Cephas Williams on 56 Black Men and racial stereotypes

Following the success of his poignant photo series 56 Black Men, the project’s founder Cephas Williams discusses why misconceptions are rife in media and the change we need to see

Last year, Cephas Williams spent several weeks sleeping in a studio he had renovated for the benefit of the local community through his initiative, Drummer Boy Studios. Amid battles with the council, he ended up staying in the space in order to protect their things. One night, an idea for a project came to him in a dream, and it quickly grew from a rough concept into 56 Black Men – a photographic series launched on Christmas Eve last year, and recently on show at M&C Saatchi in partnership with Clear Channel.

The project takes its name from the number of black murder victims in London during 2018, as discovered following a FOI request from Sky News. To make the series a reality, Williams reached out to men in his life to take part, who were in turn asked to recommend a participant they also wanted to spotlight. Over the next few months he captured close-ups of 56 men – himself among them – staring directly into the lens and wearing a hoodie, an item of clothing that’s all too often associated with negative stereotypes.

The roles of these men range far and wide: a photographer; a plumber; a scriptwriter; a choreographer; even an MP in the form of Labour’s David Lammy. Beyond defying the stale and singular narrative of crime and violence, the photo series illustrates the multitude of experiences that exists among black men but often escape the news. Even after all of Williams’ work, he’s still approached about making knife crime documentaries.

While nearly all the men he reached out to were up for participating in the shoot, a few men declined as they weren’t comfortable with it. “Some of the feedback was, ‘If the media gets a picture of me in a hoodie I don’t know what they’ll do with it’,” Williams recalls, which left him asking: “‘Are we allowed to wear casual clothing anymore? And if we do, what does that mean for our trajectory?’ This is the reason why we’re doing it – because there are people that are not comfortable as a result of currently widely held stereotypes.”

Cephas Williams at the 56 Black Men exhibition at M&C Saatchi

So who’s to blame for this narrow, negative rhetoric? There are a wealth of factors at play, but Williams has no doubt that the media plays a pivotal role, in particular traditional forms like newspapers and tabloids. “If you look at the representation of who’s writing the news, there’s not really many black journalists or black reporters,” he says.

“Then you go to broadcast media, and again when you look at presenters that are presenting our news that don’t look like us – take the Good Morning Britain piece, where they had three white men and two white women talking about black on black knife crime in the community,” he points out. It’s for reasons like this that Williams launched the project through their own online platforms. “Had social media not existed, I don’t know if news outlets would’ve been receptive initially.”

Though it shouldn’t fall on Williams’ shoulders to find a solution, he’s clear on what needs to change in order to foster a more positive narrative. “For me, every industry – or the ones I can think of – I think needs to be reflective of the community it serves,” he says. “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.” Yet the issue goes beyond visibility; people need to feel “they can be their authentic self.”

“It’s one thing having them there and it’s another thing allowing us to feel we can actually speak. There’s that quote: ‘What use is visibility if you can’t be yourself or what use is a voice if you can’t speak your truth?’”

Image: Cephas Williams

While the project did make headlines following its launch at the end of last year, and Williams is constantly stopped in the street by people who recognise him and his work, the conversation has now died down again. He’s taking the initiative forward, with the aim of engaging more leaders on the issue, however he believes a continual demand for a ‘new’ angle comes as a result of outlets not grasping the nature and gravity of the subject.

“We’re not launching a product – we’re trying to save lives. We’re trying to change the notion and trajectory for black boys,” he says. “The biggest part of the project is not, for me, the wider gaze of the public, the biggest part is that my little brothers will be able to see an image they can identify with, which is the image of 56 Black Men, amplified with a positive light, so that we stand a chance of changing the trajectory. Because if you show a black man one thing over and over and over again, that’s what he will believe he can become.”