By Mark F. Gray, Special to the AFRO
J.J. McQueen has spent most of his adult life looking at life through the prism of a camera’s lens. Whether he’s on assignment in the heat of the Freddy Gray aftermath or covering a sports event for Showtime, McQueen has traveled across the United States to chronicle an array of events which has given him a unique perspective on urban America and society in general.
A small part of what he sees is now on display at the University of Maryland (Baltimore)’s Fireplace Lounge in a pictorial exhibit called Vision Beyond the Lens which runs through May 1 at 621 Lombard Street. This 21 photograph exhibition features two themes that symbolize his life.
“I see more than just what’s inside the camera,” McQueen tells the AFRO. “Behind each image there’s a story.”
McQueen’s exhibit is executed through images in dual sections entitled “I Am More Than Just an Athlete” and “The Sun Still Rises in The Ghetto.” His inspiration allows him to paint a photographic essay of society that allows him to interpret impactful moments that touched him. McQueen also captures moments in communities that he was exposed to in North Carolina and in Baltimore while growing up that shaped his perspective on the world.
A native of High Point, North Carolina, McQueen spent time in the Park Heights section of Baltimore’s west side with his grandfather Donald during the summers of his youth. There he developed a sense of what gave that area its character and the similarity with other urban communities around the country that face a challenging reputation. Several of the photographs in that section depict a different social narrative than what his portrayed by the mainstream media. Where many see destitution and despair McQueen sees renaissance and hope.
Inspiration comes from different places and he was inspired by an abandoned building near Rogers Avenue behind Pimlico Race Track. As the sun was rising and the light glistened off the dilapidated structure he saw the opportunity for redemption. From there he returned and began shooting images of people caught in the hustle of trying to get to work. With the soft background of the decaying building and the people of the neighborhood embarking for work in the foreground McQueen hopes to capture a “new beginning.” These are his urban narratives one image at a time.
“I remember the stuff I saw as a kid and it speaks to the imagination you have to keep when [working as a photojournalist/videographer],” says McQueen. “My job is to revisit the places I’ve been and take pictures that reflect positive things that are going on in those communities. My images speak to a different narrative than those which are pushed out by mainstream media”.
McQueen, who played in the Arena Football League after playing football and basketball at East Carolina, also found inspiration for this exhibit back in North Carolina. During a football camp he and several of his former teammates gathered and remembered their glory days of playing while mentoring Greensboro kids. That moment, he says, helped him see how his teammates had evolved as men into the same type of life coaches that helped change the direction of his life and those he had played with. It became the launching pad for the exhibit’s “I Am More Than Just an Athlete” section.
“Moments of adversity show how you can see the new generation of coaches reinvest in the next generation just like [our] coaches did with us,” says McQueen. “Teaching and fostering those new relationships like we had with our coaches took me back and I tried to capture that.”