Photography offers an intimate insights into Sean Black’s social activist persona

Posted December 5, 2013


In today’s world, a person may believe that he or she is a “photographer” after taking pictures of daily life events with no significance.

Sean Black, currently studying to earn his Master’s of Arts degree at the University of Miami, is definitely not one of those “photographers.”

This picture of Sean Black was taken by one of his photography students, Valentina Escotet, at the University of Miami.

This picture of Sean Black was taken by one of his photography students, Valentina Escotet, at the University of Miami.

His work exhibits more than just a photograph; it explores his activist personality and his true passion for documenting some of the dilemmas that face society today.

Black is currently completing his thesis in his final semester at the University of Miami.

Maggie Steber, a photography professor at the University of Miami, critiques Sean’s work and knows him on a personal level.

“He is currently enrolled in the photography portion of his second master’s degree in Fine Arts. He has definitely touched many students and facility members with his moving photographs and amazing drive to learn and pursue photography,” Steber said.

“Black has been working on a body of work that has impacted the perspectives of many current photographers and aspiring photographers. This series of photographs are of homeless people who live in the woods. Black does not only take pictures of the homeless, but he shows their inner beauty and essence of what makes that person who they are. He doesn’t just make them look like a homeless person, but he respectfully makes them look beautiful and lets their true colors show,” Steber added.

This body of work is named “Human Nature & The Oblivion of Being.” It explores the socio-economic dilemma of homelessness. With this, Black invites his audience to reconsider their negative perspective of the homeless population and their image and connotation.

“My intentions for my thesis project on the homeless is to portray the individuals bound by this social plight with empathy and compassion as contemporary imagery around the topic of homelessness portrays these individuals as outsiders from our privileged world.  They aren’t that different form us and each person is unique in their misfortunes or poor choices.  I feel the economic state of our country is precarious at best and we should be more aware of the numbers of people slipping through the cracks of society,” Black explained.

“Quite simply, I was completely overwhelmed when I discovered that there are so many people are living in the woods beyond our plain view.  It’s heartbreaking yet people have shown me great compassion, resilience in the face of despair and true strength. I received more phone calls simply to wish me a good day this past Thanksgiving from homeless people I have come to know, more than friends and family.  I have learned to not under estimate the humanity of the homeless,” Black added.

Black describes his work as being “evocative,” he struggles to find that moment or interaction that describes the personality of the person instead of just photographing their image.

On Nov. 7, Black had his own gallery preview of this work, which was followed by his opening reception Nov. 9. These galleries were part of the University of Miami Gallery at the Wynwood Building, located at 2750 NW 3rd Ave., Suite 4, Miami, Fla. 33127.

Molly Cohen, a sophomore at the University of Miami studying advertising, attended his gallery exhibit.

“His gallery exhibit was really well executed, I saw few of his pieces before the gallery and they were really strong. However, when they were all put together in a gallery, it created a powerful representation of himself and his work,” she explained.

A former photographer professor in the Art and Art History Department of the University of Miami, Sheila de Lemos, also attended Black’s exhibition. de Lemos spent time looking over each photograph Black displayed. After looking at all the images in the gallery exhibit, she complimented him and was in awe of his talent.

Black stated that he sold two pieces of his work at this gallery and he received a phone call about potentially selling his third.

Black’s work is socially activated photography or social documentary photography. Black became interested in this project on the homeless when he went to visit his hometown of Merritt Island, in Central Florida, and went to visit the homeless in town.

Just out of curiosity, he followed one of the homeless women into the woods to see where she was sleeping. Black believes this is what started his interest in taking pictures of the homeless. From here, Black got involved in the United Way and The Point in Time Count where participated in the 2013 count. He has now photographed the homeless in about 50 homeless camps throughout Florida and California.

“I have dozens of rolls of film and dozens of camps,” stated Black.

Black is 44. He grew up on Merritt Island, also known as Florida’s Space Coast located in Central Florida. He is the oldest of three siblings; he has a younger brother and sister. Although his siblings were not interested in photography, his father was a professional photographer, and was published in Life magazine and the United Press International. His father’s interest rubbed off when his father purchased him his own Yashica camera at the age of four.

Black did not attend college after graduation of high school although he did work as a staff analyst at John F. Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Fla. He worked here from 1997 until 2010. He decided to attend college in 2004, but continued his staff analyst work while in school. In 2010 he decided to become a full time student and discontinued working with the Space Center.

Throughout life, Black always enjoyed photography. He started his college education path at Barry University in Miami. He was graduated in 2004 with a bachelors of science in information technology. He then moved out to California and studied business skills for the artist at California State University at San Bernardino, Calif. He was graduated with a California State certificate in June of 2009. Deciding to stay within the same university, Black continued his education and earned his Master’s of Art in studio art and photography at the California State University.

While completing his master’s in California in December of 2010, Black found out that his father was suffering from a progressive brain disorder; Supranuclear Palsy, which is a rare brain disorder with progressive problems with control of balance, complex eye movement and thinking problems.

Black’s mother needed assistance in their home in order to prevent having to send his father off to an assisted living facility. Black took action and moved back to his hometown, where his parents were located, and helped aid in the care of his father.

