Culture Trips

Black images matter: Shade, the powerful podcast unpicking the tumult of 2020 | Podcasts

Lou Mensah spent the 1990s working in PR but her favourite part of the job was not the to and fro with clients. What she really liked was meeting and briefing photographers. So when she fell ill at one point, a friend gave her a camera and said: “If you’re well enough to go out today, just take some pictures.” And Mensah did.

Six months later, another friend submitted that work to a competition Alexander McQueen and Nick Knight were judging. To Mensah’s surprise, she won. Soon she was shooting for GQ magazine and exhibiting with Helmut Newton and Damien Hirst. Artistically and professionally, she had arrived. Yet, as a mixed-race woman, she couldn’t shake the feeling she was an outsider.

“It’s hard,” says Mensah, “for people now to understand what the environment was like 20 to 25 years ago, in terms of photography.” In the commercial world she now found herself in, diversity was nonexistent. She would ask agencies for models of colour, only to find there were none. “Bringing non-white models into the fold was extremely difficult,” she says. She didn’t know any other black female photographers working in London at the time. In fact, in all the work she did, she met only one other black woman. They’re still friends.

Mensah is self-taught. What she didn’t learn on the job, she found in books, papers and magazines: not just guidance on technique, but an awareness of representation. “I’d search for stories of people doing similar work to me. Without those interviews, I wouldn’t have felt validated in being a young black female photographer.”

Lou Mensah who created the podcast Shade.
Lou Mensah who created the podcast Shade.

And this is where Mensah has found her true calling. In 2019, she started the Shade podcast as a space for precisely those stories. It has now clocked up three seasons, each episode featuring someone in a creative field whose work unpicks race and identity in compelling ways – from artists and art historians to playwrights and policymakers. From the push to “decolonise” the curriculum (Mensah runs the podcast around homeschooling her daughter) to the notion of cultural appropriation, Shade was tackling the hot issues long before the kneejerk responses.

The fourth season, entitled Black Images Matter, has just dropped. The impetus is to distill 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests. Where previous seasons were freewheeling and intuitively pieced together, Mensah wanted this one to have a clear narrative arc. She has plotted it around the most salient images to have come out of the protests, those that turned up everywhere, on our phones and our feeds, on the newsstands we couldn’t get to and the news we couldn’t look away from.

Over eight weeks, Mensah will focus on such big press moments as the Overdue Awakening cover of Time magazine, the Reuters photograph of BLM activist Patrick Hutchinson carrying an opposing white protester to safety, and Vogue’s BLM-themed September issue. “There are art podcasts,” says Mensah, “and there are lots of podcasts about the black experience. But really, there’s nothing in between.”

And it’s the in-between that dictates so much of what we see in the media – the stuff that shapes representation or denies it altogether. The goal for season four is to unpick the power structures that each of these images came out of: who decides what gets commissioned and who gets published? They also explore the discussions they engendered, within the black community and beyond.

One Shade guest was overwhelmed by a photograph of protestors chucking a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into the water in Bristol.
One Shade guest was overwhelmed by a photograph of protestors chucking a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into the water in Bristol. Photograph: Keir Gravil/Reuters

During the protests, Mensah says, images allowed conversation to open up “in a way that none of us [in the black community] knew before – about our depression, about our mistreatment in all areas of our lives, from education and work to healthcare”. When, months later, she asked her audience on Instagram which images they’d found the most powerful, she realised how traumatised people still were. “The news had moved on, but the effects those protests have had on people are still very real.”

The show is not short on raw emotion. When confronted with a photograph of the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston being dumped in Bristol harbour, one guest was so overwhelmed he couldn’t speak. Mensah is also interested in the degree to which her black guests feel muzzled. Fear of repercussions in their careers makes many hesitate when talking about how they feel about an image or the outlet that produced it. “I’ve experienced this my whole life,” she says, “whether writing, taking pictures or being interviewed. You realise that you are walking a very fine line between telling your truth and maybe having your livelihood and income taken away.”

Growing up without ever seeing in the media “a life that looked like theirs” was a common motivation for Shade’s guests to do what they do now. Fixing this, says Mensah, is not about hiring more black photographers to tell black stories, nor is it about putting a black face on a chatshow. She’s keen to point out, for example, how nurturing, generous and respectful one white editor she speaks with is, in his approach to bringing on board young black talent. “But,” she says, “what I came away thinking was, ‘Well, he’s still a white guy, right? And so are all the people that he works with on the team.’”

She thinks the problem is baked in, structural. “The people who have always been in positions of power are still the ones deciding what gets shown and what doesn’t. And they are only going to have a limited awareness because of their experience.”

While season four is intended as a reflection on last year, it is as much about what happens next. When Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building in Washington DC, observers were quick to compare the lax response to this overwhelmingly white insurrection with the one that greeted a BLM protest in Lafayette Park last June: a force made up of Washington police, US Park police, and more than 5,000 national guard troops and federal agents, not to mention an army helicopter, teargas, batons and horses. How else to read that but as a pronouncement on who is deemed to belong? Once again, the images spoke loudly.

Social media has been the stage for much of the collective response to the outrages of 2020, ranging from Blackout Tuesday (the day people abstained from posting anything other than a black square) to educational anti-racism accounts, as well as campaigns to diversify your feed and amplify black voices. But, says Mensah, social media cannot be a tool for change in itself. “Community action – in our homes, in our communities, in our places of education and work – is where the change really happens.”

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