One of Don Hogan Charles' most famous photographs captures a black child with his hands raised, his head stretched back to stare at the members of the National Guard who are advancing behind him on a New Jersey street, armed with rifles with bayonet attachments. In the periphery, other plain-clothes people stand pressed against storefronts and the curbside. Like the boy, their eyes, too, are fixed on the National Guard members' movements.
The year was 1967, and Charles' took the shot during his coverage of the Newark Riots in July, one of more than 150 racial riots to rock the United States that summer, 50 years ago.
Boy walks ahead of soldiers during the Newark riots, 1967.— Langston Leake (@NotMrHughes) August 1, 2017
Photo by Don Hogan Charles pic.twitter.com/x3I2cXAG0N
Charles, who died earlier this month at the age of 79, would go on to shoot many other arresting scenes from the civil rights movement—many of them taken while on assignment for the New York Times. Notably, in 1964, he became the first black staff photographer to be hired by the publication, and he is remembered this week in an obituary by the Times’ Niraj Chokshi.
Charles' body of work vibrates with action and humanity. He captured Malcolm X, the famed civil rights leader, peering through the gauzy blinds of his New York home; Coretta Scott King, the wife of Martin Luther King Jr., at her husband’s funeral; Adam Clayton Powell Jr. flanked by supporters before a demonstration in 1968.
His photographs also told the stories of people whose names weren't making headlines. Charles spent his career photographing a diverse range of New York City scenes with an insightful eye for people of color, who were all-too-often overlooked by white photographers of the day.
"While he’s telling the story of New York from the mid-1960s to 1980s, he’s really documenting the black community at the same time," Aaron Bryant, curator of photography and visual culture at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, tells Smithsonian.com. "His work presents not just a different vision or a different perspective, but a different vision and voice."
In 1966, he snapped hundreds of images for a Times feature on Harlem, where he lived. The article framed the neighborhood as a mysterious enclave of New York City and according to a 2016 piece by James Estrin, Charles’ editors selected only four images for publication. The photographs left on the cutting board, however, share a candid and nuanced portrait of daily life in Harlem.
The son of Caribbean immigrants, Charles was born in New York City in 1938. He died in East Harlem on December 15.
His famous image of the young boy walking during the Newark Riots of 1967 now hangs on view at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It stands alongside three other images taken by photographers who depicted civil rights and social activism in the North.
To get a sense of how his work reverberates today, you only need to look at an adjacent shot in the display. Taken by Devin Allen during the 2015 Baltimore protests, it captures the point of view of another young boy, who is staring back at a different set of law enforcement officers.