If Wu-Tang had an honorary 10th member aside from Capadonna, it would be photographer Khalik Allah. Not only do they speak similar slang and invoke early 90’s 5 percenter knowledge, but they are both able to transform the black struggle into cathartic art.
This ran through my mind way before he told me that the first person he shot was Gza from the legendary rap group, only to have exposed and lost the film. Khalik’s shots reveal the harsh truths of Harlem’s 125th and Lexington. Many of his subjects are women and men addicted to drugs and prostitution. Yet, through his lens he finds a glimmer of hope within them. He developed his style by shooting on his camera at night with a lower aperture - the resulting images feeling both warm and cool, like an Oakland night.
When we met up in the Lower East Side, he didn't have much time to spare before he took a trip up to Harlem to shoot. Before grabbing some snacks from the nearby market, we discussed his process and the power of his photography. “I’m baptizing people with the light,” Khalik explained from the driver’s seat of his whip.
Some of his nuances may leave people feeling like he believes that he is a diety, but Khalik feels he has a greater purpose and connecting to people has been his greatest accomplishment yet. About a month before our interview, I visited his gallery showing in Harlem for his film, Field Niggas. He wore a baggy Adidas sweatshirt, cargo pants, and a pair of Timberland field boots. While speaking to the audience, he reached his arm out like a charismatic emcee. Black pioneers Saul Williams and Jamel Shabazz were both there to view and support his work. It's clear that his imagery has been cutting through.
Most recently, Khalik was a cinematographer and second unit director on Beyonce's Lemonade film, which premiered on HBO. From Field Niggas to Lemonade, Khalik's unique perspective is something that will continue to stretch our imaginations.
"I like to enter one of the worst corners of New York City just to show that there’s still love and peace in the worst of the world because the spirit is still there." - Khalik Allah
Where are you from? Where’s your family from?
I’m from Long Island...Lord’s Island. My family is from Bushwick. I got two older brothers. (When) my second brother was born, my family was still trying to move further east - so they moved to Brookhaven.
My whole family moved to Long Island and a lot of them moved to Connecticut and Texas, but even though my mom became a Long Islander, she still worked in the city. She was a nurse for the hospital of special surgery. My pops worked in Brooklyn. And because Long Islander’s distance, I was always on Jamaica Avenue. The city was always in my life even though I lived in Brookhaven. It didn’t feel like a big excursion. When I was 16, I started driving in the city. I was taking the train to the city at 12. I was breakdancing, skipping school, b-boying.
What train stations?
I was too young to remember. It was always around 42nd, major shit.
Is there anyone in your family who was a photographer?
That’s funny that you ask that because of the way things happen. Sometimes you think one thing inspires you and it’ll be something totally different. I tell the story about how I asked my brother for his digital camera and he wouldn’t allow it, and my father let me hold his. I got an aunt named Hope who’s living in Bed-Stuy now, and she used to be an analog photographer but she was serious about it. She had different lenses for her cameras and she kept them clean. When I became a photographer I wasn’t thinking about her at all, but then I think about earlier impressions with my aunt. When I was a kid, I was just going through my mom’s photo albums.
"You don’t know what type of message it is to look at the world as though there’s no pain in it or as if there’s nothing to fear. That's the way I look at it." - Khalik Allah
So, all of that got me into photography. I grew up as a person that was always visual. It was always the things that I saw. Seeing a crackhead in the street...it was always in the street. I was a visual learner. I’m the third born (in my family). In supreme mathematics, three represents the principal of understanding. It wasn't the things that I heard that impressed me the most, it was always the things that I saw. Seeing a crack head or anything or anything from the street was always like a stage play.
What do you think your message or philosophy is based on shooting people?
Understand that there is no death. Your function of the world is to light the world up. The world is an illusion. The average person considers the world to be something going on outside of them. I view the world as just an idea in my mind. The reason why they identify the world outside of them is because they identify with the body. Even the body is just a thought in the mind. When you know that, then you begin to understand that there is no death. That’s how the universe works: it’s infinite. This world is a world where we come to die. We come here to crucify ourselves. We can never die as spirits. We do that in order to live out a dream of separation. And the only sane response to that is to be forgiven.
