Mel D Cole’s powerful photos of American protest

The photographer switched his focus from the hip-hop scene to the Black Lives Matter movement last year in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Now, he’s turned his series into a book

Mel D Cole started shooting music on a disposable camera back in 2001. The New York-based, self-taught photographer has since established himself as one of hip-hop’s most accomplished and celebrated photographers.

Last year, he released his first book, Great: Photographs of Hip-Hop, which featured behind-the-scenes and live concert shots of superstars including Rihanna, Erykah Badu, Tyler, the Creator and Drake, to name just a few.

Cole’s second book, American Protest, marks a clear departure from documenting the visual history of hip-hop. When the music scene ground to a halt during the early days of the pandemic last year, he decided to spend his lockdown driving around New York City and documenting the streets.

The pandemic-born photo series swiftly took on a life of its own after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in May. The horrific event became a call to action for Cole, and he dedicated the rest of 2020 to photographing the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the US.

In addition to following the action in New York City, Cole travelled to cover protests in Washington, DC and Richmond, Virginia. He found the whole experience intense, to say the least. “It’s been all over the place. There’s been ups and downs, punches to my face, jail time and more,” he tells CR.

The body of work the imagemaker has produced from that electrifying summer is a powerful outpouring of the hurt, outrage, and courage of people compelled to take action. Inspired by the black-and-white documentary tradition of the 1960s, he sought to create what he calls “a collective memory” that continues the legacy of the civil rights movement.

He felt it was important to share the work in book form now, to continue to support the movement. “I could have waited 20 years and kept everything in my archive but why wait? Why keep such powerful images to myself?,” he says. “The point of going out and documenting was to amplify what the movement is all about. So making a book right now was one of the easiest decisions I had to make in the last two years.”

American Protest is published by Damiani;