Vision & Justice: Radcliffe Roye

From the streets of New York and beyond, a democratic vision of humanity.

By Garnette Cadogan

Radcliffe Roye, Ryan, 2014–16

Radcliffe Roye, Ryan, 2014–16. Courtesy the artist

Walking—such a mundane, commonplace act, and yet one so imbued with symbolic significance. Independence. Discovery. Freedom. Dignity. Every step we take is a movement from departure to arrival, propelled by desire, whether borne of necessity or choice. It’s no surprise, then, that many photographers concerned with human dignity have chosen to tell their stories from street level. Walking is a barometer, they know, and so the way someone walks—dejected or sprightly— and how that person is treated—as stroller or trespasser—reveals what kind of place, what kind of society, even, is being passed through. How vulnerable are we in public? How are some of us threatened or perceived as threats because of our skin color or the condition of our clothes? And how do people demonstrate their frustrations with the public slights or, worse, dangers that reduce their dignity and that of their fellow human beings? In essence, what does human dignity look like from on foot? Radcliffe “Ruddy” Roye has been pursuing those questions by wandering the streets—mainly in New York, where he has made his home since migrating from Jamaica in 2001— convinced that to show people walking, or having walked, is to show the human condition.

Radcliffe Roye, Black Today, 2014–16

Radcliffe Roye, Black Today, 2014–16. Courtesy the artist

No lightweight on his feet, Roye, in 2000, walked 121 miles in Jamaica from Montego Bay to Kingston, at a rate of 10 miles
 per day, photographing squatters on and alongside a defunct train line. He roams around tirelessly, alert to the ways in which people move past each other. Whom they ignore, what they admire, how they interact: these are abiding concerns. A student of what urban activist Jane Jacobs called “the intricate sidewalk ballet,” Roye is especially concerned with what it means to belong. To that end, injustice and inequality are at the center of his focus. He documents them up close—literally. He almost always uses a 28mm or 35mm lens, which demands that he be between three and five feet from the people he sets his eye upon: usually the poor, the homeless, the dispossessed. In Roye’s photographs, people are put in conversation—often playfully so—with their surroundings. Signage serves as comment: a bus stop that says love thy neighbor is both object and exhortation. Color doubles as a key to mood: shadows of protestors, thrown against a wall, are soaked in blood red, capturing the rage and sorrow of
the moment. Lines and shadows perform a geometric dance: a Euclidian spirit marks his compositions. The results are images characterized by intimacy and lyrical warmth, and alive to irony.

Radcliffe Roye, Ex-Cop, 2014–16. Courtesy the artist

Radcliffe Roye, Ex-Cop, 2014–16. Courtesy the artist

Roye takes his vision to Instagram, trying to awaken his more than a quarter-million followers to the lives of people who are all too often forgotten or ignored. He does this first with his images, and does it again with captivating stories that accompany each posting. In the spirited conversations among his followers that appear beside each image, the word most frequently mentioned, by far, is dignity. And no wonder: his Instagram page insists that the invisible be made visible. “I want to walk with them on Main Street,” he says, “in a manner that speaks to their lives
as individuals with dignity who deserve
a square of my Instagram feed.” He has walked in rhythm with foot traffic all over the United States in the past few years, hoping to show “the faces of those whose lives are spent living in protest.” The resulting series, When Living Is a Protest, reminds us that to walk is to bear witness, for we are pilgrims, all.

Garnette Cadogan is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, where he is at work on a book on walking.

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