Alejandro Chavetta is Adobe Create’s editor in chief.  

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, we at Adobe Create have taken a close look at the content we’ve put out over the past several years, and we feel that we’ve done our readers, and the creative community as a whole, a disservice: we have failed to properly represent the diversity of that community, specifically in terms of showcasing Black creatives and their work. To remedy this, we launched a new program in July. Each month, we will hire a notable Black creative and welcome them onto our editorial board, to help us curate and showcase stories and social-media content about other Black artists they admire. 

photograph of Cheriss May

Photographer and educator Cheriss May.

Our second guest editor in this series is photographer and educator Cheriss May. May’s work has been seen in O Magazine, the New York Times, Essence, and many other publications; her photography is also featured in a permanent exhibit called “In Conversation: Visual Meditations on Black Masculinity,” at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Based in Washington, D.C., May is an adjunct professor at Howard University, her alma mater, and she was selected by Adobe in 2019 as an education leader for her commitment to creativity in the classroom. The president of Women Photojournalists of Washington (WPOW) and a co-chair of the photography committee at The National Press Club, May is passionate about visual storytelling, and is a powerful advocate for diversity and inclusion in the media industry.

In August, Cheriss May will be choosing artists whom we will highlight on our Instagram channel. I spoke to May via video chat as we kicked the project off.

(Read our profile of our first guest editor, Robert Generette III, a.k.a. Rob Zilla, and see the Black artists he featured during his tenure.)

self portrait of Rob Zilla (Robert Generette III)

Alejandro Chavetta: Thank you so much for being a part of this effort—we’re excited to work with you. So I guess a first question for you would be how you came to photography as your medium. 

Cheriss May: It was very organic—I always was interested in it. As a little girl, I was really interested in all things creative—whether I was drawing, coloring, painting, or whatever—but I always remember having a camera, always taking pictures. My parents saw my interest and invested in it: I can remember getting better cameras each Christmas. I started out with film cameras, and I would just show up to family events and things and take pictures. And I loved getting them printed and seeing how they came back. Then in high school I took a photography class, and I learned how to develop my own film, which turned on another layer of my love for photography. And it just kept going. 

But I started out as a graphic designer—I pursued advertising, thinking that I would go the studio route. After college, I started my graphic design career in newspapers, but I was always taking pictures on the side. Where it really flipped is when I got laid off from USA Today. At that time, I was teaching as an adjunct at Howard University, and I just decided, “You know what? I really love photography; I’m going to step out on faith, and pursue this while I continue teaching.” And that has been my life since 2005. 

AC: When did you start as an educator? 

CM: This is my 21st year. I was at the Washington Post when I started teaching at the University of Maryland College Park—I taught a newspaper production and design class in the School of Communications. And now I’ve been at Howard in the School of Communications for 19 years.

photograph of first lady Michelle Obama by Cheriss May

May photographed the Obamas during the second term of the Obama presidency. This is one of her favorite portraits she took of Michelle Obama; it’s titled Hidden Figures. After a screening of the movie Hidden Figures, for military families at the White House, Michelle Obama spoke about the hidden figures who had built the residence. It was a powerful moment that May connected with during a historical time: the administration of the first Black president of the United States.

AC: It sounds like you were very creative from early on—were your parents in creative fields? 

CM: My mom is the creative one. She was a business teacher, and she oversaw the yearbook at her high school. And I can remember she had a Canon film camera as well. I picked that up from her. My dad was involved in civil rights and business—I picked that up from him. 

AC: What was going into graphic design like for you? From my experience, I felt like I never really saw a lot of people like me in that industry, and I worked on magazines for many years. What was it like for you? Because I would assume that you may have been kind of alone. 

CM: That’s very true. When I got my first newspaper job, I was confronted with racism—this was in Jackson, Tennessee, a very small town, and I can remember being pulled over, I don’t know how many times, by police. “Is this your car? Where are you going? Where do you live?”… I remember first moving in, and as I was coming out of my front door, some cotton blew up on my doorstep. And I looked to the left, and there’s a big cotton field right there. I was like, “Oh my God, I'm in the South. I’m in the South.

I was the graphic designer for features there. There were a couple other Black staffers, journalists. But I remember on my first day, one of the senior writers for features wanted to take me to lunch. We went to a Subway and she said: “I don’t really need to work…I just work here because I want to make sure that the Yankees don’t come and change our way of life.”… So that’s what I was working with. That was the start. And like you said, there weren’t many people of color doing that work. So there were micro-aggressions, and a feeling that I always had to be on, like ten thousand percent. The thought was always present that I’m representing everybody Black—knowing that what I do and how I perform will affect others who come after me. That’s the reality of how that felt for me. 

AC: That’s related to something I think about a lot: If we don’t see people like us in positions of creativity or power, we’re never going to get there. I feel like a lot of people don’t see themselves. A lot of kids don’t see themselves. In your opinion, what will it take to get more Black women represented in your field? How can we get to a place where we have more Black creatives and storytellers—which is who we need to tell that community’s stories? 

