Roland L. Freeman (born 1936) was an American photographer devoted to recording the lives of rural and urban African Americans. His photographs comprised a social history beginning with the era of the civil rights movement.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1936, Roland L. Freeman was sent from the streets of an urban environment to a southern Maryland tobacco farm at age 13 by a loving mother who foresaw disaster for him if he did not get away from the city. In 1954, as a member of the U.S. Air Force, he took his first pictures with a Brownie Hawkeye camera. However, he did not stick with photography at that point. Later, in 1963, he decided that photography would be his medium, and he had his first one-man show six years later.
Freeman’s emphasis on documenting the African American urban and rural experience began with the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. On that date 200,000 African and white Americans gathered in a peaceful protest to pressure the U.S. government to guarantee African Americans legal equality. Inspired by that event, Freeman decided to use the medium of photography to report on the lives of ordinary people.
Began with Borrowed Camera
He became familiar with the photographs of Gordon Parks. His work was influenced by Roy DeCarava, whose pictures of family life in a Harlem tenement reminded Freeman of his own family. Through a chance meeting with photographer Burk Uzzle, Freeman began his photographic career with a borrowed camera. He began working for the D.C. Gazette in 1967 and was the newspaper’s photo editor from 1968 to 1973.
In 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., he photographed the mule-train march of the Poor People’s Campaign from rural Mississippi to Washington, D.C., as a Southern Christian Leadership Conference photographer. That experience crystallized his commitment to be a witness documentarian of the changes in the lives of African Americans as new civil rights legislation opened doors that previously were closed to African Americans.
Documented the South
Using his camera as a tool of research as well as a form of creative expression, Freeman travelled through the backwoods of the rural South, gaining the trust of African American artisans and craftsmen who permitted him to photograph intimate details of their lives. He photographed African American congregations going to river baptisms, railroad workers laying tracks, blacksmiths at work and at home, and quilters with their wares. Presenting intimate closeups of their faces, homes, and daily activities, he presented not only a concentrated experience of the way African Americans view their world, but also a vision of a good life lived in small communities by loving people with satisfying work.
His sensitive portrayals were not, however, limited to one racial group. Some of his finest pictures were a “White Ghetto” series made in his native Baltimore. In those photographs, Native Americans and poor whites from Appalachia turn their backs or loll defiantly in front of Freeman’s camera, touching each other reassuringly as they face his lens. One biting image shows a couple asleep on a dirty mattress in a dark room, arms entwined, mouths gaping as if dead or drugged.
During the 1970s Freeman became the Washington stringer for Magnum Photos, Inc. and worked for various magazines, such as LIFE, Black Enterprise, and Essence. These experiences helped give his work the journalist’s succinctness. He also taught photography to students at such universities as George Washington and Howard and directed the Mississippi Folk Life Project.