A simple directive sparked a storied career: 'Now, take the picture.'
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A simple directive sparked a storied career: 'Now, take the picture.'
Prince performs at Radio City in New York, March 24, 1993. A new retrospective honors Michelle V. Agins, a Pulitzer-winning New York Times photographer who captures stories that would otherwise go untold. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times.

by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff

NEW YORK, NY.- Michelle V. Agins was only a child when she caught a murder on camera.

She was about 10 or 11 years old, she recently recalled, and was sitting up one night on the top floor of her apartment building on the South Side of Chicago, experimenting with time exposures on some new equipment. She saw a familiar face through her window — a man named Red, in the alley below, flanked by a man to whom he owed money.

“I heard Mr. Red saying, ‘Please don’t kill me. Here’s all the money,’” Agins said. “The guy says, ‘No, too late, too late, man.’ And he turned him around and shot him in the back of the head.”

The money that had been in Red’s hands went everywhere, with some of it floating into Agins’ family’s backyard.

Instead of being scared, Agins did what a particularly pragmatic young person would do: She told her grandmother, whom she lived with, that there was money to be collected downstairs.

And after her grandmother went downstairs to try to understand what Agins was talking about and saw the body? Well, Agins explained that she’d actually captured the murder on film. Her grandmother, terrified, took the camera away.

“I didn’t see that camera for, like, two or three months,” Agins said. But for her, it was a defining moment: a realization that news photography could provide evidence and tell important stories in Black, working-class neighborhoods like her own.

Agins, 68, is now one of the longest serving staff photographers at The New York Times, having started in 1989. Her body of work is set to be honored this fall at the Photoville Festival in New York. The retrospective, created in partnership with Agins’ colleagues at The Times, will reflect on an immense body of work — and acknowledge the fact that, as one of the first Black photographers at The Times, she served as an emissary for the paper in a way that few Black journalists of previous generations had the opportunity to do.

Much like pioneers such as Don Hogan Charles, the first Black photographer hired by The Times, Agins has spent much of her career documenting Black stories and offering readers a glimpse into Black American life in a way they had never been granted before.

“I like historic storytelling, because our history sometimes disappears,” she said. “We forget about people unless they’re getting shot down or hurt. I want to bring people into the forefront before any of that stuff happens.”

For The Times, Agins has photographed celebrated Black figures, from Prince and Herbie Hancock to Serena Williams and Kamala Harris. She’s covered breaking news, including the 1989 Bensonhurst protests over the murder of Yusef Hawkins and the 2004 coup in Haiti. She was also part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for the series “How Race Is Lived In America.” She considers her camera to be a part of the ongoing conversation she is having with the world around her, she said.

Agins recalled how she grew up under the watchful, fearless eye of her Jamaican grandmother, whom she now calls her “pride and joy,” and her cigar-smoking, hard-working grandfather. Agins was known as an intelligent child; her nickname around her neighborhood, she said, was “professor.” Her mother, whose father was white, gave her up when she was just two weeks old, apparently in part because of her dark complexion. Her grandmother used to tell her, “You’ll always be my brown baby, no matter what.” It was this love, Agins said, that counteracted such an early rejection from her mother — and the pain of her mother’s eventual death, which came when Agins was only 8.

That same year, her grandmother gave Agins her first camera. It was a boxy Kodak brownie, which she remembers as having a flashbulb hot enough to burn fingers. Her grandmother bought the camera with winnings from a church social. Agins immediately took to the streets and started taking pictures. Having a different lens, literally, through which to experience the world changed everything for her. “The camera really was my first bridge to making friendships in my neighborhood,” she said.

She still had her original brownie camera in 1964 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to town to visit Liberty Baptist Church. It was there that she was spotted by John Tweedle, one of the first Black staff photographers at The Chicago Daily News. Tweedle took a photograph of King before heading toward Agins. “He grabbed me by the scruff and pulled me over. And he said, ‘Now, take the picture.’” Of course, she did.

It was the start of a lasting friendship that saw Tweedle often visiting Agins’ family home. He gave her a professional-quality Nikon camera as a gift, which helped her secure some of her first freelance jobs in the industry.

It wasn’t an easy path toward a career at The Times; Agins faced harsh rejections, starting early. When she tried to join a photography club in the seventh grade, she recalled being told it was “just for boys.”

While she was in high school, she worked as a copy girl at The Chicago Daily News; later, after graduating with a journalism degree from Rosary College (now called Dominican University), she went back to The Daily News and sought a full-time photography job, having already worked freelance for the paper. As Agins remembers it, the hiring editor said: “‘You were a nice novelty. We really enjoyed having you around. But you’re a pretty Black girl. You should go get yourself a nice husband and have you some babies.’”

Agins instead got a job with the city of Chicago, then became an official photographer in 1983 for Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor. She joined The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina in 1988 and The Times one year later, becoming just the second Black female staff photographer for the paper. (Ruby Washington was the first.)

Her 1994 project for The Times, “Another America: Life on 129th Street,” saw Agins and a reporter, Felicia R. Lee, spend a year building relationships in Harlem. She remembers encountering stories of both heartbreak and love. One woman named Vikki told Agins about a time when her sister accused their stepfather of sexual abuse and he threw acid on them both. The acid scarred Vikki’s arms.

One day, Agins was with Vikki at a house after the christening of some babies. “One of the babies started crying. She picked it up and I said, ‘Don’t move, don’t breathe, don’t do anything,’” Agins said. “When I saw the scars and her holding that baby, it made me think she was going to protect it from the kinds of things she’d gone through.”

In 1991, Agins decided she wanted to cover the issue of Black children killing each other. Specifically, she wanted to take photographs inside a funeral home. It took her six months to find an undertaker who would give her permission to do that. An undertaker’s niece, murdered by a boy she barely knew who was annoyed with the way she looked at him, became her subject. But when the time came to take the photographs, Agins struggled: She wanted to be sensitive but also to make sure the piece would affect readers on an emotional level.

“I’m sitting there and I said, ‘Come on, girl, help me,’” Agins recalled, speaking of her final moments alone with the body. “I walked over and realized how many of her friends had put their favorite pictures with her, their favorite candies — Now and Later — all the different things that reminded them of her.” The haunting photograph Agins took is of the 16-year-old girl’s hands crossed in her coffin, covered in that memorabilia.

Often, Agins’ subjects are those she deems “her people” — people just like those whom she grew up with on the South Side of Chicago. Poor people. Black people. Her conversation with them, she said, isn’t over. Among hardships, hurdles and successes, she retains the urge to keep telling their stories.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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