Paul Octavious and Mirelva Berghout on the importance of documenting the present

A man with a camera in an old photo

The Black Archivist founder and the Amsterdam-based cultural curator discuss why documenting the present is important, and share images that have had a huge impact on them

By Leonie Owiredu Above image: RC Hickman Monday, 22 February, 2021

Mirelva Berghout: ‘Why did you start Black Archivist?’

Paul Octavious: ‘It began because when George Floyd and the protests were happening in the Midwest, I was on Facebook and everyone was talking about it, there was one thing that struck me hard. A comment from a White photographer said that they wish they were down at the protest to take images and sell them to Getty. In that one comment you’re showing your privilege, documenting someone else’s history and profiting from it. It just feels so wrong. A friend messaged me to say they had a camera and wondered if anyone could use it. Then I had a thought: I want to give these cameras away, so that people can tell their own stories, and it just snowballed from there. I wanted Black people to have the liberty to document their lives.’

Image by Gordon Parks

Image by Gordon Parks

A man stood in front of a studio backdrop outside

Image by Wulf Bradley

A man at a protest

Image by Wulf Bradley

MB: ‘What do you expect to have ignited from this? How do you hope this will contribute to the Black diasporic archive?’

PO: ‘There are different phases in what I want to do with Black Archivist. First, it’s giving cameras and now it’s teaching people the business side of photography and skills. A lot of people who got cameras weren’t aiming to be a photographer in life, but neither was I. This tool has led me to talk to you. This documentation is such a sword. Being in the US, there is a lot of work, but a lot goes to White photographers. Photography is privileged, from food to fashion, and sometimes you need higher end clothes. That experience is privileged. I want to break down those walls and give people firstly the tool of a camera and then tools beyond that; that is what I will try to do.’

A mural in the background of a protest

Image by Getty Images

MB: ‘Can you talk about the RC Hickman picture that’s on your website?

PO: ‘That when I first found it I didn’t know who he was? I asked myself, who are the Black photographers who inspired me? I knew Gordon Parks, but he wasn’t a part of my vernacular. I knew all of his work, but not the man behind it. When I began researching all the photographers of the Civil Rights Movement, I wondered, who are archivists now who aren’t getting their due? And that’s how I started curating all these photographers who are young and new. And it’s like going to school, Black school for me. I’m learning and I’m curating, and it’s a place for me to go and look at all these photographers I didn’t know existed.’

MB: ‘If you close your eyes, what pictures come to mind that are striking?’ 

PO: ‘It’s of one that I recently posted. It’s so iconic. It’s of this woman, Arial Robinson. She came out with a book called Black Hair Care In Color. Her hair is so high, beautiful, and natural. It just reminded me of Diana Ross with her giant hair with magnolias in it, and this image of a Black woman promoting her book. In this digital age you have to be able to do many things, and that one image is really impactful to me at the moment.’
For more information on Black Archivist and how to apply for or donate a camera, visit

A woman sat down holding a book with huge afro hair

Image by Arial Robinson

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