Reggie Cunningham is a man we first came across on Twitter. Spend time with Reggie offline and you’ll find that he is as he presents to be online. We stan authenticity. Photographer. Activist. Entrepreneur. Storyteller. Communications professional, the list goes on. Get into our Reigning Men feature with Reggie below for his story, thoughts on the state of Black men and women today, and some good advice for all creatives out there.
Tell us a little bit about your background: Who are you and where are you headed?
I’m a creator. I’m a lover. I’m a photographer. I’m a storyteller. I’m a communications professional. I’m a brother. I’m a black man. I’m a native St. Louisan living in the DC area. I like to say I’m an ordinary guy trying to do some extraordinary things. I’m honestly just trying to make my own little space in the world, then spread my arms and welcome others into that space.
How did you get your start in photography, entrepreneurship, influencership, and activism? Who or what inspired you?
For photography, I’ve been around it all of my life. My mother has been a photographer among many things for as long as I can remember. By proximity, I fell into it. I see the world a certain way, and hopefully, my photography reflects that. As far as entrepreneurship, I kind of fell into it by accident through the many endeavors I choose to involve myself in. By default, with popularity in social media spheres comes the label of influencer. What that means to me is simply that I have a responsibility to those who follow me to be authentic in how I interact. As far as activism, I, like many in St. Louis at the time, saw what was happening with police violence in my city and couldn’t sit still. Many of us walked out of our doors to join a movement without knowing how we’d contribute, but we just had to be out there.
Creator of the “Pure Black” brand, talk to us about where it comes from? It seems like such a mix of all your endeavors, how is it or has it been tied to any activist work you’ve done?
I created the Pure Black Nutritional Facts shirts in August of 2015, mainly as a shirt for myself, but also an affirmation to blackness. I didn’t think I’d sell many, but I was SO wrong. As sales and popularity started to snowball, I figured I had a responsibility to make this into something. I was really wary of not wanting it to come across like I was trying to profit off of Black deaths/the movement. When I started taking my photography seriously, I really struggled with combining all of what I do under the “Pure Black” umbrella, versus having them be separate entities. One of the lessons I learned from being involved in the protesting in Ferguson was that “defining ourselves for ourselves” is applicable to many areas in our lives. Why couldn’t I define Pure Black how I wanted? As a result, I’ve defined Pure Black as the face of all of my creative undertakings. You could say that all of that is a result of my involvement in Ferguson.
Photographer with work featured in Huffington Post, Essence, Ebony, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed and other publications, what advice would you give other photographers looking to get their work out there? In our digital age, why is photography essential to storytelling? What do you hope people feel when they see your work?
Honestly, the advice I’d give is just to do good work. Hone your craft. Be authentic. I’m a firm believer that when you are doing the work – whatever work that may be – for the right reason, it will always be sustainable. I’ve been blessed through some amazing connections to see the reach of my photography grow pretty quickly, but I also recognize that the grind has to be there. The question I think any creator has to ask themselves is, “What is it I’m trying to say?” Sometimes that answer is provided for you, and sometimes it’s up to you to figure that out.
Storytelling has been an integral part of humanity from the very beginning of time. Digital storytelling is just the natural progression of that. Part of that evolution is tuning in to how messaging is received by our audience. We’ve moved from words on paper to images and video onscreen. Photography has become an important part of that because everyone has access to not only viewing content but creating the content through the devices in our pockets: smartphones. A lot of people say technology has stifled creativity when in actuality it’s just given us a new medium.
When people look at my work, I honestly just want to show them how I see the world. There is beauty in most people, places, and things. I aim to let my lens convey that.
Black men and women are in some ways in a crisis. Crises of understanding and communication as a community, in addition to all the ways racism, sexism, and sexual orientation discrimination amongst so many other axes of oppression impact our everyday lives. Talk to us about how you see and understand the state of Black men today? What’s on your mind? What issues are most pressing to you? What triumphs are you seeing? Where do Black women fit in?
I think Black men have work to do. One of the mountains I’m willing to die on is the fight against toxic forms of masculinity. I’m passionate about the relationships between men and women, and how we as men can be better to ourselves and our partners. To me, it’s one of the ills most affecting our progression in manhood, and with our Black women. 90% of people committing homicides are male. 80% of people arrested for violent crimes are male. We aren’t killing each other, Black men are killing Black women. And many of the causes are rooted in toxic masculinity. I’ve written for HuffPost about this before. I think the victories we’re seeing in this fight are on the micro level, and we have to get them to the macro level. The burden of this work is Black men’s to carry, but there is a space for Black women to help affect this change too, and it is in breaking down how they perpetuate the cycle. As Black men, we have to learn how to live and love freely while defining for ourselves what “masculine” means in a way that’s not harmful to ourselves and our women.
Every day it seems like I see a tweet along the lines of “Support Black Women” “Believe Black women” “Pay Black women” or “Black women I hope you have a great day today,” and often from Black men. As great as the tweets are, I often worry that the other shoe is going to drop and/or the support/love/whatever for us is superficial. Why do Black women matter to you? What can our men be doing to uplift and encourage us in ways that aren’t just clickbait or temporary? What can Black women do to return the favor?
Black women matter to me because Black women are what I come from. Black women are and have always been out here doing the work for our people as a whole. We’ve seen examples of this with recent elections. Black women have and will always have my best interest at heart, they’ve always had my back, and they deserve to have their backs had too.
The first thing that Black men can do to uplift Black women is to be authentic and not performative in our support. The next thing we can do is listen to Black women when they explain to us how we can be uplifting and encouraging. As a Black man, I don’t necessarily think it’s for me to define how best to support a group of people I’m not a part of, and that’s why listening to them is so important. With that, we have to listen to understand, and not to reply. Women can support the work by not giving up on us, and tearing down their own ideologies rooted in toxicity.
Again, to me, the burden of the work falls on the shoulders of Black men to improve this relationship.
What can we expect from you and BePureBlack moving forward? How can we be of support?
Be on the lookout for more apparel of course. I’m upcoming on my third anniversary of Pure Black, and I couldn’t be more excited about that. I’m also about to start working on a couple ideas I have for coffee table/photo books. As always, check out my website at BePureBlack.com, follow me on Twitter at @kidnoble and on Instagram at @PureBlackPhotos and @BePureBlack.
In the end, how do you want your story depicted? What legacy do you hope to leave behind?
In the end, I want my story to be a reflection of the people I’ve tried to support and uplift with my work: blackity black, eclectic, colorful, diverse, and beautiful. I want my legacy to be that everything I’ve done and every choice I’ve made has been about my people, and not just me.
Just for kicks
- J Cole or Kendrick? Kendrick
- Football or Basketball? Football
- Favorite book? Today? The Giver.
- Advice to photographers? Find a couple of photographers whose work you love and steal from them. Put together a few things from different photogs you like to create your own look. Challenge yourself. Make yourself uncomfortable. That uncomfortable space is where the learning is.
All images courtesy of Reggie.