Inside the world’s longest-running photo non-profit

Inside the world’s longest-running photo non-profit
This is Kamoinge — Founded in the ’60s, when black art was ignored by the establishment, Kamoinge’s influence has remained largely unrecognised – until now.

In November 1963, just months before apartheid in America was finally outlawed, two groups of black photographers based in Harlem came together to form the Kamoinge Workshop. It went on to become the world’s longest continuously running non-profit photography collective. 

Taken from the Gikuyu language of the Kikuyu people of Kenya, Kamoinge means “a group of people acting and working together”. The collectivist approach, which helped bring about Kenya’s independence from Britain that same year, offered the perfect antidote for a group of young black men who were systematically excluded from advancing through white-owned institutions. 

Every Sunday, Kamoinge members met in each other’s homes for a full day of conversation, critique, and shared wisdom. In the ’60s, they opened their own gallery on Harlem’s famed Striver’s Row, hosting group exhibitions, as well as talks with luminaries including Langston Hughes and Henri Cartier-Bresson. In the ’70s, they went on to produce and publish The Black Photographers’ Annual, a four-volume anthology.


Despite the prolific innovations of the founding members, their contributions to photography have largely gone unrecognised – until now. In the new book Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop (Duke University Press), the members of Kamoinge are finally receiving their proper due. 

“Even though there was no recognition of the group, it was almost like a Godsend because with no recognition you’re going to work harder and keep doing things the way you see them,” says Anthony Barboza, who joined Kamoinge in 1963 at the age of 19. 

“It was a family,” Barboza says. “We were a very close group. They were like my older brothers. There was always the exchange of ideas. It went a long way in the relationship where we were all learning from each other and trying to get better.”

After a three-year stint in the Navy, Barboza returned to the group in 1968, launched a commercial career, and opened his studio in what was then the Photo District. In 1970, Barboza made a splash when he photographed Pat Evans in an iconic campaign for Astarté, a line of cosmetics for black women.

“I noticed that when the Kamoinge members took photographs, there was a spiritual relationship with the subject,” Barboza says. “You are looking at the subject but you are feeling the photographer as well. That’s why photography is autobiographical, more than people realise.”

In 2005, Barboza became President of Kamoinge, and set forth on a 10-year journey to publish Timeless: Photographs by Kamoinge (Schiffer), the first major retrospective of the group’s 50-year history. “I can’t believe how time goes by so fast,” Barboza says. “[But Kamoinge] is like the mafia – you can’t get out.”

Boy and H, Harlem, 1961, Lou Draper (American, 1935-2002), ourtesy of the Louis H. Draper Preservation Trust. Nell D. Winston Trustee

Two Bass Hit, Lower East Side, 1972, Beuford Smith. © Beuford Smith/Césaire

Kamoinge Group Portrait, 1973, Anthony Barboza © Anthony Barboza photog

Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop, currently on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through October 3, 2020, will also be exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Cincinnati Art Museum after the COVID-19 crisis passes.

Follow Miss Rosen on Twitter.

Enjoyed this article? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter

Latest on Huck

In photos: Three decades of Glastonbury Festival’s people and subcultures
Photography

In photos: Three decades of Glastonbury Festival’s people and subcultures

A new photobook explores the unique cultural experience and communal spirit found at the UK’s largest festival.

Written by: Isaac Muk

Surreal scenes from the streets of Tokyo
Photography

Surreal scenes from the streets of Tokyo

A new book by photographer Feng Li uses images of strange encounters to explore the historical centre of street photography.

Written by: Isaac Muk

Re-enchanted England: Exploring Paganism and Folklore
Culture

Re-enchanted England: Exploring Paganism and Folklore

A new book dives into the ancient traditions and rituals that many are turning to in an age of uncertainty, crisis and climate breakdown.

Written by: Thomas Andrei

Inside London’s Museum of Sex
Culture

Inside London’s Museum of Sex

For two days only a derelict house in south east London will become a hub of artwork exploring eroticism, sexuality, gender, and the body.

Written by: Brit Dawson

Why is Neil Diamond’s mega-hit ‘Sweet Caroline’ so intoxicating for sports fans?
Outdoors

Why is Neil Diamond’s mega-hit ‘Sweet Caroline’ so intoxicating for sports fans?

During this summer’s edition of the Euros, one certainty is the ubiquity of Diamond’s 1969 hit. But how and why did it gain such a storied place in England fans’ hearts? Jimmy McIntosh investigates.

Written by: Jimmy McIntosh

Can things only get better, again?
Election 2024

Can things only get better, again?

With the re-emergence of D:Ream’s euphoric 1993 hit and a ’97 style Labour landslide looking likely, Hannah Ewens dives deep into the creation of Cool Britannia, and asks experts whether it could be repeated again.

Written by: Hannah Ewens

Sign up to our newsletter

Issue 80: The Ziwe issue

Buy it now