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Portraits of Purpose photo exhibit highlights black leaders

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Portraits of Purpose photo exhibit highlights black leaders
A portraits of Harry Belafonte with Boston singer Larry Watson is part of the “Portraits of Purpose” exhibit. (Photo: Don West)

“Portraits of Purpose: A Tribute to Leadership,” a dynamic photo exhibition by Don West, runs at the Boston Center for Adult Education through April 2017. The exhibit highlights visionary black leaders in their pursuit of social justice and equality in Boston and takes its name from West’s book, a collection of photographs with editorial by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Kenneth Cooper.

Author: Don WestA portraits Bruce Bolling, Royal Bolling Jr. and Royal Bolling Sr. is part of the “Portraits of Purpose” exhibit.

Boston has a long history of strong African American leadership, beginning with black abolitionists of the 19th century. While many blacks in the South were struggling to escape slavery, even post-emancipation, in Boston they served as entrepreneurs, educators, artists, activists, elected officials and patriots. That tradition has continued with decades of cultural and political dynamism.

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For more information on “Portraits of Purpose,” at the BCAE, visit:…

For information on the book, visit: http://donwestfot…

One of the most notable leaders West photographed is Nelson Mandela, during his first visit to Boston in 1990. During apartheid rule in South Africa, Massachusetts became the first state to withdraw its pension funds from companies doing business there. Mandela’s visit was in part to thank the activists who worked hard on behalf of the South African cause. West’s photos of Mandela bring out a relatable side of the political giant. He smiles, he laughs, he waves happily to his supporters. For a man who had just been released from jail he radiates light, peace and positivity.

West served for many years as a news photographer, including for the Banner, but his images possess artistry, a deeply personal quality that goes beyond the basic facts. His dual experience in news and art photography balance commitment to technique and story along with emotional expression. West has said that his mission, going back to the beginning of his career, has been to depict people of color in positive situations and relationships and to highlight the grit, humility and success of the community.

This positive representation wasn’t solely political. West also photographed performers such as B.B. King, Whitney Houston and Diana Ross when they appeared at Boston’s Concerts on the Common, back in the 1980s. In one photograph of Houston, she has her head tilted back, her eyes closed. She’s smiling widely, but the closely cropped photo still shows her microphone close to her lips. West seems to have caught her in the euphoric moment between notes as she’s bursting with energy and bliss. The facts are there. She’s a singer, she’s performing — but the viewer also experiences Houston’s joy, her love of singing, in a way that no regular snapshot could capture.

“Portraits of Purpose” serves as a reminder that though Boston is especially alive with activist spirit now, its history is deeply rooted in powerful black leaders who had the endurance, passion and tenacity to make change.