Intisar Abioto

Photographer and founder of the Black Portlanders


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Invasion of the Transplants!

Origin: Memphis, Tenn.

Intisar Abioto has a familiar look in her eye. It's a look I've been seeing—this week, this month, this year—in the eyes of the black and brown people in my life. A look of exhaustion, hopelessness, anger, bewilderment. It is a look that is profoundly specific to this space and time, to this inescapable barrage of murder without consequence.

In the past few years, Abioto has become well-known for her photo project, the Black Portlanders blog, and through that a reluctant spokeswoman for the black community of Portland. A respected photographer, she's also a writer, dancer, lecturer and choreographer.

The product of a family of female artists, Abioto, 28, moved to Portland four years ago with her sisters and mother. When we meet, I get the feeling she needs a break from being interviewed. Beneath a thick layer of Southern charm and a sort of addictively open radiance, she's got the look. We talk about what's next for her project and why a photo of a Portland police officer hugging a black child means exactly nothing.

WW: I keep hearing your name—you seem to be involved in a lot of things. How are you doing?

Intisar Abioto: I miss home right now. Sometimes, you just need some grounding. In Memphis, things are grittier and harsher. That can also be not so good, but it can be more truthful. I just feel kinda crazy, honestly. I'm in emotional turmoil. These things change you and how you present in the world, how you are. I'm generally pretty bubbly and have a lot of energy. But I feel so somber and angry. And I don't wanna downplay that.

You shouldn't have to.

When the news about Darren Wilson came down, I felt ill. The state of black people's lives hasn't really improved markedly in the recent past. I want change. And the thing about Black Portlanders is I've really been having some turmoil, just really thinking about what it actually is, and does, and what it needs to do now.

So where do you go when you need peace and you can't go home?

I love Mount Tabor. I'm fond of Fly Awake Tea Garden.

What are some of your least favorite things about Portland?

Aw, man, I just hate the ingrained anti-blackness. It's so much a part of this city's planning and geography, you don't even see it unless you are looking for what you don't see. You don't see it, unless you feel it. One of my very least favorite things is the lack of forward-facing brick-and-mortar businesses of people of color. And that, historically, is a part of this city's planning and geography, as well. Williams Avenue, and on and on, into the present.

Did the fact that some Portland cops publicly supported Darren Wilson make you feel unsafe in your own town?

People have been feeling unsafe all along. It's not just black boys or black men, it's also black women. We are all more vulnerable to state-sanctioned violence. This town loves itself and its principles. It's also very self-critical, but in circular ways. Of course we are largely educated, but we talk around ourselves. I'm sick of talking! You can't keep doing the same thing when the places around you aren't evolving.

As a photographer, what did you think about The Oregonian's photo of the police officer and the child hugging?

A photograph is a stamp—it's just one moment. We can take a moral from a photograph and try to apply it to life, but in this case people took that image and interpreted it as "we can hug it out," and they saw what they wanted to see in it. I don't want people to be distracted. A cop in St. Louis or Portland represents a system. Whether or not Darren Wilson was indicted, there are the same cops all over America. It's both the interpersonal and the systemic and institutional change. Not just hugging a cop.

Is that partially why you're re-examining what Black Portlanders means in the current state of black lives?

Photographs are my medium, but I also know that a photograph is not reality. It's a rendering of reality. It sources from reality, but it's still an art form. I don't want to take pictures of us for posterity when our communities are suffering. Three hundred years ago, my physical body would have been capital. Black bodies had insurance taken out on them. They were a value system. And now, we're still being valued in a whole host of ways, and devalued in others.

What would happen if black artists, musicians and athletes got outraged enough to say, "I'm not gonna give you what you want from our culture until you value my life"?

That's really interesting, and I know there are black artists who have done that in very specific ways. During the civil rights movement, black musicians would refuse to play in certain venues where black people weren't allowed. I have to create to live, on an intrinsically spiritual level. Black cultures, black presence—we renew things with spirit and soul and activity. We bring things back to the light from dark places. From cold places. We're very unique.

Does the Black Portlanders project help the people of Portland get closer to the humanity of your subjects?

We don't have to be validated in the eyes of a greater Portland to be here. We validate ourselves by virtue of our own existence. It's a work for black people's spirits, for our souls. It's saying we're here, we're alive, we're beautiful, we're complex. That love, that passion, that inner bravado is what I love about it.

And I hesitate on this question of being humanized. There's this onus on black people to humanize ourselves to others. There's an onus on us to make ourselves real. To save our own asses? Fuck that.

What's your response to someone who says: "We don't want any more people moving to Portland. We don't need any change. We want to keep our rent low"?

I'm from Memphis and I live here, but I also live on the earth, and I consider myself a part of a global African diaspora. We are connected by a pulse. If I was in another city, I would be doing the same work. I'm not from here and I know there can be a schism between me and people who are from here, and that's valid. I just know the work I have to do, and I hope it's all right.

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