we are here explores the intersections of public art, portrait photography as fine art, photographs as cultural documents, documentary film, social activism, and archive. It extends the programming of R.A.C.E. MATTERS SLO’s multimedia Belonging 2021 series, which sought to amplify Black creativity to harness the grief and rage as well as transformative joy expressed on the streets during the racial justice protests of Summer 2020. Those actions served as provocations for the community to reckon with hard truths about the United States of America and San Luis Obispo County, in particular. The visual arts provide a productive space to actively engage with the resultant pride, fear, hope, division, criminalization, and misrepresentation.

Frederick Douglass, American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman regarded photography as a powerful tool to combat racism. He heralded it as a distinctly accessible art form that, in the hands of the aggrieved and historically marginalized, could serve as an arm of democratization. For African Americans in particular, photography provided a means of self-representation and self-empowerment, and for subverting the racist imagery that permeated contemporary popular culture. Douglass believed in the photographic medium’s capacity to provide an honest and accurate likeness of his own personhood and individuality—not only as someone who had formerly been enslaved but also as a human.

Douglass taught that Black people could correct prevailing misrepresentations, counter racist discourses, and assert theirself-image on their own terms. we are here draws from the rich history of Black self-representation to present uncompromising portraits that serve to connect the subject of the photograph with the viewer through honesty and shared humanity.

The July-August 2021 we are here multimedia public art installation was originally conceived by R.A.C.E. MATTERS SLO co-founder Courtney Haile and advisor Stephanie Allen as the central iteration of Belonging 2021 to amplify Black voices, bodies,and creativity. The project was produced by Afro-Latina educator and social justice advocate Jordan Martinez and R.A.C.E Matters SLO’s Haile and Allen. It featured portrait photography by former Cuesta College student and seven-year San Luis Obispo resident Eric Deshawn Lerma, who was mentored by professional photographer, Cuesta College photography technician, and activist Richard Fusillo. Portrait sitters are part of the local movement for social and racial justice. Cinematographer Stephen Heraldo of Community Roots Project produced film and web content. Lerma’s portraits lined Higuera street on city pedestrian banners; and video content launched on R.A.C.E. Matters’ website, while a festive Farmers Market Block Party, musical celebration Rhythms in Black, and live storytelling event Stories Matter added to the multi-sensory Belonging 2021 experience.

Bringing the we are here portraits into the space of a contemporary art gallery on the campus of an institution of higher education invites reflection on their recent installation in public space, but also provides space for new engagement and provocation. Follow the gaze. Explore the negotiation between sitter and photographer. The subjects, members of the local community, assert their agency, and they welcome new viewers to meet them on their terms.