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Khabeer Sultan deconstructs the stereotype of the black man

Celina Colby | 12/29/2016, 6 a.m.
Sultan’s poignant black-and-white portraits of men of color reveal the complex individuals underneath the stereotype.
Omar Parkman, model. Sultan says he lets his subjects pick their own pose and background. Photo: Courtesy Khabeer Sultan

Boston-based photographer Khabeer Sultan is tired of being pigeonholed. He’s weary of the burdens of being a black man in a country still fraught with racial injustice. And in his new project, “An American Experience,” he seeks to combat the categorization of black men as violent, unintelligent criminals. His poignant portraits of men of color reveal the complex individuals underneath this stereotype.

Bolivar Geraldo Jr., Computer Engineer, from Boston-based photographer Khabeer Sultan’s “An American Experience” collection.

Bolivar Geraldo Jr., Computer Engineer, from Boston-based photographer Khabeer Sultan’s “An American Experience” collection.

Sultan began the project in October, after a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s film, “13th,” which connects mass incarceration to slavery and the demonization of the black male.

“Being a black man in America has shaped the lens I view the world with,” says Sultan. “I see joy, I see pain, I see hope and love. I believe I have a responsibility to use my craft to share stories that go untold.”

“An American Experience” is a series of black-and-white portraits of men of color. Displayed on Sultan’s website (americanexperienceproject.com), a quote from the subject accompanies each photograph. Sultan takes a backseat approach to the project, allowing his subjects to pick the location as well as their style of dress. The more comfortable the subject is, the more authentic the capture.

Sultan connects with subjects through his social network and the list is diverse in age and occupation. In one portrait, Bolivar Geraldo Jr. sits on a stoop, dressed stylishly in a felt fedora, overcoat, and matching scarf and gloves. The image is cropped close, and Geraldo engages directly with the viewer, with weary, disappointed eyes. His quote says, “I love Bachata. I love John Mayer. I have a degree in Engineering and a minor in Math. You can never know these things about me if you don’t endeavor to see beyond my Blackness.”

Minimalism triumphs in Sultan’s work, from the black-and-white palette to the shallow depth of field, highlighting the faces of his subjects and blurring out distractions. Sultan has been surprised by and grateful for the community support he’s received for the project.

“I have been welcomed into homes, places of work and made comfortable during each interaction I’ve had with the men I have shot,” he says. “The project is theirs just as much as it is mine and I feel honored to be trusted to share their story.”

“An American Experience” is deeply personal for Sultan. After years of photographing for aesthetic beauty, he feels he’s found a worthwhile artistic mission. He hopes that as the project grows, so will the understanding of the depth of men of color.

“Men of Color aren’t the ‘other,’ we are just like everyone else,” he says. “What’s not often conveyed is how strongly we believe that if one of us grows, we all grow.”