Lester Sloan began his photography career as a cameraman for the CBS affiliate in Detroit, then worked as a staff photographer in Los Angeles for Newsweek magazine for twenty-five years. His daughter, noted essayist and National Magazine Award-winning writer Aisha Sabatini Sloan, covers race and current events, often coupled with analysis of art, film, and pop culture.
Captioning the Archives is a father-daughter collaboration. Lester opened his archive of street photography, portraits, and news photos, and Aisha interviewed him, creating rich, probing, dialogue-based captions for more than one hundred photographs. Lester’s images encompass celebrity portraits, key news events like Pope John Paul’s visit to Mexico, Black cultural life in Europe, and, with astonishing emotion, the everyday lives of Black folk in Los Angeles and Detroit. Publishers Weekly calls the book, “Insightful, inquisitive, and full of vivid photographs, this powerful work is as beautiful as it is galvanizing.”
AMANDA UHLE: The images in this book are all decades old but they manage to convey some extremely contemporary messages, which I attribute to the thoughtful conversations between you two. When you were selecting the images for the book and discussing them, how much were you focused on the contemporary lens through which they’d be seen?
AISHA SABATINI SLOAN: In the beginning, we were just trying to cover a lot of ground. We talked about many more images than ended up in the book. And some of the stories would change from day to day, if we talked about the same image more than once. So, it became less about the images themselves than about the stories. Sometimes the photograph was just a jumping off point for another story about another place and time. When we had all of the conversations sort of mapped out, then it became a project of creating a narrative arc. Some of the photos ended up taking my dad to his childhood, some of them involved his travels, some of them are more reflections looking back on his career. So what we ultimately chose to be in the book was only partly due to what the photographs were of, and more about what they evoked, creating a shape for the story of his career. I think for some of them I was curious to hear my dad reflect on how he felt about the photographs from the vantage point of today. But whenever I began a conversation with a set of expectations, I was usually strong-arming something that wanted to go elsewhere—the story that ultimately emerged was far off from whatever theme or idea I thought we should be exploring.
AU: I also attribute that timeless quality of the book to the passage of time itself, which is sharply evident in things like the evolution of fashion but it’s also there in subtle, powerful ways. I sensed that for some images, Lester’s take in 2021 was precisely what it was when he took the photograph. And for others, I felt that the years between, and Aisha’s perspective, have revealed new things in how Lester’s views them. Do you both see it that way, too?
LESTER SLOAN: Your feelings about any picture would change with time because you’ve changed. Looking back at the pictures of the young ladies in the Bahamas, they were more interesting to me than Prince Charles. You look at things through a different prism depending on who you are or what the subject is.
AS: Some of the photos in the book are connected to a pretty foundational understanding of race or about the world that I was raised with. A cornerstone, in a way, of the value system from my childhood. So, some of the photos depicting, for example, a police drug raid, are related to a story my father told a lot when I was growing up. I think, with pictures like that, the story didn’t change much, and, if anything, the way our culture has grown, I think, more suspicious of the police as an entity, is a kind of affirmation of what my father had witnessed all along. But then there were some photos, where my father had the chance to look differently at the experience he had had at the time. Like, he experienced the border patrol as friendly and accommodating. But when we looked at the photos together, recently, he saw the whole thing differently, saw himself, even, as complicit in valorizing something insidious, in demeaning people who, like him, were often targeted in the same way he was targeted as a Black man, by the police.
AU: When you and I discussed this project very early on, in 2019 or so, without trying to, I imagined that you and your dad would spend a lot of time huddled together over prints, riffling through boxes, one of you looking over the other’s shoulder, kind of a familial scene. But the pandemic began just as you were beginning this work, and I think you did a lot of this in separate houses, over Zoom. Did that take anything away from the process? Or add something?
AS: The pandemic created a particular vibe, for sure. It wasn’t as playful as it was when we started, because we were in separate households. And we were grappling with a lot. I was pregnant, and my parents weren’t really present for the majority of the pregnancy, which was surreal. And my niece was pregnant and had a baby. And two of my aunts became ill and died over the course of that year, and there was a lot of grief around the distance we felt from them during that time. So, it was a heavier experience than I think we had anticipated it would be when we started writing. But also, the prospect of new babies arriving created a sense of purpose and excitement. At one point, when we were having a Zoom conversation, in the middle of talking about photographs, my parents got a Facetime call from the rehabilitation facility where my 99-year-old great aunt was staying, and we all tried to have a conversation with her over Facetime. She was recovering from COVID, and we weren’t sure if she could understand why we weren’t there with her in person. And so we have, now, this recording that kind of marks the book project in time, punctuated by this really emotional moment. This is, in some ways, emblematic for me of the whole experience of writing the book, through this protracted period of emergency and grief.
AU: Captioning the Archives is the third in McSweeney’s Of the Diaspora series, whose ethos is to illuminate 20th-century Black voices that we know will resonate deeply and differently in the contemporary world. So far, the other titles are novels. How do you see your book resonating with these others?
LS: I think they deserve to be together. Fiction is made up of the same stuff. You create a character based on people you’ve met. Our book is an actual creation or reflection of something that exists, and fiction is based on observations of people. Reality is the stuff of fiction. I’m reading right now about young Black kids in Chicago in the 1950s by some white guy. I know the people he’s talking about, they’re not fiction, but. For so long, how we appeared in fiction, people writing about us, oftentimes was based on having no contact with us. This is what they imagined a Black person is like.
AS: A white person could write a nonfiction book about Black people and it could be less rooted in reality than a novel written by a Black person.
AU: Every time I try to describe this beautiful book to someone, I get stuck saying things like it’s about the twentieth century or the Black American experience. I think it might be, but I actually think the book is about the two of you and your relationship. How do you answer that question? What is Captioning the Archives about?
LS: How could it not be about us? It’s an experience of some Black Americans. It’s about me going out on an exploration, seeing myself against another backdrop. The book is a form of travel. My reaction to the world that I experienced in different places. It’s like taking a walk through Luxembourg Gardens. You used to hear these stories around the dinner table. This is about our interactions in the world, and it’s like a conversation between the two of us, it’s a way of talking about things that you used to talk about when everybody didn’t have a cell phone. It’s a way of sharing an experience or talking about an experience in a way that we used to.