Mel D. Cole always told himself that if he saw a chance to photograph history in action, he’d take it. So when he heard about a protest at New York’s Foley Square following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, he headed downtown. “It was so intense I couldn’t believe it,” says Cole, who’s best known for his concert photos and portraits of musicians such as the Roots, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar. “That’s when I knew that this wasn’t just a moment — it was a movement.”
At the time, Cole had been looking for a new subject to focus his work on after the pandemic brought live music to a halt. “Covid created this void,” he says. “So I started going out in my car. Every day, I went out and drove around the streets. You could park anywhere. I’d be listening to 1010 WINS, trying to figure out where shit was happening. Washington Square Park, Union Square, wherever. That’s what I did for two or three weeks.”
Cole found that the skills he’d developed in the music business translated easily to the world of direct action on the streets. “What I’m looking for is emotion,” he says. “If I’m shooting a concert or backstage with a musician, I’m trying to tell a story to the world. So it’s the same skills, just a different environment.”
The best images that he captured from more than a year of Black Lives Matter protests, Trump rallies, and other high-pressure events around the U.S. are collected in Cole’s new book, American Protest: Photographs 2020-2021 (Damiani, $45). It hasn’t been easy work; he’s been “sucker punched in the jaw by a racist white man” in Philadelphia and arrested for the crime of “standing there and being Black and having a camera” in Brooklyn.
Through it all, he’s kept shooting. “Every frame that I captured, I kept reminding myself that this is an important time to be alive,” Cole says. “Every time I would go out, I’d be tired, and I just kept saying, ‘If not me, then who?’ There’s a lot of amazing Black photographers, and photographers in general, who have been capturing the movement. But I just kept saying, ‘I gotta keep going.'”