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Jeremiah Thomas Explores Black Identity Through the Natural Gaze

Nature is a state of being for photographer Jeremiah Thomas. It’s the perfect mirror of human decisions, a reciprocal of one’s values and beliefs. The flowers may bloom there, but it’s also where vitality rests and recharges.

As Thomas stands in and stares into his grandmother’s backyard, this territory once imagined as distant memories have been reconstructed as a mirror of his identity, further leaning into documentary photography. Where and how he stands, with his camera in hand, is that of a ritual– unspoken words providing space for one’s truth to live.

This ritual is one that Thomas applies to his photography process. It’s a stance that expresses comfortability and “I’m here to support you, in whatever that is,” awaiting the first movement from the subject urging their truth to exist. There are no rules, just one directive: be you.

“It’s just seeing a person be themselves. I like when I can photograph someone and don’t have to say ‘Hey pose like this,’ it’s really interesting to me to find someone and it’s not a planned meet up. I really want to see who they are or where they come from,” Thomas said. 

Thomas’ portfolio features a wide range of works about Black identity, that begins with the outdoors and nature being a breeding ground for connectedness. For him, nature is beyond the evergreen but rather the concept of everything existing in its pure, natural state. It’s his exploration of a natural gaze while using the “gaze” throughout his work. It’s more than a stare, it’s a mirror for the subject and viewer; allowing space for all emotions to live, understanding the complex dynamics associated with humanity. 

Concretely, his portfolio explores the complexity of being more than just a one-dimensional being. And through this dynamic gaze, the viewer is able to see those qualities within themselves. His work focuses on the wide range of aspects in being Black, and it’s easier for one to see themselves in these images because there are so many parts of Black identity that’s been shared across. 

“[Black people] are at the root of everything. So, through my work I try to show us just being us. Showing the various personalities, attitudes and characteristics of Blackness,” Thomas said.

Heavily influenced by the works of Gordon Parks and Andre D. Wagner, Thomas’ images are a reflection of some of their same values when photographing: connection and representation. Currently, Thomas has found inspiration in Dawoud Bey’s exhibition, An American Project, which examines many of the experiences of Black identity in America. These experiences can be identified as connectedness and community, stratified trauma, happiness, growth, etc. Themes that Thomas seems to capture in an effortless manner. 

Thomas is, now, based in Atlanta, GA, and has found a place here but Durham, NC, is his home. It’s where he credits it like the beginnings of a defining love for documentary photography. Many of his early works are captured there, and channel his subject-liberating style intertwined with the ruralness of the city. 
In Sunshine Down by the River, 2021, a young Black woman sits in front of the camera in a creek. Her stare sharply shot down the barrel of the lens. Her skin, extremely rich, seems to still glow despite the black and white style used. In this image, it seems that all else is silent while it highlights this ancestral-esque theme of healing. Or it’s simply a place for her to reset and recharge.

Similar to Thomas’ grandmother’s backyard, this image is a mirror of what, not only the subject has experienced but, the viewer’s as well. Thomas’ images are that of a blank canvas, urging the viewer to complete the story from their own personal experiences. Additionally, the black-and-white style is an added piece to this idea of painting the picture. It’s an opportunity for the viewer to psychologically place those hues.

For Thomas, his camera is a great storytelling tool. “I look for people who have something to say. We all have stories and I enjoy being able to capture that as well as translating that through my work,” Thomas said. “Atlanta’s culture is very raw and diverse, for instance, I have a project in the works with the Waterboys. In hopes of showing the grind that everyone in ATL has.”

Thomas’ images feature more than just the “gaze.” His portfolio offers an understanding of this gaze as not being limited to humans but its connection to nature. Like his grandmother’s backyard, it’s a reminder of all things that can grow. A place of beginnings in nature, which isn’t new in terms of Black children and the outdoors. Thomas’ work represents the idea of nature being a, historically, racist and discriminatory place for Black lives, but also a place where growing up, in familiar neighborhoods and areas it was also a sense of tangible heaven because of its adjacency to the concept of limitless dreams. His journey has just begun, “right now I’m just having fun and exploring how I can use Atlanta’s community to my advantage. Curating a series on neighborhoods and the residents as well as diving a little deeper into what it means to Black.”

I am Jalondra Jackson, a multiform arts and culture writer, curator and enthusiast. Currently, I am a Junior studying Journalism and Business Administration at Clark Atlanta University. My portfolio is influenced by the ever-shifting industry of art and the underrepresented areas in the arts. I began this journey by serving as a content writer for Her Campus CAU and my university’s newspaper, The CAU Panther.
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