Say you’re an African-American photographer that’s won a MacArthur grant for your evocative portraits. And your images depict young people and the black experience in Harlem and the South.

from the series Harlem, USA by Dawoud Bey

Your photos of everyday people illuminate a sense of the inner person…

from the series Harlem, USA by Dawoud Bey

as your images allow their personalities to shine through.

Then you decide to recreate the experience of escaped slaves making their way to freedom. You focus on capturing their journey on the Underground Railroad. You’re inspired by a Langston Hughes poem that ends, “Night coming tenderly, black like me.”

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black by Dawoud Bey

You know that escapees found their way to freedom under cover of darkness. The tender blackness of night offered hope and the chance for a safe passage to freedom. But how do you photograph that? For a night journey can also be a time of mystery, danger and the unknown. So how do you capture that in a series of photographs?

Capturing the Journey

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

This was the challenge for photographer Dawoud Bey.

MacArthur Foundation photo

In a NYT profile, Mr. Bey explains:

“I wanted the photographs… to pull you back to the experience of the landscape through which those fugitive black bodies were moving in the 19th century to escape slavery.”

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

For me, the photos create a strong point of view. They present a glimpse of what you might see if you were moving stealthily across unfamiliar terrain.

Dawoud Bey:

The photographs recreate “the spatial and sensory experience of those moving furtively through the darkness.”

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

I can see how this image evokes a sense of that clandestine journey. I can imagine hiding behind a sheltering tree, scanning the darkness for the way forward. Driven by hope, feeling the danger.

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

Or in this one and the one below, seeing the obstacles you might encounter as you move under cover of night, making your way through the shadows.

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

The Underground Railroad that slaves traveled to freedom was a clandestine network of secret routes and safe houses. Escapees that followed it’s path, aided by freed slaves and abolitionists,

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

hoped to reach Canada or a free state where slavery was outlawed.

Encountering “Station Hope”

A way station on the route to Canada lay in Cleveland, Ohio. There, inside St. John’s Episcopal Church, stood “Station Hope.”

St. John’s Episcopal Church

Dawoud Bey:

“St. John’s was the final Underground Railroad station that fugitive slaves, who had made their way to Cleveland, would take refuge before making their way to Lake Erie and then on to freedom in Canada.”

It still stands today, and was chosen as the exhibit site for Dawoud Bey’s photo essay, Night Coming Tenderly, Black.

Night Coming Tenderly, Black exhibit in the church pews. Photo by Field Studio

MacArthur Foundation photo


“To have the work shown in a space that had once been inhabited by fugitive slaves was deeply meaningful.”


Portraying a Tender Space

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

“It is a tender space through which one moves. That is the space I imagined the fugitive black subjects moving through as they sought their own self-liberation…”

Lake Erie, gateway to Canada, from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

 “moving through the dark landscape of America and Ohio toward freedom under cover of a munificent and blessed blackness.”

You Become Part of the Experience

I wanted to write about this photo series because, if you spend a little time with the images, I think you can see what Dawoud Bey was trying to express. They have a quietness about them, which I like, and a sense of movement as well. Knowing what the photos are trying to convey, I find they help me imagine what it must have been like to take that perilous journey to freedom. I wonder if they work that way for you too?

If you’re curious about his earlier work, a while back I wrote a piece for The Vision Thing on some of Dawoud Bey’s portraits. You can find it here.

So  what are your thoughts about these photos? Leave a comment and let me know.