Akilah Townsend recently had the amazing opportunity to photograph a Native American activist named Anthony Tamez-Pochel for Men’s Health. Done in conjunction with other 20-something photographers — many of whom are people of color — the project centers around nearly two dozen young activists and their ideas for improving their communities. Akilah’s work deals with many issues inherent to the minority experience in America, making her a perfect fit for this assignment.
Through networking before COVID, I met some people who recommended me to an agent who reached out to me for this job. The magazine was looking for photographers in their twenties and, I believe, people of color. My personal work focuses on Black people, colorism, and anti-racism and so I think they thought it was a good fit to photograph someone who’s a Native American activist.
In a “small world, ain’t it?” moment, Akilah found out who her subject was and then ran into him at a BLM protest a few days after. And yes, Anthony cuts a unique figure, which no doubt helps with recognition.
I had previously met Anthony very briefly at a Black Lives Matter protest. I had learned that I would be shooting him, and a few days later we happened to go to the same protest. He was easily recognizable because of his great afro.
Once I learned I would be shooting him I found a previous Teen Vogue article that featured him. I read in that article that he drums and I asked if he could bring it.
Across just 20 minutes in the Chi Native Garden, Akilah got numerous shots of Anthony (and his awesome shirt) while learning about his goals and ambitions in the world of activism.
One of his organization’s missions is to bring awareness to Native American issues. In the Teen Vogue article, I learned about his work within the Chicago Nations organization. I really connected with the work that he does because I personally have encountered the problem of people not being aware and sensitive to Native American issues.
That problem reared its ugly head when Akilah was in college, where a talk about the school’s mascot showed her how deep-rooted the problem of sensitivity toward other cultures remains.
I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and we had a mascot called Illiniwek. This mascot was a fictional chief character and at games he would dance around the stadium filled with a majority of non people of color for entertainment. In one of my very first classes, there was a question posed to the class for discussion: Should we have kept the chief as mascot and if so why? The professor laid out the arguments of Native American community members as to how offensive the figure was. Of all of the students in the class, I was the only person who voted that the Native American Chief should not remain as our mascot.
As you can imagine, Akilah learned quite a bit about the plight of Native Americans in this country. In fact, some of what stayed with her seems counterintuitive at first, but sadly makes sense upon further inspection. And its these realities that push Anthony to work for lasting change.
Something that stuck out to me that I didn’t know from the article is that Native Americans who are not living on reservations actually fare worse and have more incidents of mental and physical health problems than those who live on the reservations. And it’s because they have a lack of access to health care and less of a sense of community. It’s powerful that Anthony’s mission is to create homes for those who feel displaced and to create a space of community within the garden. The feeling of community is extremely valuable.
It was certainly a sobering shoot for Akilah, but still a fantastic way for the young photographer to get good work and profile a great cause. Readers can take heart in the youth-infused stories that came out of this terrific Men’s Health piece, and here’s hoping we learn about more people like Anthony in big-name publications where the people who put the features together make up a diverse group reflective of this country’s ever-changing demographics.
I am so happy to have had the opportunity and I hope that there will be more work in the future.
Assistants: Courtney Rader, Jessica Jones
See more of Akilah’s work at killls.com.
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