Why you should care
Instagram is not only about selfies and food porn. Photographer Radcliffe Roye is shining an iPhone spotlight on the underclass and streaming it into your social media feed.
Radcliffe “Ruddy” Roye is not just a photojournalist — he’s a self-proclaimed “Instagram activist.”
Roye is a Brooklyn-based street photographer who takes multiple portraits of the people he meets on a daily basis, passes them through filters on his iPhone and publishes them to 27,604 followers. His heavily processed portraits are intimate, soulful portrayals of humanity, but just as important as his compositional skills are the people he chooses as his subjects. Roye focuses on the underclass — the poor, the disabled, the homeless. He stands very close to his subjects and forces you to engage, dares you to look away. He likes to highlight inequalities in race and class.
My Instagram feed is a pothole in the road. It’s supposed to jar you out of the social network stupor.
— Radcliffe “Ruddy” Roye
”The whole point is to say to somebody, ’You can’t pass a homeless person and dismiss him as if he doesn’t exist.’ That’s one of the reasons why I photograph,” the 43-year-old says in his Jamaican accent. His arresting photography freezes his subjects and puts them into a milieu usually dominated by duck-face selfies, smiling babies, tomato mozzarella salads and sunsets.
“My Instagram feed is a pothole in the road,” he says. “It’s supposed to jar you out of the social network stupor. It’s done without ego. It’s something I could not live without doing.” Roye reveals that the portraits can sometimes be too much for people and says his “lighter images” get more likes.
Roye started his career as a writer. He was born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and credits his mom, whom he says was “always helping others,” as a ”huge influence” in his life. In Jamaica he began his journalism career by writing for the Gleaner and the Jamaica Observer, and when he was dissatisfied with the pictures that accompanied his stories, he started taking his own. He moved to the United States in 1990 and continued focusing on writing and film photography. Roye has freelanced for the Associated Press, shot images of the Jamaican underground dancehall culture for Vogue and taken pictures for Ebony and Essence. He’s traveled along the way, photographing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and taking portraits of dandies in the Congo. When Instagram came along, Roye used it to distribute his pictures to a larger audience. He began using the application in April 2012. During Superstorm Sandy, his feed caught the eye of the New Yorker, and he took over its Instagram with images from the natural disaster.
You live each day preparing to do work that speaks a legacy. That is what’s important to me, not who likes me on Instagram.
— Radcliffe “Ruddy” Roye
”He’s blowing up,” says documentary photographer Nina Berman, adding that Roye’s work is getting increasing attention in the photojournalism world. Berman, an associate professor at Columbia Journalism School, invited Roye to teach an introductory photojournalism skills class there in August. ”First of all he’s very close, physically very close [to his subjects]. You only get that close if you’ve had a long conversation with someone.” She says his portraits are “beautifully composed” but adds that she thinks his captions play a large part in what people are responding to because “the stories are interesting, but the way he composes them is very lyrical and beautiful.”
”Her hair was short and sparkled from the rolled up balls of petroleum jelly she spread over her head,” he writes, next to a photo of a woman named Carmen McLawrence. ”The sweet, dark, molasses coarseness of her patois brought me back to my days running around in the canefields of my mother’s home in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. Her smile dripped like cane juice from her face as she spoke. ’I never wanted to come here. My mother brought me and my two brothers here and then someone killed one of my brothers in Connecticut. Now I live on a psychiatric ward. My other brother takes care of me. I miss home, I miss Kingston.’
Roye’s captions are long, especially by Instagram standards. They can be as long as 300 words, even more.
Roye says he is cognizant of images being misinterpreted, specifically images of African-Americans. “That’s why I put in this long text,” he says, in order to bring context to the picture. “It’s easy to look at a person and say he’s poor, he’s on welfare, this is why. Then you find out somebody shot him, put a hole in his chest, he can’t work.” Of people who might find his work exploitative, he says, “I’m more concerned that there is a social system that needs to be fixed, so that they can have a better life. Let’s have that discussion; let’s not get bogged down with the image I’m taking on a street.”
Roye is at work on a book about Jamaican dancehall and a book of his iPhone photographs, titled Common Tread, which is a play on words focusing on how humans are all connected and walking similar paths.
Also of importance to Roye is teaching his two children to accept the differences of others and focus on the positive in everyone. He says he has always thought he would die young, and so he works fervently to try to leave his children with an abundance of images of a variety of people, each valued for different reasons. “You live each day preparing to do work that speaks a legacy. That is what’s important to me, not who likes me on Instagram. I couldn’t care less who likes me on Instagram.” He adds, “I think people treat Instagram the way they treat life. For me, I want to be the same pebble in the road that says to you, ’The road needs fixing.’ The ugly voice that says, ’Drop some money in the cap.’ That’s the only thing we are supposed to do in life; we are supposed to help each other. I’m hoping that my story brings that across.”