Jonathan French, Visual Historian

By Phil Hutinet on September 19, 2014


Door of No Return.  Image courtesy of the artist.
Door of No Return. Image courtesy of the artist.

This article is published concurrently in Capital Community News’ September 2014 East of the River Magazine.

Anacostia resident Jonathan French’s award-winning career as a photographer started out accidentally. Early in life he had no aspirations of becoming an artist or even a photographer.   As a high school student visiting Washington, DC for the first time, the Library of Congress impressed him most. “I thought to myself, what a great place this would be to work.” True to his steadfast nature, French realized his dream of working at the Library of Congress where he still works at present as a catalog technician.

After graduating from college, French moved to Washington and began his technical training in catalog science at what was then known as the Washington Technical Institute, now a part of the University of the District of Columbia, “I had to take an art class to fulfill my graduation requirement so I decided to take photography.”

French’s first memorable experience on his journey to becoming a photographer happened while returning home to Jersey City, NJ during a summer break. A friend of his, who was studying sociology, asked if French could take pictures for a class project of people living in the Bowery in Manhattan which was a poor neighborhood at that time. He returned to DC to complete his coursework, unimpressed with what he had captured on film. “I ended up throwing the pictures away thinking they were terrible” confesses French, “it was a professor [at the Washington Technical Institute] who found the pictures, thought they were great and had me work as his assistant!”

Upon completing his technical training, French began to work at the Library of Congress, settled down and raised a family. Horrified by the results of a family portrait taken at a department store, French decided to take matters into his own hands. “I knew I could take much better pictures than that!” And, in that moment, his career as a photographer began.

Inspired by his own family photos, French photographed his nieces and nephews and took family portraits for others which eventually landed him freelance work with the National Child Development Center.

During that time, French recalls attending an Al Jarreau concert at the Warner Theater and happened to have his camera on hand. A frantic press manager, short on a staff photographer, asked if French could take pictures of the event. “She gave me a press pass and the next thing you know, I’m taking pictures of the concert and hanging out behind the scenes with Al Jerreau and members of the Congressional Black Caucus!”

Having always had a passion for history and geography, French longed to travel and explore. In 1983, he made his first international trip to Senegal.   He and a friend took the ferry from Dakar to Gorée Island, the notorious transit point where European slavers shipped African captives to the Americas.

On Gorée Island, at the Maison des Esclaves (house of slaves) lies the Point of No Return through which any African who passed through would be forever separated from his homeland until the abolishment of the slave trade. “Where did all these people go?” French wondered. Deeply marked by this experience, it was at this moment that French’s photographic interests shifted from portraiture to examining cultural issues.

Tierra Bomba.  Image Courtesy of the artist.
Tierra Bomba. Image Courtesy of the artist.

With a newfound interest in the African Diaspora in the Americas, in 1986, French moved to Saint Croix, US Virgin Islands which he used as a base for island hopping, visiting Antigua, Trinidad and Dominica where he first came into contact with the Carib Indians.

After his time in the Caribbean, French returned to Washington in 1988, reassuming his post at the Library of Congress and photographed major events that took place around the city like demonstrations and other mass gatherings.

He has since traveled extensively throughout the Americas, capturing the quotidian life of both native peoples as well as people of African descent. One of his most recent projects includes taking experienced photographers to Tierra Bomba Island, off the coast of Cartagena, Columbia, to teach local Afro-Columbian villagers photography.

Over the years, French has shown extensively in the DC area at Hamiltonian Gallery, Honfleur Gallery, Harmony Hall, The Alexandria Black History Museum and Touchstone Gallery. He has shown work in his home state of New Jersey in Newark and in North Carolina. Internationally, he has had two solos shows in Cuba, exhibited work in Ghana, Uganda and in France through Honfleur’s partner gallery in Paris.

In 2008, French received Washington, DC’s prestigious “Mayor’s Emerging Artist Award” and now in 2014, he has won the annual “East of the River Distinguished Artist Award” given to an East of the River artist for excellence in an artistic medium.

“For me, winning the neighborhood award is like coming home to family.” French intends to use the proceeds from the $5,000 cash prize to continue funding his project in Tierra Bomba, Columbia.