CM: It’s going to take some time to get there…. One thing I can say is that during this moment, there has been more of a push to amplify Black voices, which is a good start. People are in their feelings. But what happens once that fades, what happens when people no longer are thinking about George Floyd, or when we’re past this moment in time? I think it’s up to myself and other Black photographers to continue the push to tell our stories. We can’t just relax on what’s being done at this time. A lot of it will take decision-makers in the industry—art directors and editors—being more thoughtful and inclusive in who they commission for shoots and assignments. I think it can happen with attentive decision-making.

May says that this moment, which she captured at a Black Lives Matter rally, is powerful because Black men are rarely portrayed in the media as loving or sensitive. She explains, “A lot of times Black men are seen as aggressive—so to see such a sensitive moment with these two men who didn’t know each other, two strangers, was powerful. Before this moment, the man whose face you don’t see in the photo had been on top of a traffic light at Black Lives Matter Plaza by the White House. And he was talking to the people, through a bullhorn, about the importance of the protest. Then a man below started challenging him, saying, “This is BS, what are you doing, what’s the point of all of this?” So he came down from the traffic light, and he tried to explain the importance and purpose of what he was doing, but the other guy was not having it. He got agitated to the point where I was wondering if I should leave the area. People formed a circle around them, and I was in the center next to these two guys, who were in each other’s face: one trying to explain, and one just not hearing it. The situation got very tense, but finally the agitated man left. Then the man standing next to me in the circle went to the man who had been trying to explain, and they just hugged. It happened right next to me. These are the images that you don’t see, and this, to me, is the importance of having diverse voices telling stories.”

AC: What has been your experience with the current Black Lives Matter movement and uprising—as part of the Black community and as a storyteller. How were you able to navigate that—being out there taking photos while also participating? 

CM: Yes, there are levels and layers to that…. When I go out there, I’m not going out just as a photographer. I’m a Black woman first. This is my community, my life. I feel the pain. I feel the hurt. I feel the anger. I see myself in the protesters who are out there. So going out there was hard initially. Sometimes afterward, I would just go to my car and cry. Sometimes it’s still hard—but I also feel like I have a responsibility to be out there to tell the story. I feel like I’m in a unique position because of the intersectionality of what I cover: Sometimes I’m at the White House, the U.S. Capitol, and then sometimes I’m on the street. And these worlds are really connected. What happens in one affects the other. 

AC: How do you prepare to go out when you’re doing your photojournalism work?

photo of activist with fist raised, photo by Cheriss May

May photographed Shelly as she raised her fist for unity, strength, and defiance, for Black lives, at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. 

CM: Well, there are technical things and there are spiritual things that happen. On the technical side, you have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice—so I make sure my batteries are charged for my cameras. And I keep my bags packed: my cameras are in there, my spare charger for my laptop is in there—all I have to do is stick my laptop in the bag and zip it up, and I’m ready.

Spiritually, I make sure that I breathe deeply, clear my mind. I pray—to prepare the way and think about how I can be alert. Not only for safety reasons, but also because I gravitate toward the quiet moments in the midst of things that aren’t so quiet, because I think those are some of the most powerful stories. I think and pray on that, that I’m able to see those moments and to see those stories…. And these days it’s also about making sure I have my mask, extra masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, water, my goggles, sometimes a helmet.

And then when I’m coming back, there’s a procedure: disinfecting my cameras, phone and equipment, washing my clothes immediately, and taking a shower. If I haven't already done so on site, I dump the images from my camera onto my computer—uploading to the cloud and saving onto an external drive. I take the batteries out and charge them up. And then, similar to how I prepare to go out, there’s deep breathing, clearing my mind, prayer, and slowing things down and centering myself. Sometimes that involves turning off the news if I’ve been doing certain things. I’ll turn on music…I need to clear my mind and my spirit. 

AC: You also shoot a lot of portraits. You have a spectacular portrait of Michelle Obama featured on your website. 

CM: That is one of my favorite portraits. And as much as it looks like she posed for that, she didn’t. I was at a White House event where she hosted a screening of the movie Hidden Figures, for military families. I was there as part of the press pool covering that event. She introduced the director and cast who were there to speak, and she talked about the relevance of the movie.

