This month local photographer Jonathan Semugaza is turning his lens on Black people who call Peterborough home for a photo series for Black History Month.
“We wanted to break free of those stereotypical images of what a Black person is, what a Black person looks like,” he said.
The project is a collaboration with Black Lives Matter Nogojiwanong-Peterborough, which is posting one of the photos on its Instagram page for each day of February.
The group said it hopes the project will help “normalize Black folks being out and about in this city and engaging with community events and businesses without fear of discrimination or stereotypes.”
Semugaza is currently trying to secure a space to exhibit the photos, he said.
When Semugaza spoke to Currents’ Brett Throop recently, he started by talking about his photo of lifelong Peterborough resident Quayse Hurlington — and why he wanted to capture her by the Otonabee River.
JONATHAN: When I took Quayse’s photo, we got into a conversation about the pieces she was wearing. They are very elegant, very flowy.
BRETT: Her dress almost has a 19th-century feel to it.
JONATHAN: She told me she volunteered at Lang Pioneer Village. I’m not sure if you’ve been to a pioneer village, but usually the demographic is predominantly white, mainly because the history that is taught reflects and connects more with that demographic. But you know, there’s been Black Canadians that escaped slavery from the United States, there are folks that have emigrated to Canada — whether it’s the 21st century or the 18th century, Black folks have been here this entire time.
Quayse requested to have the photo taken at Beavermead Park. I said, ‘It’s a little cold, but why not?’ When I saw her come out of the car in that outfit — which is playing with time a little bit — I knew I didn’t want her standing on concrete. I thought if I can get a quote-unquote, natural backdrop, it would really be a nice backdrop.
There’s a form of cold isolation sometimes when you’re traversing through this predominantly white lens throughout the world, throughout Western civilization. There are times when you feel like it’s yourself in the middle of nowhere, just trudging forward, and you don’t really know where you’re going to end up. But you know that you got to keep going.
So to have Quayse in that outfit, with this almost regal appearance, showcases that that journey itself is the declaration of someone’s Blackness — the declaration of her Blackness — as she stands in front of all the hardship of this cold backdrop.
BRETT: Has this project helped fight that sense of isolation you mentioned?
JONATHAN: It’s funny you say that, because at the end of the photo shoots, there’s a 50/50 chance one of us is going to say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know there were this many Black folks in Peterborough.’ I’ve lived in Peterborough for quite some time. When I moved here, it looked very different than what it is right now —
BRETT: It was less diverse?
JONATHAN: Essentially. I’m glad we’re at a point now where we’re able to say, ‘Oh my gosh, look how many of us there are here.’ How can we get together to share and express the things that we love, that make us who we are?
BRETT: The start of Black History Month was marred by news of a racist letter sent to an employee at FreshCO downtown. How are you reflecting on that as you try to bring more visibility to the Black community in our city?
JONATHAN: It is quite disheartening and disappointing. But I think that’s why projects like this are important. This is why I very likely will not say no to a project that involves community, let alone Black communities. Because people need to hear those stories. I wish I could change the world. But I’ve learned I have to do the best with what I have. And at the moment I have a camera.
BRETT: What would you say is unique about the Black community in Peterborough?
JONATHAN: Because of our size I guess a sense of urgency is a little bit more needed. Because we’re not like the GTA, where you’re constantly experiencing diversity. One of the models I photographed, Nicholas, is from Ajax. He pointed out that in Ajax you don’t necessarily think of the spaces you’re in as Black spaces. They’re just spaces, right?
For folks to know that diversity is also here in Peterborough, a little bit of effort has to be made. Hopefully that’s not the case in the future, knock on wood. But for now, an effort does have to be made to get organizations and events going and to make those initial connections.
I asked Nicholas, ‘What would you tell 15-year-old Nicholas, as a piece of advice?’ He said, ‘Make a bigger effort to stand out.’ This notion that you need to show up for yourself, because at the moment, no one is going to do that for you, is probably the mantra for the Black community in Peterborough. We need to show up for our people, because they’re all the people we have right now.