I like to enter one of the worst corners of New York City just to show that there’s still love and peace in the worst of the world because the spirit is still there. My whole message is one of forgiveness and one of light because light is knowledge. I’m using a tool that is based on perception, which is a camera, to say that there’s still light in you. My message is one of total forgiveness from the human condition. You don’t know what type of message it is to look at the world as though there’s no pain in it or as if there’s nothing to fear. That’s the way I look at it. I’m baptizing people with the light.
"I was thinking about the Eric Garner shit and that was a case where a brother got physically choked out, murdered and killed, but we’re also getting financially choked out on a daily, yearly basis." - Khalik Allah
Everybody has their tool. How do you feel about the reaction?
I don’t feel like I’ve done a lot of the shows yet.
But your stuff has been shown in different countries, and you have a pretty big social media presence where you talk to admirers of your work.
I love that. People send me messages every day. When I get technical questions I answer that because you never know who you’re speaking to. Sometimes they’re treating their own CEO like shit. I look at everybody like they’re the undercover boss because that’s God. Anybody that contacts me online has that divinity in them. Their spark is attracted to my spark and we’re sparking together. I also feel like some of those people I’m writing back. I treat people the way I want to be treated. A lot of people I help, they tell people about my work. I’ve been consistent with my message since I started with this. It’s more than images, man. It’s more than photography. It’s all about human relationships.
Are you considerate of your time here?
Yeah, the purpose of time is to learn how to use it usefully because time is an illusion. It’s a construct that does not really exist. Time and space are both illusions. The purpose is to use them usefully. Within my time in space I’m doing things that are productive to help further us toward our atonement. To me, photography is the perfect medium. I’m not entering as an artist. I’m entering as an apostle or a prophetic character. As somebody who wants to deal with light how a scientist would.
There’s so much that I have experienced in the streets that I did not photograph and record audio for. That gets under your skin and it stays with you. I’m the same way at work at AMC theatre that I am at Lexington, when I’m shooting.
Let’s touch on that. I feel like as a person of color, we’ve been taught to assimilate. We have so many constructs around us telling us to be “this” for this audience or do “this here." Not to curse here, or do this there. When you did your interview with Time, I felt like you were how you are with me right now.
Well, If you’re doing an interview on television, they’re going to bleep a curse out anyway. That’s a waste of space and time right there. I do curse when I talk but it it’s also good not to as well, depending on the audience that you have. I was invited to BARD University to go give a speech about my work and go show "Field Niggas" at the school. I don’t like to censor myself at all but I’m just thinking about the way that I want to be when I present myself. I appreciate people that always bring a different weather with them and you still realize that they’re bringing that weather.
How do you want people to view your work?
When you look at my photography I want you to expect the unexpected at any point. Even within the same night time film, still expect the unexpected. I build up my photographs so people can awaken from them.
You posted a picture recently where I felt like you took a different approach on it. It wasn’t like the rest.
I know exactly what you’re talking about too. I have these negatives that are just sitting and they’re in these archival boxes. Usually I’ll take an image into Photoshop and spot check it for dust, but that was just sitting in the archival box. I release my pictures at 2am or 3 am and I know if I cared about hits the best time to release them is when people are awake. (But) that’s when I’m working. That’s when my niggas is up. It always has to resonate with you.
So how do you transition when you don’t have to work at AMC anymore? When this becomes your main thing? When it becomes the monetary thing that you depend on?
Well, I’ve kept the job to avoid that. When you research the Voguls, the husband was working for UPS for 30 years. Sometimes a job punctuates your time. Having the job keeps my art free.
2015 brought up a lot of situations in the black community including Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Freddie Gray. As a photographer, what do you think about going to the protests and shooting?
There’s people who reblog my shit and hashtag it protest and I’m not even there. A lot of people have seen my work on 125th and think I was at the protest and I’m not even there. You know what I mean. I’m on Lexington and 125th. I was thinking about the Eric Garner shit and that was a case where a brother got physically choked out, murdered and killed, but we’re (also) getting financially choked out on a daily, yearly basis. So I’m looking at it on a financial basis, (that) we’ve been getting choked out. I was shooting 125th before these protests ever started. I made "Field Niggas" before that. The day Eric Garner was killed, I was on 125th.
I don’t personally feel a need to go to the protest and document it, I have my own style and what I'm doing. That’s their lane.
Interview by Ryan Lyons
Photography by Khalik Allah