BY: RAMONA DUOBA
“I thought photography or journalism, in general, was a mechanism or a medium that can help explain the problems in our society based on race and based on class, but particularly race,” said Ozier Muhammad. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist has documented the cultural events of black citizens across the world for more than four decades, and now the Keith de Lellis Gallery in NYC presents the artist’s first one-man exhibition.
Chicago-born Muhammad was raised in a community that was often in the news. The grandson of Nation of Islam founder, Elijah Muhammad, he grew up amongst popular figures of the civil rights movement including Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Not without controversy, the Black Muslim leaders were often spotlighted in the news and pictures. However, it was Gordon Parks, the first African American photographer for Life magazine, that inspired the young Muhammad, “I saw him photograph my family members, my grandfather, I saw him hanging out with Muhammad Ali, Malcolm and the photography that came out of that was extraordinary.”
Throughout his career, Muhammad has taken an honest look at the world around him while recording moments in history. Through his lens, he has brought awareness to the hardships and triumphs experienced by Africans and African Americans. “He is drawn to subjects that impact people of color and I think that may be instinctual,” said de Lellis, “but his sense of compassion dominates his image-making, whether he’s recording black or white, it’s the humanity that is so rich in his pictures.”
In 1984 while working for Newsday, Muhammad shared in the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of famine in Africa. “I think that his work has exceeded the photographers that he had idolized from the very beginning of his career,” said de Lellis. “When you want to see what a particular event looked and felt like, you can refer to his work to experience the moments that he recorded. You can’t ask any more than that from a photojournalist.”
He traveled to South Africa to document Nelson Mandela’s historic presidential win to become the first non-white president of South Africa. While a staff photographer with The New York Times, he covered President Obama’s journey of becoming the first African American president in the United States. “Being a photojournalist is like being a kind of cultural anthropologist,” said Muhammad. “You get a chance to pull back the layers of people’s lives and interpret what you discover.”
The exhibition spans Muhammad’s career and says de Lellis is “an honest and intelligent mirror of the world he captured with his camera.” From the portraits of the children orphaned in the earthquake in Haiti to the woman usher singing gospel at the House of Prayer in Harlem to The Occupy Wall Streeters parading down the street…Muhammad has captured important world-changing events “with great artistic integrity and emotional tenor.”
Ozier Muhammad: Events that Changed the World at the Keith de Lellis Gallery in NYC. September 29-December 4, 2021