My interview with photographer Mel D. Cole was scheduled for noon. I called a minute after 12, so it wouldn’t look like I was too punctual, and the call went straight to voicemail. We had texted the night before about the interview time, so I knew he was expecting the call.
A missed call isn’t unexpected, even when everybody seems to be on the same page, but I was a little surprised it went straight to voicemail. I shot him a quick text and thought nothing more of it, even as the hours went by without a response. Then, about eight hours after our scheduled interview would have taken place, I saw his Instagram story. He had been arrested.
At the time of his arrest, Cole was doing the same thing he had been doing on a daily basis since the murder of George Floyd—documenting Black Lives Matter protests in the streets. He wasn’t engaged in any sort of illegal activity, he was simply being a journalist. “This is the first time I’ve been to jail when it wasn’t my fault,” Cole says. “I wasn’t risking [getting arrested]. I know that I’m risking my life just by being outside. I’ve already been punched in the face by racist white men in Philadelphia, I was already hopped on by cops for going into a Best Buy store, but they used common sense and let me go.
“But this one, I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’” Cole continues. “I’ve been standing here the whole time and you guys just literally walk up to me and point to me, and the next thing I know I’m being arrested for no reason. They couldn’t tell me a reason the whole time.”
Aside from all the normal fears that must run through the mind while being arrested, Cole was worried about what would happen to his cameras. Not only did they hold the footage that he had risked so much to capture, but they are very literally the key to his livelihood. “There was a very decent officer who really took care of my cameras,” he says. “I showed her the utmost respect and she gave it back to me.”
This time, Cole escaped unscathed. He wasn’t even charged with anything. While officers never explained what compelled them to make the arrest, a “white shirt” (a commander in the NYPD) told Cole that he should feel lucky the police chose to only hold him for a few hours. It was yet another reminder why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important, a reminder why Cole is drawn into the streets every single day.
“I have a unique point of view and I have a platform that’s bigger than a lot of photographers who have been out there, and I’m going to use it,” Cole says. “I’m going to use my platform to make sure these stories are told in a proper way, these Black stories that need to be told. That’s why I still go out there, to make sure that my camera is pointed in the right direction.”
Over the past few months there have been so many things to be disheartened by, but Cole has seen a lot of hope in the protests. Among those things are the way he’s seen white allies on the front lines respecting spaces and trying to understand what’s going on during marches. But it was at a slightly different protest at New York’s City Hall where Cole became really inspired. “Occupation City Hall at its height, right before the vote for the budget, was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen,” Cole explains. “To see the community come together for one common cause, feeding each other… they had the most amazing food. There was a place they called the People’s Bodega that had everything you would need to live in the community, they had it for you. That made me smile. That brought me hope.”
Long before Cole took to the streets documenting a movement, he made his name shooting the world of hip-hop, as can be seen in a collection of his work, “GREAT: Photographs of Hip-Hop 2002-2019.” It wasn’t four years spent at art school honing his craft that launched Cole’s career, but a memorable night at one of NYC’s most notable venues. “It was in 2002 with a disposable camera at SOB’s,” Cole says. “I was there to see a Common concert. I took some photos, and I didn’t really think anything of it until maybe a month later. I was looking at a couple of magazines and I told myself that I think these photos I took at this Common concert, which was arguably the greatest concert that I’ve ever been to in my life, were pretty good. I got inspired by the work I did, and by the music, and that led me to buy a more professional-ish camera.”
It was at a Kanye West concert at Madison Square Garden where Cole would quickly learn that what he lacked in professional training was more than compensated by passion and a little swagger. He didn’t have credentials or a bag filled with different cameras and lenses, just a Fuji digital camera with a small memory card that he had to constantly delete pictures from as the show went on. “So I just played the part, went to the front, and they didn’t say anything to me,” Cole laughs. “I just kept shooting, it’s just me and the house photographer. I shot the entire concert and no one said a word. Now they’re kicking your ass out immediately.”
Looking back on his past—the jobs he left a little prematurely because he thought he was ready to make a go of it and the hand tattoos that helped terminate any chances at a life as an office drone—while considering the present gave Cole an idea.
Covering the protests, Cole kept hearing from friends who wanted to offer him some cash to help with the expenses that were coming up, including bail and travel fees. “Friends kept asking, and I said, ‘You know, I don’t really need the money right now,’” Cole explains. “‘Why not help out these other Black photographers?’ A lot of them are unemployed, and they’re out there shooting and putting themselves in danger just like me. Then the light bulb went off.”
Within hours Cole set up a GoFundMe with the hopes of raising $5,000 to spread around. If nothing else, it would be a little bit to ease the burden. The goal was met within 20 minutes. So he bumped it to $10,000, then to $15,000 and finally, $20,000. The funds were spread out among 15 photographers, leaving Cole with a warm feeling in his heart and the ambition to make this grant a yearly endeavor.
The events of the past few months have spurred Cole, and his work, in a new direction. Previous large-scale events, like Occupy Wall Street, didn’t move him in the same way. Plus, he always had a hip-hop show to shoot the next night. This time, things are very different.
“I’m activated now,” Cole says. “I’m not going to stand back and not lend my eye and my lens to what is going on. Me being me, I feel like it would be a fucking waste if I didn’t do what I had to do.”