When the Senate votes to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, it will be making history.
There has never been a Black woman on the Supreme Court. Only two Black men have been justices. Meanwhile, for two centuries, the court’s rulings have shaped life for Black Americans and women.
Jackson’s confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee were historic themselves, and several Black photojournalists were there. This isn’t always the case ― Cheriss May, Sarahbeth Maney, Michael McCoy and Jarrad Henderson noted that they’re each used to being the only Black photographer in the room.
May, who was freelancing for The New York Times, felt the importance of representation as she watched Jackson. Maney, a photography fellow for the Times, took a viral photo of Jackson’s daughter, Leila, staring at the judge with pride and admiration. McCoy, a freelance photographer, followed along when Jackson met with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one of two Black lawmakers currently in the Senate, who later delivered an impassioned speech during the hearings. Jarrad Henderson, a senior multimedia producer at USA Today, captured Jackson as she answered question after question, with her parents and other supporters looking on.
“This will be a moment I can tell my grandchildren about,” Henderson said. “How I witnessed a person endure hours of insults, survive the gauntlet of scrutiny required to serve on the highest court in the land, and walk out with her head held high.”
Below, read the four photographers’ own words on being Black journalists in Washington and witnessing Jackson’s hearings up close.
Photography Fellow at The New York Times
When I first heard that President Joe Biden would be nominating a Black woman to the Supreme Court, I immediately knew I wanted to contribute to The New York Times’ coverage. The confirmation hearings were a major milestone in society, but I also recognized it as an opportunity to document history from my perspective as a Black woman.
On the first day, I took my time to scan the corners of the room and search for any intimate moment or details that might be overlooked by other photographers. That’s when I saw Leila beam with admiration toward her mother. I knew that was the photo I wanted to make because it caused me to pause and reflect on my own identity, while standing in a room that was historically not designed for me to be in. Leila’s expression revealed both pride and admiration for her mother, but also showed the portal of limitless opportunities she envisioned for herself and women who look like her.
I felt a combination of emotions while covering the confirmation hearings because on a typical day, I’m the only Black photographer in the D.C. press pool. Covering the nomination process of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was the first time in my career where I worked alongside more than one other Black photographer, which made me feel supported and seen. Having that experience was incredibly significant because I knew that there were other people in the room who were paying close attention to the same details and emotions as myself. I believe that together, we were able to provide a cultural nuance that helped shape how the world saw this historic nomination process.
Weeks leading up to the historic confirmation for Supreme Court nominee Ketjani Brown Jackson, I had the privilege of following her around as she met with U.S. senators from the Judicial Committee. The only thing that went through my mind was: Wow, this is one of the greatest assignments of my life.
Out of all the meetings I attended, the meeting between her and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) stood out the most. While waiting for the two to arrive to Booker’s office, I noticed a portrait of Frederick Douglass hanging on the wall and a massive book collection, which reminded me of a Black bookstore. On his coffee table I remember seeing “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin. When the two sat down on the couch in his office, my heart told me that I was witnessing history.
Days later, I received an email asking if I would be interested in covering the first day of this historic confirmation. I replied, “Yes, I am available to cover this event and any other days needed.” The night before, between emotions and excitement, I was afraid to sleep for fear of oversleeping. Arriving two and half hours before the start of the hearing, I did a walkthrough of the room. Once the committee chairman banged the gavel, I knew this was real. Reality finally set in once I made the photograph of her taking the oath.
After covering the first day, I was asked if I would be interested in covering day two. I thought I was in heaven. Day two was different from the first day. As time went on, I felt myself getting into my creative space. The second day was a long day. Despite the length of the day, I felt a conviction to return for day three. The third day is when Booker gave his sermon that went viral and took everyone in the room to church.
The hearing for Jackson was impactful for me and for so many African Americans. As a black photographer, I’ve covered numerous events at the White House and on Capitol Hill. However, the words from Booker highlighted not only something for nominee Jackson but for the African American photographers that were in the room. After the hearing, we all realized that we, too, are a marginalized group when it comes to the ability to cover and document events that will be studied and read about for years to come.
Through this narrative, the goal is to share with the world the impact of photographers of color who cover events at the White House and on Capitol Hill. My goal is for us to share our professional journeys but also how covering these events have impacted each of us personally.
Senior Multimedia Producer, Investigations and Enterprise Video at USA Today
It’s only natural that the discourse surrounding diverse photographers in spaces like these is swift and judgmental. These conversations are important and always are welcomed. That exclusivity is even more pronounced in places like Capitol Hill, which is why it was so important for us to document our presence during the second day of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s hearings.
I might run into Mike [McCoy] or [Sarahbeth Maney] once every few times I photograph something on the Hill, but often, we are the only Black photographers in these scenarios. I hadn’t seen either of them in a while, and actually hadn’t been back near the Capitol building since documenting it on Jan. 6. Being there provided a unique mixture of excitement and anxiety. The fact that our photo went viral swells me with pride, because of what it represents.
What you didn’t see were people like Cheriss May, a dedicated educator and photographer who I’ve known for years, or Roy Lewis, legendary Washington Informer photographer. We all build and feed off each other. Yes, photo staffs are getting more diverse. Yes, leadership in visual journalism is becoming more equitable, but let’s not mistake how far we still need to go. I can count the number of Black women who are directors of photography in newspapers across the nation on my fingers.
I’m glad I raised those fingers to document this historic day. This will be a moment I can tell my grandchildren about. How I witnessed a person endure hours of insults, survive the gauntlet of scrutiny required to serve on the highest court in the land, and walk out with her head held high. Our job as journalists is to document the best and worst moments in people’s lives at a thousandth of a second. It’s an unfathomable responsibility and a beautiful burden. I’m glad my editors at USA Today saw fit to recognize me when I asked to be there.
Diversity should be about more than how many people of color you hire. Equity is more than providing an opportunity but also ensuring we have the creative freedom and resources needed to do our work. Inclusion has to be more than being present at roll call, because what use is it being in the room if you’re not heard when you speak.
Freelance for The New York Times
One day I had a portrait assignment at the U.S. Capitol. I had just parked and was grabbing my gear out of my car when a woman approached me. “Excuse me, Miss, do you work there?” she asked, pointing toward the Capitol. I answered yes. She called over a little Black boy who looked to be about 7 years old and said, “See, I told you Black people do work there.”
I said, “Yes, they do, and you can too if you want to.”
I feel blessed to document and tell so many different stories that have taken me to places and put me in rooms I never imagined I would be in. As a photojournalist who covers the White House and Capitol Hill, I often find myself the only Black photographer, or one of a few, in the room.
Recently I was blessed with the opportunity to document the U.S. Senate Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. To be able to tell this story, to document this historical moment, was special for me as a Black woman. I have felt the weight of scrutiny, even when I’ve done what’s required to attain the credentials needed to do the work.
I found myself on the last day that Judge Jackson testified shooting through tears, as I connected with all the emotion in that room. It’s not lost on me what this historical nomination, and me having the opportunity to tell this story, means to kids like that little Black boy, who didn’t think Black people worked in buildings like the Capitol.
The photojournalists’ responses have been lightly edited for style and clarity.
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