Kenya Smith

It’s well known that a picture is worth a thousand words, therefore, seasoned photographers are integral to documenting the events of a community, as well as of a generation. Kenya L. Smith, 58, has been visually capturing various aspects of local Black culture for over 30 years, and stands on the shoulders of some legendary visual griots who preceded him.

The native Harlemite began picking up his father’s cameras at home as an adolescent and taking family photos. After graduating from Tuskegee University, majoring in computers, he began covering baby showers, birthday parties, family functions and weddings during the early ’90s.

“My father, Harry Smit a.k.a. A Allah, always had a camera in the house,” he recalled. “I just liked taking pictures when I was younger. I never went to school for this. My photography mentors used to tell me to develop my third eye.”

He soon specialized in documenting hip hop culture which was flourishing globally by the mid-’90s.

“DJ Hollywood started me out,” Kenya proudly professed, adding how he was asked to capture photos at a local event for the hip hop pioneer. Word soon spread and he began covering more events where he’d “get to know the artist or their manager,” leading to him becoming known as “Snap Man.” Along the way he was mentored by some legendary lens-men.

“Ernie Panicolli, Jamel Shabazz, Joe Gonzo—they’re the holy-trinity of hip hop photography,” he noted. “I would meet them and ask questions about photography. I’d go to the park and just shoot pictures to sharpen my eye. Gordon Parks told me, ‘Keep shooting and be nice to people.’ Melvin Van Peebles said, ‘Break all the rules and make it up as you go along.’”

While growing up in Harlem he developed genuine relationships with local legends like Dougie Fresh, Kool Mo Dee and Kool DJ Red Alert, all of whom he’s photographed.

He expanded his horizons and began documenting professional musical and sporting events, as well as the onset of gentrification which was beginning to engulf Black Mecca. He’s photographed Black Arts Movement stalwarts such as Amiri Baraka, Nina Simone, Ozzie Davis and Ruby Dee.

“It’s about the respect and relationship you have with people which makes them comfortable. If a person trusts you, then you can get the best part. Manners have gotten me a long way,” he notes. “I was never into the paparazzi. Photography is a conduit for me to meet people I would never have met.”

Some of those include Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, Harry Belafonte and former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

As new-age technology shifted the landscape during the late 1990s, Mr. Smith put away his 35 millimeter camera and went digital, and decided to share his wealth of knowledge with future generations.

“I was teaching inner-city kids photography, at the same time I’d teach them mathematics,” he explains about his Universal Concepts Photography outfit. “I’m all about being positive. I’m still learning. You gotta know the technology of your craft. I feel like I can inspire others.”

Over the past several decades his photos have appeared in such prestigious publications as En Vogue, The Final Call, The Source Magazine, and right here in the AmNews. They’ve also been exhibited in various galleries, including Harlem’s Schomburg Center and the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Center.

Kenya urges youths: “Be respectful,” before concluding, “If I shoot you with a weapon you’re going to die, but if I shot you with my camera you’ll live forever. My photographs feed the mind. When I do my photography I put my Islam into them. They’re like my children. I decide who sees them and talks to them. The word photography means ‘drawing with light.’ At the end of the day, I’m an artist. We are the griots, historians and storytellers.”

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3 Comments

  1. My dear beloved brother! He has always been a great photographer! I have known him over 35 years! “

  2. Mr. Kenya Smith was Our Wedding Photographer in 2013. We have lifetime memories through his Magical Photography.
    Thank Kenya Smith. MR and Mrs. Irvin J. Jackson

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