Cephas Williams: Why the changes we make need to last

As part of this year’s Photography Annual, supported by Studio PI, we are introducing the Award for Change, where we honour the work of an individual or group that is bringing change to the industry. Here, we celebrate the work of activist Cephas Williams

The creative industries are currently in a period of flux. Calls for new voices and discussions around authorship and diversity have led major institutions and commissioners to question their practice. Meanwhile, photography and film are becoming vital tools for calling out injustices around the world.

To acknowledge these shifts, we are introducing a new award for this edition of the Photography Annual, the Award for Change. This award is brought to you in partnership with Studio PI, a new photography and illustration agency that promotes equality, and its recipient is chosen by CR’s editorial team.

For the inaugural Award for Change, we are honouring the work of Cephas Williams. Williams first came to our attention last year with his photographic campaign, 56 Black Men. The work took its name from a Sky News report that showed the number of Black male murder victims in London in 2018. It aims to address media portrayals of Black men, switching the typical narrative often amplified about them, in a bid to challenge their negative portrayal in the media. 

To create the piece, Williams photographed 56 men from a range of backgrounds, including a plumber, scriptwriter, choreographer and an MP (Labour’s David Lammy), and portrayed them all in hoodies, an item of clothing that is often loaded with negative associations when viewed in connection to the Black male identity. As well as addressing how Black men are presented, Williams hoped to point out the need for more diversity in those behind the scenes in the media industry. “Every industry needs to be reflective of the community it serves,” he told CR about the project. “The media serves a wide-ranging community, so I think it should be reflective of a wide-ranging viewer, and at the moment it’s not.”

This summer, following the Black Lives Matter protests that took place worldwide in response to the murder of George Floyd, Williams launched a billboard campaign across the UK containing the simple statement, Let’s Not Forget, alongside Floyd’s name and those of other Black victims of police brutality, including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

With this campaign, Williams aims to highlight how quickly the media and the public move on from events such as the BLM protests. “One of the biggest issues we face with regards to why change isn’t made is because we forget,” he said in a BBC interview. “We have this moment, people feel sorry, people feel guilty, but it’s not about feeling guilty, it’s not about feeling sorry. It’s not about going silent for just one day, or doing Black Out Tuesday – it’s about what you’re going to do moving forward.”

Top: Let’s Not Forget billboard campaign ; Above: Photograph of Cephas Williams and his son, Zion, for his latest project, Letter to Zion. Photo © Casey Gutteridge, CPG Photography

Williams’ most recent project is his most personal yet, rooted in creating lasting change. Titled Letter to Zion, it comes in the form of a letter to his son, born in the summer, where he talks about his fears about the world and the need for change. “People come in all shapes and sizes, and many different colours,” he writes. “It’s a sad fact that in some places, people with skin like yours and mine are not treated the same as others, or with the respect they deserve. I know that sounds crazy but it’s true. I knew that for the sake of your future, I had to take a stand.”

Within the letter, he announces the formation of the Black British Network, an organising body that will “allow Black British professionals and the wider Black community to have a unified voice regarding business and economic advancement in the UK”. 

The network launched with four key aims, including roundtable discussions and a ‘Black Paper’ document to “be used as a resource for companies to focus and develop efforts on how to better serve the Black community at all levels”.

The project is backed by organisations including Ascential and O2, and has support from figures across the creative and marketing industries, including actor Simon Pegg; former Unilever CEO and founder of Imagine, Paul Polman; the WOW Foundation’s Jude Kelly; and Philip Thomas, president of Ascential’s marketing division and chairman of Cannes Lions. “Cephas has a remarkable combination: he is both candid and constructive, resolute but not judgmental, focused but inclusive,” says Thomas. “If the BBN can reflect that, it will succeed.”

Cephas Williams’ project, 56 Black Men, as displayed on Peckham High Street in London

As Williams makes clear, its aims are for significant, meaningful change that is supported by industry leaders, rather than becoming another tick-box exercise. “I want to see a world where people are not judged by the preconceived notions attached to their ethnicity but by their integrity, for we have more in common as a people than we have differences,” Williams writes. 

“I want to see a world where everyone has access to the benefits of the privileged, a world in which we are not conditioned to hate others but rather expect the best, where kindness is the priority and happiness the goal.”

lettertozion.com; cephaswilliams.com; blackbritishnetwork.com