Radcliffe Roye: Capturing a a people in Time

Without Limit

with Rachael Barrett

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

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Radcliffe Roye, better as Ruddy Roye, has long been one of those Facebook "friends" one knows and doesn’t know. We’ve never really shared an extended conversation until now, and not had much to say that has not involved sharing visual communication of art, history and politics.

Increasingly over the last year, many who share this common "friend" will have noticed his name appearing more and more often in their feeds on Instagram and Facebook, and with good reason. His signature emotionally charged portraits have swept across phones and laptops everywhere, and fittingly — as the final interview for 2016 — this is an opportunity to celebrate his recognition from none other than the venerable Time magazine as their 2016 Instagram photographer of the year.

Roye is a professional photographer. Most of his portraits are taken with a Leica rather than with his phone, but the impact and reach of social media has catapulted him to dizzying heights as his politically charged and searingly personal portraits of people of colour, mostly in North America, have captured what will go down in history as one of the more tumultuous years in North American history, and in particular the black American experience.

Many fans may not realise that the Brooklyn-based photographer is one of ours — a Jamaican — and Roye took some time to reflect on the year that was, as well as his future plans.

"I left Jamaica in 1990, studied at a small liberal arts college in Baltimore, Maryland, called Goucher, and it was there that I honed my skills, first as a writer and then as a visual artist.

I cannot say that there was a day or a mark that identified a specific period in my life where I chose art as a way of life. I truly believe that I was always like this. I was groomed from early by my mother, Dorcas Roye, to read a lot and to engage in speech and drama at an early age. She then taught me music, and at the Herbert Morrison Comprehensive High I joined the band under Snick Glenn and had an amazing experience as a musician.

It was also at Herbert Morrison that I met Marcia Biggs who made art normal; something we should incorporate in our everyday lives, and not some other tangential discipline we engage in when it is convenient."

An engaging quick thinker, gesticulative fast talker and highly prolific on social media — as one would expect — Roye is a devoted family man and feeds off fast-paced New York life. His signature distinctive ‘tam and dreadlocks meet denim’ style paints him as a natural cooler-than-cool New York creative, so it’s interesting to learn that his first creative assignments were actually home-grown.

"Funnily enough, my first assignment as a photographer was with The Jamaica Observer back in 1999/2000. I was asked to photograph the defunct train line that ran from Montego Bay to Kingston. My assignment was to only photograph the Catadupa station, but I quickly saw the merits in doing a longer photography series."

The Instagram success is just another accolade for Roye, who sells his work at the Steven Kasher gallery in Manhattan. A regular on the speaking circuit, Roye is also often featured as a keynote speaker at universities and on noted forums such as TEDxYouth.

"I think if you are truly living, then you have to be an activist. Whether it is for the climate or your neighbours, or the animals, quality of life is something you have to fight for."

His haunting portraits that have captured the eyes of many are sometimes seen to be difficult, painful or insightful, depending on personal interpretation. The social medium is for Roye much more than just a means of sharing an image.

Roye has said that as his exploration of the under-represented continues, he has noticed that while he has risen on one hand, he has also lost a lot of followers and supporters on the other. The polarising nature of the work, however, is neither here nor there to Roye, who notes:

"I wouldn’t say they are difficult per se. Life is just life. I could say my life was difficult, but I also cannot say that I have struggled, so it is all relative in a way. I truly believe that people see the work less as art and more like stories that they find familiar or stories that they can relate to."

The poignant subjects and subject matter reflect a distinctive storytelling style that, for Roye, relies less on the formal mechanisms usually employed in composing an image.

"I just look for stories that resonate with me. It’s easier to talk about something that I am intimately familiar with... I look for an emotion, I look for the story, all the other stuff just comes together."

The series that catapulted Roye to Instagram fame highlighted black American conflict over the past year, yet for Roye these instances of injustice were no different from stories he has found while travelling the world or back home in Jamaica.

When Living Is A Protest was born out of just listening to the stories of black folk all over the United States. These stories are no different from the ones I hear when I visit Farm Heights, Rose Heights, Salt Spring, Flankers or Tivoli, but because of their geography there are some stark differences. For instance, the shooting of black men by white police officers...though it is not a shared reality, I can find solidarity in the pain shared by mothers and fathers who mourn the loss of their loved ones. There is a quote by [Algerian & French philosopher] Albert Camus: ‘When the soul suffers, it develops a taste for misfortune.’ I have used that quote as a guide as I continue to photograph the ways in which black folks continue to defy their station."

Roye is quick to point out that his support system includes not only his professional and social networks, but unsurprisingly is also firmly rooted in family.

"I would say the collective that I am a part of, we call ourselves ‘Kamoinge’, which means as one. I have followed the footsteps that these men and women have laid out before me, and have used their stories to guide me on this walk... Dorcas Roye inspires me. All my life I have tried to live up to the way she has lived her life — selflessly and as honestly as she can...In terms of the craft, I would say to my sons: In order to ensure that this fight is not in vain, it is important to teach whoever is close to you so that some semblance of your work will continue to live long after you have passed."

On his plans for the future, the self-described humanist seems keen to develop his own humanity and to increase his footprint in Jamaica.

"I want to be a better human in 2017. I want to photograph a larger audience for a larger audience. I want to finish my dancehall book. I want to do a solo exhibition in Montego Bay. I want to share more of what I have learned to the students there — the same way that Marcia Biggs would selflessly give of her time on Saturday mornings at the St James Parish Library. Those days are long gone, but I can still share in whatever new way there is."

Now you can read the Jamaica Observer ePaper anytime, anywhere. The Jamaica Observer ePaper is available to you at home or at work, and is the same edition as the printed copy available at




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