see the blue in his “Blue Bridge” photograph and then his graphic design instincts propel forward with his “Memphis Business Journal” photograph. These two images show his ability to shape a photograph into a visual metaphor; especially his “FedExForum” photograph, which incorporates a personal and professional trajectory in his vantage point, because he worked for FedEx before his death. The center of his “FedExForum” photograph is in color and the edges on both sides are black-and-white, showing the tonal ranges in the black-and-white and a vibrancy in the colors, a visual confluence of ingredients that are sectional but woven together composition-wise. Could this photograph be showing us that Tyre was concentrating on the path of optimism as his employer provided him a chance? Would the black-and-white areas be an emotional balance to his own photographer’s artistic humility?
As a Black photographer, when I think about photography and my race’s contribution to this medium, I am respectful of past photographers like Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks while at the same time optimistic to know that the present and future Black photographers are positioning themselves to be visually communicative like Tyre was doing before his death. While studying the 36 photographs on his official website, the freedom he gave to his vision combined with the creativity that he aligned with his photography travels are testaments to the potential he had. So often, Black people who are killed by police brutality have their characters redesigned to fit into a news story with political and societal undertones. Yet Tyre’s photography offers us a visual direction into his footsteps from a subjective pace while venturing out into Memphis, Tennessee, perhaps trying to use photography as a way to remind him of his days in California. Photography has this ability to remind us about our landscapes and visual environments of what we miss and where we came from.
The optimism that roams throughout his photography expresses the love he had for wanting to visually state what he believed in as a photographer. Within Tyre’s photography, there are guiding forms of expression, some of which could have been overlooked because we have the option to see so many photographs on social media. I ask that every Black photographer and fan of photography take the time out to view his work. I learned about his official website through Dr. Stacey Patton and decided to focus my learning of his eye through his website because it shows his professionalism while aspiring: He left his email address and phone number on his website, another business sign of his ambitions to become a professional photographer.
One of Tyre’s most contemplative photographs is one that is in his “Original Portfolio.” It is a color photograph taken under natural warm sunlight which lands on a green street sign pole that lies flat on a red brick sidewalk, Park Ln is one of the names on the street sign, N Front St is the other street name. What guides this photograph into a visual poetic space is that Park Ln rests on the sidewalk and N Front St rises slightly up in the air. Tyre’s photography sense showed us the direction of what he could do as a photographer and this alone is something that can always inspire us as Black people. His photography and life had a purpose that is both sad because of how he died and educational because we can learn more about him through his love for photography.
The day that Tyre was stopped by Memphis police officers and beaten, coincidentally is the day that photography was introduced to the world from France, 184 years ago, Jan. 7, 1839. As angry, frustrated, worried and discontented as we may be after watching Tyre being beaten and mistreated via camera footage, somehow his photography serves a visual mentality that was more humane than the police officers charged with killing him. They did not take away his photographic talent, his uploads of photographs, his words that were direct, ambitious, a virtual friendly welcome wave to see what he saw. I do not look at Tyre as an aspiring photographer, but as a Black photographer whose life was taken at the age of 29 and I truly hope that those Black photographers who look up to the works of Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and the many others from the past and present, consider adding Tyre’s name to their list of visual inspirations.
Shaun La is a photographer & writer. Starting off with the medium of photography at the age of 18 (25 years ago) with a Minolta Hi-Matic & 135 film, the desire to see the moment became a way to envision the possibilities in wanting to be a timer waiting to see if he could photograph more Moments. His photography extends into fashion, street, photojournalism, landscape, still-life & candid realities — still utilizing film cameras only, 135 & medium-format film. As a writer, he has penned numerous essays on various topics, which has been published by the Amsterdam News, the Baltimore Sun, Afro-Punk, Camera Obscura & other media outlets. Currently he is working on his book, “The Perpetual Intellectual View Called Photography: Essays,” & putting together the building blocks for an upcoming exhibition on his Photography.
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