Visible Man: Cam Kirk & the Shifting Gaze
Okayplayer sits down with Cam Kirk, an electrifying photographer with his own distinct and intentional style, to talk about the shifting gaze in culture.
In his 1952 novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison says, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” In this context, he is referring to the condition of the black body, and 65 years later this still holds true, especially as it relates to the state of the black artist.
I met up with Cam Kirk during one of his press runs in Brooklyn. Cam is quiet and very intentional with his words. His voice is soft at times (not muted), but he commands your attention when he speaks. On our way to the conference room, we pass a pretty substantive offering of Thai food nearby. I begin to crack jokes about how much damage I could do to a plate in the moment, which leads to me asking Cam if he’s a foodie. “To be honest, not really. I eat to stay alive,” he responds. As he sits down to be briefed on the expectations of the promotional effort which brought him here, Cam retreats into the warmth of a two-toned black and white hoodie. The ask: Cam is to annotate a few of his own photos for a social media campaign.
“So in this photo, 21 [savage] is not surfing the web, he’s actually engineering his own songs because he’s talented like that.” During the segment, he speaks passionately about photographing artists like Future and Lil’ Yachty. He reminisces fondly on the moments in which the photos were taken.
Most mainstream American cultural publications, much like America, are afflicted by the white gaze— a supposition to view the world, and subsequently, create content, that is meant to appeal to a white audience. It’s a gaze that causes creators to ask, “How do we make this palatable for white viewers?”, “How do we ensure that they understand?”, “How can we make white people feel validated through this work?”, and lastly, “How do we not offend white people?” But the true danger of the white gaze is not that it exists, but that it is prioritized. The gaze that makes Ralph Ellison invisible in 1952 is the same gaze that claims Kylie Jenner started a new trend with “boxer braids.” This is also the same gaze that watches intently as Cam Kirk describes the story behind one of his most iconic photos of East Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane, and immediately responds, “OMG he’s so big. Look at his belly! I love Gucci!”