Roland Freeman

Photo Documentarian, Author, and Exhibit Curator
Bald black man in a blue shirt looking down.

Photo by Michael G. Stewart


Roland Freeman, recommended as the Bess Lomax Hawes Award recipient, was inspired by the socially conscious Depression-era photography of Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava as well as the Farm Security Administration photographers. At age 14, he met the author/folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, who also greatly influenced his life's work. A native of Baltimore, he began photographing in the DC area in the late 1960s. In 1968, he participated in and documented the Poor People's Campaign and the Mule Train trip from Marks, MIssissippi, to the nation's capital. Even while working as a stringer for Time and Magnum Photos, including coverage as a White House photographer, his real passion throughout his career has been the documentation of Southern folk culture.

In the early 1970s, Freeman co-directed the Mississippi Folklife Project for the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. That work resulted in the exhibition Mississippi Tradition and Change. Continuously since then, Freeman has been a research associate/field research photographer with the Center. His interest in craft traditions led to his documentation and collection of quilts made by African Americans long before others were taking an interest in this distinct but little-recognized artistic tradition. This work resulted in the publication of two books Something to Keep You Warm and A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories.

In 1990, Freeman consolidated two decades of documentation of the disappearing tradition of Baltimore street vendors, many of whom still used horse-drawn carts, for a major exhibition titled "Arabbers of Baltimore" at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the publication of a similarly titled book. Freeman consistently works in collaboration with others: for more than 30 years, folklorist Worth Long and cultural historian Bernice Johnson Reagon have been invaluable guides and partners, and he has worked closely with folklorists Glenn Hinson, Charles Camp, and Jerrilyn McGregory. Over the years, Freeman's major projects have led to four national and international touring exhibits and the publication of six widely acclaimed books.

Interview with Mary Eckstein

NEA: I want to congratulate you on your award. How did you feel when you heard the news?

MR. FREEMAN: I was happy to get the award. I thank all the people who were involved in helping select me. I'd like to let them know how much I appreciate them giving it to me. It means a lot to me. And at 71, it's almost like a gold watch.

NEA: Tell me about your first experiences taking photographs? What attracted you to the camera, and who were your original mentors or guides?

MR. FREEMAN: I started taking pictures in '63. I was inspired by the March on Washington, and that's why I started taking pictures. I wanted to say something about the times in which I was living, and that's what I've been doing ever since.

NEA: Why was southern folk culture so appealing to you?

MR. FREEMAN: It isn't a matter of southern folk culture being so appealing to me. That's not it. I'm interested in traditional folk life practices. And in a lot of places in the South, a lot of those folklife practices are closer to what they were 50 to 100 years ago than in a lot of other places. The South just turns out to be some place that I went for the Smithsonian, saw what I saw, and started documenting it. And I've been doing it ever since.

NEA: I know quilts are of particular interest to you.

MR. FREEMAN: I was photographing traditional craft people. I've always had an interest in quilting. Doing that documentation just rekindled the interest that I had in quilting. And I continued that.

NEA: It's been said that your work empowers folk artists by creating greater visibility for them. Was this a conscious goal or was that something that just developed over time?

MR. FREEMAN: When people trust you to mix you into their lives, you have a moral obligation not to violate that trust. I have a process of letting the people help offer the photograph that I'm taking. When you accept the people who you are studying as your friends and extended family, you develop a different relationship than if you look at them as subjects or informants. These people are friends of mine, so I treat them like you treat friends. You help them in any way you can.

NEA: You must have a tremendous network of people that you keep in touch with from all your projects.


NEA: I know you've also done a tremendous amount of work with children and young adults. Can you speak about the importance of this?

MR. FREEMAN: I teach a very innovative course called "Community Photo Documentation" which is designed to give kids, mainly white kids, cross-cultural experiences. It's all about multiculturalism and helping people to better understand and appreciate other people's differences.

NEA: Do you teach that all over the country or in particular areas?

MR. FREEMAN: I teach all over the country, wherever a university is willing to let somebody teach a no-nonsense course and demand that the students come to every class. And that's not that often.

NEA: Tell me about some of the themes that you try to draw on in your work. I know you said you are giving people the power to speak or to present themselves the way they would like to be presented. Are there other themes that run through your work?

MR. FREEMAN: It's not so much that they are themes. I'm looking at life, and the flow of life, and the things that happen in all cultures throughout the world. So if you're photographing a way of life in a given area then you photograph everything.

NEA: What advice do you have for aspiring young photo documentarians?

MR. FREEMAN: Go to college and take a total communication course. Because if you want to be a still photographer and do documentation, you'll starve to death.

NEA: So what has compelled you to continue documenting communities through the years?

MR. FREEMAN: I've been at it so long, I don't know any better. I'm a dinosaur and the lake is drying up around me.

NEA: You've definitely done a tremendous amount of work. A final question: what has been your greatest source of pride in your work?

MR. FREEMAN: Mirroring people as they really are.