When Akintola Hanif walks the streets of Newark, the pictures he takes capture what he wants to see. And according to him, his vision captures more glory than grit.
“My work is about the souls of the misunderstood. What interests me the most is focused on what people may not see and don’t want to see,” said Hanif, 46, a professional photojournalist and Lincoln Park resident.
“When people usually think of Newark, they think about drugs and crime, but they don’t think about its people," Hanif said. "I see beauty in Newark, and it comes from the people.”
Hanif’s latest show will open on October 4, the first day of the Newark Arts Festival, as part of a pop-up exhibit at the Aljira gallery space downtown. Entitled “In Flux”, Hanif takes a long and clear-eyed look at the quality-of-life issues and social justice struggles that pervade both Newark and beyond the city's borders. The exhibition will also coincide with the launch of the latest edition of HYCIDE magazine, which Hanif founded seven years ago.
“I look at homelessness, gang members, and addicts from various backgrounds and cultural identities. But I also look at black middle-class families in neighborhoods like Weequahic and at an art community that is thriving,” Hanif said. “This is not because of gentrification. It’s been here all along.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, Hanif was inspired by the creativity of his family, which included fine artists and photographers. Starting out as a graffiti artist, his mother took him to prominent art galleries, which sparked his interest in the visual arts.
“When I saw the photographs of Gordon Parks, my mind was made up,” Hanif said. “I chose my path.”
Hanif’s family traveled a path through Brooklyn as they moved through neighborhoods that became notches on a lengthening gentrification belt in the New York City borough: Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvesant. Living in a changing Newark for the last 10 years, Hanif is less than impressed by downtown’s ongoing metamorphosis.
“Gentrification interests me not at all. There is very little heart and soul in these places. My work is about what people don’t see, which in my lens is compassion and genuine human characteristics that have been replaced by popular culture and a lack of concern, care and empathy,” Hanif said.
“I get more love from the so-called hood than I get downtown. Poor people have more empathy and understanding than anybody," he said. "Because of that, my soul will always be with the so-called little people. My heart hopes to create understanding about what people don’t want to see about 20 blocks away from downtown.”
Hanif’s photojournalism work has immortalized Newarkers from all across the city’s five wards, capturing a complex civic culture that defies stereotypes. He founded HYCIDE magazine in 2011 as a platform to convey intricate narratives about art and culture that he felt weren't being told.
Carrie Stetler, a longtime journalist who is HYCIDE’s managing editor, first met Hanif when she interviewed him about the film he directed, MORAL PANIC: More Heat Than Light. The movie chronicles gang life and the challenges of prisoner reentry, and was produced by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
Stetler noted that Hanif is chronicling a city that is mutating minute by minute.
“We’re trying to capture different aspects of Newark as it is at the time. Photography is really about flux and about capturing a moment before it changes,” Stetler said, pointing to Hanif’s work about subjects such as the corner of Broad and Market Streets and the demolition of housing projects as Newark inexorably transforms.
”He’s trying to document something that other people are not documenting, and he’s doing it from a powerful point of view that is really rare," she said. "His work is incredibly valuable to me, and for a lot of other people, too.”
Hanif is showcasing his work again after recovering from a stroke in January 2017. The stroke left his entire right side of his body partially paralyzed and the vocal artist with some difficulty with his speech. After some time at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, Hanif's body and spirit are now ready to go.
“I never get too excited about shows. After all, it’s my work. Even though it’s been a while, I’ve been doing it so long,” Hanif said. “I feel like I took a break. I’m not coming back to the world. But I’m grateful for the opportunity to present my work. My heart is the same as it's ever been.”
More importantly, the soul that suffuses Hanif’s work, and the Newark that he sees, is still strong.
“I don't take photographs with the audience in mind. I take them from my heart. If you get it, get it. If you don’t, don’t. It depends on the viewer’s level of consciousness and understanding. But I’m certain that when I die, people will look harder and get more from my work,” Hanif said.
“My life has been centered around my art for years. Art builds me up. I don’t know what I would do without it. If anything, it’s like a battery in my back,” Hanif added on his way back to work. “I’ve definitely relearned this recently - listening more and saying less is a very powerful thing. I want to shoot photos with understanding and compassionate eyes that highlight the beauty of the people. The pictures speak for themselves.”