There was a moment of connection: I felt a shift when she was talking—I knew that there was going to be a powerful moment; I could just feel it. She was talking about the hidden figures that had built the White House. And at that moment, she dropped her head. And I don’t know whether it was to hold in some emotion or it was just a really powerful moment for her. But she dropped her head, and that’s when I released my shutter. It was that quick of a moment. But it was so powerful, not only because of what she was talking about, but also I felt how strongly she was connected to the idea of “I’m here as a Black woman, the First Lady of the United States, and I’m here because of those that helped build this White House.” For me, as a Black woman, I connected to all of that. How powerful is that? So that’s what that portrait speaks to. And I call it Hidden Figures. 

photograph of family with BLM signs at rally

About this photo, May remembers, “I have a cousin who has two young boys, eight and five. And they were having a hard time dealing with what’s going on…. The younger son was asking why all white people hate Black people. The older son was scared to go out, because he worried that what happened to George Floyd would happen to them. So his parents decided to protest—not go to the main one, where things were a little more active, but to have one right in their neighborhood. They marched three or four blocks from their house to a busy intersection and stood in the median with protest signs. I went with them four times, and I saw how the older son went from being scared to leading the march the last day I was with them. And what that also showed me is that there are more people who are supportive of the movement than aren’t. There are more people who care than don’t. And there’s power in that…. This photo shows the kids at that family protest, with their signs. I like that this photograph shows the strength of parents teaching their kids—like passing the torch, showing the importance of protest.”

AC: There’s so much power in it. What else are you thinking about in this moment in history, as far as being a storyteller? 

CM: It’s so important for Black creatives, creatives of color, to tell the stories of our communities. I would just encourage Black creatives to keep creating, keep telling the stories, keep representing—because people are open to it. It’s imperative, and we have a captive audience now. People are paying more attention, they’re more receptive because they saw what happened to George Floyd. They’re a little more open to hearing different stories and voices because of this moment. 

AC: Storytelling goes a long way, and I think being represented and good storytelling make us see ourselves. And that’s something that has been missing. I feel like that was missing for me when I moved to the U.S.—seeing myself in creative roles, in leadership roles. And that is something we’re trying to do—let’s help people see themselves. Let's help kids see themselves as a photographer, as an educator, as a designer. That's one way to make a change.

CM: This is the power of being a Black educator. You don’t know how many students have told me how powerful it was for them to have and to see an instructor like me in this area. To see someone that looks them doing the work that I do that is heavily white male.

photograph of Congressman John Lewis, by Cheriss May
photograph of Congressman John Lewis, by Cheriss May

May had photographed civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis multiple times. About the color photograph, she says, “There was a vigil happening at the Capitol, and there was a Black Lives Matter group of young people there. And when John Lewis finished speaking at the podium, he came down the stairs and went right over to that group of young people and just imparted all of his wisdom—his lifetime of fighting for civil rights and the importance of what they were doing. And what I saw was he was passing the torch. He encouraged them to keep doing what they were doing and that they were on the right path…. If you don’t speak up and if you don’t do these things, then change is not going to happen. He would always say, ‘Get in to good trouble.’ I definitely want to make sure to honor Congressman John Lewis, and his legacy.” May captured a portrait of Congressman Lewis during a press conference about voting rights at the U.S. Capitol.

AC: What advice would you give to young Black kids who are trying to figure out what to do with their lives, who maybe think that creativity is their thing? How should they approach that? 

CM: I would say think about those things that you love to do and do them. Even if you don’t initially get paid for it. It’s those things that you are passionate about, that you’re driven to do freely, where you will find your purpose. And to me, that is key as a creative: once you realize your purpose, then everything else falls into place. Study the work of those you admire—find those people who are doing work that inspires you. Find those things that keep your thirst and your inspiration going, so you can continue to create. The more you create, the more you’ll refine your style and become more confident in your work.

Follow Adobe Create on Instagram to see the artists Cheriss May chooses to feature over the coming month—and to find out who our next guest editors will be in this ongoing series. We will also add May’s picks to this page, below, as they are featured on Instagram. 

May’s first pick is Tokie Rome-Taylor (@tokietstudio), a fine-art photographer, visual artist, and educator based in Atlanta. She describes herself as a Southern girl—her work focuses on exploring race, history, spirit, memory, and material culture as a means of connecting to her past. In her images, the creolization of common western symbolic elements of wealth and status—jewels, lace, velvet, and so on—psychologically shift the internal narrative of the viewer toward elevation of the subjects, acceptance, and expanded perception and expectation. May says, “I love how she brings this elegance to Black youth. Her art is transformative and experimental; it’s multi-layered and textural. When I look at her subjects, there’s so much wisdom in their eyes. I think for Black kids to see themselves elevated like that is empowering.” You can explore her work on her website.

Photo of BLM protesters by Michael McCoy

Cheriss May chose to feature Michael McCoy (@michaelamccoyphotography) as her second pick. May says, “McCoy is a two-time Iraq veteran, and what first drew me to Mike was his veteran portraits, which give dignity to the often-forgotten veterans who have returned home from service. I don’t think they always get the respect they deserve when they come back. I really love how Mike honors veterans in his work.” McCoy, who has a portfolio full of striking photojournalism, shared some of his most recent work with us. He describes his body of work this way: “I like to think of myself as a storyteller through photography, and my camera lens offers a concrete expression that will transcend time. My passion for photography came in my early years and has allowed me to identify and navigate the subtle nuances that make each person unique. Catching them at just the right moment produces exquisite works of art that will be cherished forever. My photographs have been described as engaging, affectionate, insightful and alluring.” See more of his work on his portfolio site

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