Capturing history: Photographer Sam Williams documents local protests
Photographer Sam Williams has made a name for himself in Boston for his intimate and probing portraits, landscapes and wedding photography. When he began photographing the Black Lives Matter protests in May of 2020, he found himself in completely different photographic territory. The result is a catalog of images documenting the emotionally charged protests and the way the city of Boston responded to them.
“When you step into a protest, you don’t know what could happen. You don’t know what the pivotal moments will be,” says Williams. “You have to go with your gut and what you see and what your responses are.”
He was first drawn to the protests, he says, because of his own experiences as a Black man. In these passionate group settings, Williams processed his feelings the best way he knows how — with his camera.
Williams takes a step beyond documenting the events that occurred. Certainly there are images of lines of police officers with weapons; there are photographs of protesters chanting and carrying signs. But it’s the small, personal moments Williams captures that resonate the most. In one image, four masked children stand together, raising their fists in the air, a reminder that systematic racism impacts people of color at all stages of life.
In another photograph, a speaker sits on a man’s shoulders with a microphone, rallying the crowd. The speaker bursts with energy, raising his arm and staring out at the protest, while the man who lifts him has his eyes closed and his head bent as though in prayer.
Williams’ photographs were most recently on view in a virtual exhibition hosted by the Needham Library called “The Emotions of Protest.” It was a beautiful show, though somewhat sanitized for the family-friendly setting. More of his work can be seen on his Instagram @nineacrephotography and his website.
There is much hope to be found in crowds of like-minded people fighting for equity, but there’s also an inherent danger. “There wasn’t violence at every event, but there was definitely the chance for it to happen,” says Williams, recounting pepper-spraying, racial slurs and people attempting to knock his camera out of his hands. The more events Williams attended, the more people he got to know, and he says he carved out a bit of a safety net, knowing which protesters and other photographers had his back.
Photographing these protests serves a dual purpose for Williams. It allows him to process his own feelings and contribute his skill set to the cause. It also documents this moment in history, and Boston’s reaction to it, for posterity. “It’s important because most of the people who have been keepers of history were not only the victors, they were usually white men,” he says. “To be a person of color being able to hold my history, it means a lot.”