Interview with Photographer and Activist Phil Portlock

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United States Supreme Court Building by Phil Portlock.

Interview with Phil Portlock

For 29 years, Phil Portlock served as a staff photographer at WMATA, photographing the construction of the monumental Metrorail system and many other projects. He also spent the last 50 years documenting many protests, rallies and marches, in Washington, D.C. and other cities, related primarily to social justice. We interviewed Phil to talk about activism, D.C. history, and photographing the city.

How did you first get into photography?

I’ll never forget 1968. I’d just gotten my first camera, a Pentax Spotmatic Single-lens reflex while I was employed as a photo darkroom technician at the National Education Association at 16th and M Street. It was like I had won the lottery. A new world of picture opened up to me.

You’ve photographed some of the most significant events in Washington, D.C. What are a few of the most personally memorable photos you’ve taken from over the years?

In 1968 after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, I photographed some of the civil unrest that took place in many parts of the city. The night of his death on Thursday evening April 4th there was so much chaos. This was my city and it looked like a war zone. I wasn’t able to get too close to the scenes without a press pass, so took a few pictures and went home. On Saturday, spent several hours photographing the aftermath of the destruction around the city.

I just kept thinking about Sunday, March 31, 1968 when I went to the National Cathedral and heard Dr. King give his sermon, “About Remaining Awake During the Great Revolution.” And four days later he was dead. I was so sad and angry. Through the pain, I knew that photography was going to play a major role in my life. When it came to my role as a photographer, I saw my self-purpose as one who would use my gift of photography as a recorder of history for years to come.

1968 photo by Phil Portlock.

How do you think photography blends with social justice?

There’s a clear connection. Used in a proper way, photography can inform, educate, and empower the viewer.

When you love a country sometimes you show that by being critical of it; not to tear down, but improve the life of its people. You need to speak truth to power if you want see things change. This is how I view my role as a social justice activist.

How do you approach your subjects in photography?

We have never been a society that does a lot of reading. We live in a fast-paced society and the last fifty years have seen the pace increase. As a result, many of us don’t take the time to read an article if a few photographs of other visual images can provide us with the information we are seeking. The photograph and the written word should complement each other for the benefit of the viewer.

I’m a historian and a researcher, and I’m curious about different subject matters. If I go to photograph an event, such as a protest, I try to take a moment to have some background information about the issue. Protests help me grow because I can talk to people on both sides of an issue.

What’s inspired you recently?

What’s inspired me recently is the whole issue of peoples’ right to vote and the need to participate. It’s incredible that the recent midterm election became so important for so many people. We need to carry this enthusiasm into future local, mid-term and presidential elections. You have to participate if you want change. Vote-less people is a voiceless people.

Another thing I enjoy doing is working with my wife Pat to produce documentaries. She does the narration and I contribute the photography, research and script. Our current project is entitled, Voting Rights: The Struggle to be Counted 1619-2014”, a 35-minute film that traces the long and often brutal struggle by African Americans to gain and maintain the precious right to vote. Many youth and seniors will come to a screening and say, “Well, I didn’t think about that. I’ll share this important information with others.” When this happens, it makes the effort worthwhile.

What advice do you have for someone looking to create social change through photography?

Think in terms of documenting; in other words, try to tell a story with your photographs. Capture what might be an important event or issue to a person, family or community. This will require research, some writing and by all means, photographs. Go for it!

Something my wife and I saw recently at a Burlington Coat Factory that spoke to me and how the camera can relate to life.

“Life is like a camera. Focus on what’s important. Capture the good times. Develop from the negative. And if things don’t work out, just take another shot.”

Meet Phil Portlock on Sunday, December 16 at the 1968: Shaping the District’s Future discussion.