“None of us are free if one of us is in chains,” is a statement with triple importance to UNCG alumni, Todd Drake. It stands for one of the most important pieces of information Drake has learned so far in his career, it refers to the essence of democracy, and one of his few lovely tattoo ideas for the near future. Behind Drake’s slogan is a devoted heart, which shines through his work as a human rights photographer, teacher, and activist.
Through a recent conversation with Drake, he has told me how his life led him to his work in making human rights a known subject of concern. However, Drake did not always aspire to these occupations, instead he originally wanted to pursue medicine. Heading into Drake’s final year of his undergraduate, he took Art electives, which sparked his old love for creation.
Before Drake’s photography began taking up space on the walls of Washington DC-based museums, and New York City and North Carolina schools, Drake was a studio painter in the 1990s after he received his MFA in painting. After a single conversation with his wife, in which she said, “you are a stronger people person than artist,” Drake decided to combine these two aspects of himself to create collaboration photography.
Through his “Et Al” project he began work with undocumented immigrants and Muslims. In the project everyone drew a doodle that eventually shaped the ideas for his pictures. The results highlighted Drake’s first push to show that all people are human. This project became the springboard for his later work.
Since then, Drake’s photography and teaching has taken him to places all around the world including Jerusalem, Ramallah, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. He has also found time to publish three books of his photography. Today, Drake lives in New York City while still traveling to places of interest for himself and his work.
Drake’s work is known as a mesh between the universal and the specific. When I questioned him about this he was ecstatic to answer, stating the universalism comes from the relevancy of the issues he engages and the specificity comes from the interesting real-life stories of the people he encounters.
With the amount of stories he hears, Drake chooses the most compelling ones; the ones that move his heart to tears or laughter. He calls himself, “a curator of concepts,” because he does not tell any story he likes, but the one that is most comfortable for the collaborator to share. “My worst fears are about exploiting another,” said Drake. He knows that if someone does not want to speak he will not push them, another person that peak’s his interests will inevitably speak in the future. For Drake, his art can be a waiting game.
The most challenging part of documenting people’s struggles, said Drake, is thinking past any stereotypes or presumptions about the person at the center of the collaboration. He must be ready to side with their ideas for the photos, or side with his own ideas for his art. Drake says this requires some navigation on his part, as well as respect for his collaborators. This also gives Drake time to decide where he wants this work to go — possibly in a gallery or a book.
With the many places Drake has visited and shared his art, he has experienced several life-changing moments along the way. One of those memorable experiences was when he went to an Aleppo Soup Kitchen in Turkey to volunteer for the day. As Drake was walking back to his car a boy asked for his picture. Drake agreed to take his picture, which ended up being one of his most prized photos. Since that day, Drake has made his way back to Turkey, only to find out the Aleppo Soup Kitchen is gone, including all the people he met. Now every time Drake looks at the picture of the boy he cannot help but to think about the nice and innocent people he had met, who are now most likely running for their lives.
Recently, the photographer’s work was incorporated in two exhibits, one in Washington DC and the other in New York. The first exhibit, Gateways and Portales, is part of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, showcasing the trials of Latino immigrants making a home in four U.S. cities on the East Coast. The exhibit’s curator extended an invitation for one of his photographs, that is now viewable.
Drake’s work in New York is a less traditional exhibition at the Brownsville Academy High School in Brooklyn, New York. Recently, the Academy allowed a community based group to talk about the struggles that come with not finishing High School and discussed places the students could reach out to when they are struggling with mental illness or loss of a loved one.
The school asked Drake for a permanent installation for the students to remember him and their lessons. Now, the printed and framed display helps students that can relate to Drake’s piece every time they walk down the hall.
After all the topics Drake has vehemently poured his time into, I had to ask if he had any future ideas in mind. Drake was ecstatic to talk about his current project, that was simultaneously his father’s own passion. This project pursues the meaning of the classic goal: The American Dream, and how the substandard housing epidemic, specifically mobile homes, fit into this unachievable ideal. “The country is an aging mobile home,” Drake said as he was summing up how this will relate to the many people living in poor housing conditions across the United States.
From the stories Todd Drake has shared with me, I can tell his work in photography, activism, and teaching has left an imprint on many of the lives and minds of his collaborators, supporters, and students. Drake’s passion for human rights will continue to thrive through his curious and cautious photography and teaching. In concluding our conversation, Drake stated his feelings about today’s divisive political climate, “[There is this] new mythology being forced – a pack of lies for a bigger purpose. [If we continue] we are all going to lose.”
To see the work of Todd Drake, visit his site here .