“One thing that injustice has done to me is it hasn’t made me bitter but want to create a better picture, you know?” said John Simmons, on a phone call from his home in Los Angeles. Simmons is a photographer and Emmy-winning cinematographer, who has been behind the lens since the mid-1960s.
Simmons grew up on the South Side of Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the country. He was introduced to photography by the brother of a childhood friend, Robert (Bobby) Sengstacke, who gave him a copy of The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava, a hybrid of poetry and photography that documented the everyday lives of Harlem’s Black community in the 1950s. Simmons saw a reflection of himself and his community in the book.
Bobby would continue to influence Simmons’ work. Sengstacke’s family owned The Chicago Defender, one of the oldest Black newspapers in the country. As a teenager, Simmons worked in the darkroom and eventually became a photographer for the paper. He covered Black Panther Party meetings, the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and took photos of Civil Rights Era icons like Rosa Parks, Nina Simone, and Angela Davis.
Simmons found his way to Hollywood and became a member of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), where he’s currently a vice president. He is one of only five Black members out of more than 300 in the organization. He co-founded and co-chairs ASC’s Vision Committee, which works to make the industry inclusive.
Part historical reflection and part call to action, his work urges conversations about racism and privilege. “I think that people have to identify with the fabric of humanity. They’re never separate from each other,” said Simmons of his work. “My life affects your life. Your life affects my life.”
I talked to him about his lifelong investment in Black visibility and his early days of capturing everyday moments on the streets of Chicago.
Thuy Bui: What was it like shooting photographs in the 60s as a teenager?
John Simmons: It was a lot different than shooting pictures today. Now, people are so concerned about social media and what’s going to happen with the photos. I mean, it wasn’t like, you weren’t violating anyone’s space. Not only that, but Bobby had taught me the art of stealth. How you feel the rhythm of the environment and how you just fit in between the beats. You know what I mean?
When people are looking at my photographs, at my camera, it’s a moment that we share on a different level. This gets a little bit magical, to say the least. I always feel like my subject and I were meant to share that moment together. So many of the pictures I take, it was like our paths were meant to cross. A divine intervention.
TB: Tell me about one of these moments.
JS: Federal Public Defender. I have a picture of a homeless man laying underneath a sign on a building. I was driving around a block in Little Tokyo [in Los Angeles] a hundred times trying to find a parking space. When I finally found a parking space, I got out of the car, and this photograph is right in front of me. It was the perfect composition and perfect frame for 50mm. I don’t know how that can happen if we weren’t supposed to encounter each other and have that moment. I just carry a camera all the time and I’m not one of those people that goes out for a day of photography. We had to just meet each other there.
TB: Two Shoes was the first photo that caught my eyes immediately.
JS: Two Shoes is interesting because it’s cropped and I don’t often crop photographs. The little girl in that photograph was really unkempt. Her dress was completely dirty, her hair was a mess, and her face wasn’t washed. There was nothing clean about her at all and she was eating a slice of watermelon, which is a very dangerous stereotype.
TB: Why not print the whole photograph?
JS: Because so many people would look at it in a derogatory way. Her shoes told everything about her and speak to the power of the image. That’s the thing about taking a picture. When taking a picture, it keeps a moment present. A picture has its life and eternity, it never stops touching and affecting people. Time can pass by and everything can change in the world except the emotion you get from a photograph. One of the things that Bobby taught me was that a photograph has to be like music. It has to have a soul in it and be able to capture you. If it doesn’t do that, then it’s not worth printing.
TB: One of my favorite photos you’ve taken is Fight Like A Girl.
JS: Once again, it was that destiny. I was downtown at the Women’s March and no one was looking at my camera except this little girl who turned to show me her message. When we get to see it, what do we see? We get to see not just a photograph, but we get to see into this little girl. I see it like, “Hey, hey mister. This is important.” Out of the whole crowd, nobody else was looking at me but her. That’s the only photo I’ve ever printed from that day.
TB: Let’s return to the past. I would love to hear about Angela Davis and this moment.
JS: This was down at Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s one of the oldest Black colleges in the country and it was the spot after the civil rights movement. Everybody always showed up there—famous writers, poets, jazz musicians. Miles Davis, Alice Coltrane, Stokely Carmichael, Pharoah Sanders. Everybody.
Angela Davis was there for two or three days teaching a class, giving a few speeches. I have a lot of powerful pictures of her with a fist in the air and leaning over the podium giving her speech. The reason why I love this picture of her is because it’s a brief moment like there’s some self-reflection going on. There’s some internalization happening. You feel like she’s with herself, just for a moment. I don’t know if it feels like that to everybody, but that’s why it’s important to me.
TB: What is your favorite photograph that you’ve ever shot?
JS: One of my other favorites is Doll and JFK. You see a little girl combing the doll’s hair. She was the little sister of my neighbor and friend Will. The hand holding a cigarette was their mother’s. On the back wall, there was a picture of JFK and Jackie O. All Black folks used to have JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Virgin Mary with Jesus, all hung together on their walls. These were motifs you would find throughout many people’s homes in the Black community.
TB: How does your day job as a cinematographer impact your photographic practice?
JS: I started making multi-camera shows probably about 15 years ago. Prior to that, I was doing TV movies and music videos, and they really affected my schedule. I was always out of town. However, this multi-camera world is perfect for me. The reason that I’m able to talk to you today and be completely relaxed, is because they’re rehearsing, and I don’t have to be there until two o’clock in the afternoon.
I can have a whole half a day to myself and work on my art. Yesterday, I made prints. Tomorrow, I have an interview in the morning. Sometimes I use this time to work on my collages or I do Tai Chi. I’ve been practicing that for over 20 years now.
TB: Collages! Tell me about your inspiration behind those.
JS: When I’ve reached the limits of creativity that a lens, a negative, or a piece of paper can give me, my collages take over. I usually get the inspiration through current events and I have to search for images that help tell the story. What people don’t realize is that my collages are documentaries. For me, every one of my collages has a story to tell. They’re not just things stuck together and spray-painted on. They’re all stories.
I have a collage that features this Ethiopian woman and there are some fish at the bottom—it’s the story of a famine. I have another one that has Harriet Tubman on one side, and a man getting lynched in multiple images on the other side. Then there’s another man with a suit proudly walking in the middle. That collage is called In Spite of It All. We have to do our thing in spite of it all, you know. In the ’80s, I was an artist in residency at Brockman Gallery and LACMA bought a collage. Other than that, people haven’t really seen the collages so this is the first time they will.
TB: How have you changed as you’ve navigated Hollywood and the TV industry for so long. What have you learned?
JS: I’ve learned that as a cinematographer, I have a lot of responsibilities. I have the responsibility of telling the story, the responsibility of making sure that I’m able to visually interpret what’s on the page, and eventually, the responsibility to help create the narrative.
On the other hand, I have the responsibility of changing the face of the industry. To give people the opportunity to become a part of the industry. When I grew up, it was very difficult to become a cinematographer. When I started out and when I became successful, I would make my crews look like the rest of the world that we live in. I may have only been a fly in the bowl of buttermilk when I started out. There weren’t any people of color. I realized that I could make a difference. Now, creatively, it’s a collaboration. My job entails the agreement from a lot of people. By the time you see something on TV, or on a movie screen, a lot of people have already agreed that this works.
That’s why my still photography is so important to me. When I go out with my film camera, there’s nobody to tell me anything. That’s my camera. I’m not working for anybody.