Framing the Present, Eyeing the Future: Photographer André Sessions Jr. Captures the Moments of a MovementOct 05, 2020 10:17AM ● By Patrick Mainelli
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
"I try to look at things not just for what they are now, but for what they will be—what they can become,” said Omaha photographer André Sessions Jr. Sound advice, it seems, not just for the photographic eye, but for all of us in search of a path forward on the ever-shifting ground of 2020.
As an artist and documentarian, Sessions’ talent is emerging in a moment in desperate need of fresh eyes. His poised-yet-vibrant photos from the many rallies and protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement over the last several months are some of the most poignant local documents of the uprising.
"It’s great to have the documentation because it’s recorded history,” he said. “We didn’t know it originally, but this has become the biggest sustained protesting movement in history, all around the world.”
Sessions’ work depicting protesters and police squaring off on 72nd and Dodge streets following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis appeared in print this summer in The New Territory. The Missouri-based quarterly is committed to presenting a fresh understanding of life in the lower Midwest.
Katie Young Foster, creative director with New Territory noted, “With deft framing and a keen sense of timing and perspective, Sessions captured movement—and a movement—in a way that communicates both story and history.”
Sessions’ recent work makes clear that he doesn’t hesitate to put himself in the middle of the action. Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru—educator, social change artist, and longtime mentor to Sessions—observed that he is temperamentally well-suited to putting a careful frame on moments that sometimes lean toward chaos.
“He’s got a demeanor about him, a mannerism,” Gaines Liwaru said. “As a spectator, he can move fearlessly. He can be very quiet, but the role of being behind the camera is critical for the way his mind works.”
“I go into [protests and rallies] with a different frame of mind,” Sessions said. “I’m always thinking of moments as being potentially historical. I’m thinking of images from the civil rights era and the early days of Black Panther Party, and how powerful those are. I want people to have that same sense of awe that I did, looking at these images from more than 50 years ago.”
That sense of awe took firm root during a 2015 high school trip retracing the historic 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Birmingham. Thanks to the leadership of Gaines Liwaru and her husband Sharif Liwaru (then the president of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation), Sessions and 24 other Omaha Public School students gained a firsthand appreciation for many of the historic locations of the civil rights movement.
Gaines Liwaru explained, “What we wanted to drive home was the fact that, in order to move forward and really find your purpose and passion and know your mission in life, you need to explore sacrifices of ancestors who made a huge impact by putting their life on the line, trying to create a more sustainable presence in African American life.”
Five years later, it’s clear Sessions is still taking this lesson to heart. Beyond his photography work, he is finding numerous ways to fight for justice. Currently, he is involved in the development of three different nonprofits in pursuit of greater racial and economic equity in Omaha.
In a moment when so many new initiatives are coming into being, Sessions and his fellow organizers are advocating for concrete action: creating community gardens, organizing neighborhood cleanups, and providing personal hygiene products and cosmetic care for low-income high schoolers.
“Growing up, I can relate,” Sessions said. “You don’t feel like going to school if you don’t smell good. You get bullied and picked on if your clothes are dirty. So a lot of times, my attendance was horrible because being poor, I would make up reasons for staying home, just so I didn’t have to go to school with dirty clothes.”
Sessions has also worked as a communications intern with North Omaha nonprofit The Union for Contemporary Art for nearly a year. That work has included photographing the organization’s many community programs and producing a filmed virtual tour of their Undesign the Redline exhibit, exploring the roots of systemic housing inequality.
“Everything is part of a bigger chain for the greater good,” Sessions noted. “All this work goes hand in hand, getting this all recorded for the future. I look at [the intersection of] 24th and Lake; in 10 years we’ll look back at where it all started. We might see this whole area as the cornerstone of change. There’s just so much that needs to be remembered.”
“[Sessions] gets that he’s been blessed with some insights,” Gaines Liwaru said. “He is under 25 years old and he knows that it’s beyond time to get people to wake up and not keep sweeping things under the rug. André knows that as African Americans, we are already at a systemic disadvantage from finding a path to let our talents flourish. The way he humanizes these folks he documents, he celebrates something special about who that person is and where they are at now in their journey—one face of many in what some might consider Black America.”
Like all great recorders of history, Sessions recognizes that it’s in the present moment—the fleeting snap of a shutter—where the past and future are most alive.
“You look at early photos of Fred Hampton or Medgar Evers and in the moment they were just living and doing what they were passionate about, but 60 years later those images are so powerful because of what the person has done,” Sessions reflected. “I look at some of my images…I know we can look back years from now and really see the power then. That’s when we’ll recognize this was just the beginning.”
This article was printed in the October 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.