Black’s speaks openly about the time when his father started getting sick.  He reflects about the time when his father was so sick he couldn’t use his camera so he father passed his Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera down to him.

“This is the camera I used to photograph the homeless. I have a strong sentimental attachment to the camera because it carries on my father’s legacy,” said Black.

Black is currently enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Miami in Coral Gables. He is completing his second Master’s degree. He anticipates that he will graduate at the end of this semester with a Master’s degree in Fine Art in the field of photography.

“I chose to continue past the M.A. degree because the Master of Fine Arts is the terminal degree in visual arts practices which will allow me to be most competitive in seeking out college level teaching opportunities,” said Black.

The Master of Arts program at the university is a 60 credit hour program. The requirement includes 30 hours of creative work in the studio and 30 hours of electives and required courses. Some of the required courses include graduate seminars and art history courses.

There are a total of five graduate students enrolled in the photography section of the Master’s of Arts program at the university. One of them, who occupies the studio office space next to Black’s studio, is John Van Beekum.

Beekum notices how busy Black is and how devoted he is to his work.

“Like myself, he has gone through college, worked, and continuing in school to study photography. Whether he is taking pictures for a magazine, teaching a class, working on his thesis, or going to class himself, I notice that he is a pretty busy guy,” he said.

As a graduate student in this program you spend your last year focusing on your thesis and the written document that supports it. To aid in this process, each graduate student has a group of teachers who serve as his or her thesis committee. Every few months the graduate students present their work to this committee and the committee critiques the student’s work.

A member of Black’s thesis advisor committee is Steber, who teaches in the School of Communication.

“I think Sean’s work is beautiful and very courageous because it shows homeless people living in the woods where one would not expect to see them. He is courageous because he could go into the woods and never come out because there is a lot of danger in the woods. We metaphorically don’t see homeless people even if we see them on the street. Sean shows the hidden side of these people and makes them seem very important. The images are respectful and beautiful. Instead of looking at them as homeless people, we look at them by name. His work is groundbreaking,” Steber said.

Black began his extra-circular photography experience in 2008 when he was a workshop assistant for Bruce Davidson at the Palm Spring Photo Festival. At the same festival in 2009, he was a workshop assistant for Steve McCurry. In 2010 he was an assistant photographer  for David Lena on June 4, in Palm Desert, Calif. Black then went on to became a workshop assistant for Joel Meyerowitz in September of 2001 at the ICP travel workshop in Cape Code. His most recent form of workshop assistance was for Amy Arbus in 2011 at the Palm Springs photo festival.

Black does not only focus on his own work, he also offers a helping hand in all of the classes he takes and sits in on. A student in CVJ 221, introductory to documentary photography, last semester had great things to say about Black as a member of his class.

Pablo Chacon-Alvarez, a senior with a double major in creative writing and journalism, stated it was an invaluable experience.

“Being in class with Sean was awesome, it was almost like having two professors. He always had something to add and he had a interesting spin on things. Whenever anyone was having trouble he was there to offer guidance and give us advice,” Chacon-Alvarez said. “Seeing how passionate and dedicated he was about photography and how fully involved he was with his projects was really inspiring. Sean’s work was very powerful, his photographs were personal and intimate and he really had a way of connecting with his audience.”

Due to Black’s expertise in photography, he has become an adjunct instructor at Eastern Florida State College located in Cocoa where he has taught digital media photography techniques and traditional darkroom. Black also teaches as a teaching assistant and lecturer in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Miami.

Student Taylor Sperring raves about Black as a professor. Sperring currently has Black as a professor in his intermediate photography class at UM, known as ART310. Sperring is a senior electronic media major.

“Attending Sean’s class is quite relaxing, he isn’t too judgmental and he always helps critique our work with a positive attitude even if there are technical flaws. His work is definitely different and he always seeks to photograph the group of people that society normally doesn’t interact with. This makes his work very influential,” Sperring, an electronic media major, stated.

A student that Black has had a great impact on is Molly Cohen, who was one of the students who attended his exhibit. Cohen, told the story about when she first met Black.

“When I met Sean, I was in the printing lab trying to print pictures and I was having trouble. Without knowing who I was, he right off the bat helped me and went above and beyond. He helped me figure out the specifics in my piece this helped me to improve. Black is very lively and has a lot of character,” she said.

Outside of the classroom, Black is an editor at large for A&U America’s AIDS magazine where he has photographed celebrities like John Water, Debra Messing, and Alicia Keys.

Black’s work has been published internationally and has won many awards. For his “Human Nature & The Oblivion of Being” series, he won first in show at the MFA, Master’s of Fine Arts, candidate show at the Lowe Art Museum on campus. He also featured his homeless work at the Harrington College Art Show.

Black has previously won awards. The ones he is most proud of are best in show at Coral Gables Museum, best in show at the society of photographic educations and his display at the California Museum of Photography in Riverside, Calif.

After graduation, Black plans on continuing his work with A&U America’s AIDS magazine and to pursue teaching photography due to his love of being in the academic setting.

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