Q&A: George Livingston, Jr. on Black History and the Power of Images

Interview • Chanelle Ignant

EDITOR’S NOTE: George Livingston, Jr., age 61, the son of former Richmond Mayor George Livingston, Sr., grew up in Richmond and achieved wide success as a professional photographer of musicians and celebrities. He took some time to speak with Richmond Pulse about his photography career, the importance of Black History Month, and the value of Richmond’s rich cultural history.

Richmond Pulse: Why is it important to celebrate Black History Month?

George Livingston: Our past is always a vehicle for our future, and as people that have gone through many years of pains and pleasures, it’s always good to reference those [as] support vehicles to your future. It all comes from our struggle to obtain what we’ve obtained. We had to come from somewhere to get here…

[Black History Month] is not only for us, but for other cultures to see us and know of our activities — they will have more respect for us knowing that we have endured so much devastation, so much celebration.

I remember the days [when] we weren’t visible in the media. We would call our neighbors and say, “There’s a negro on TV.” We wanted to see someone that looked like us.

RP: How did that lack of visibility for black people in the media influence your photography career?

GL: One of my ultimate heroes is John H. Johnson (the founder of Ebony and Jet magazines). He would display images in his publications of us doing activities that are to be complimented… Muhammed Ali, Oprah Winfrey, Shirley Chisholm… These are black images of us achieving higher goals. That was so endearing to my photography, because I saw what they did and I wanted to capture those who did the same thing.

The first job I ever had was selling the newspaper door-to-door. I saw our image[s] in the entertainment areas, in the political areas, and… that told me that there are opportunities, if we follow a productive road.

RP: You listed a Jackson 5 appearance as one of your favorite memories growing up in Richmond. What do you remember about that day?

GL: They came to a department store. I was 17 and working as a clerk. There were screaming girls, and they didn’t have any security. I was working and they said, “Hey, the Jackson 5 are here. We need you and about ten other guys to walk around them and escort them to the autograph area.”

So we escorted them there and they signed the autographs… About two years later I met a young lady, whom I started dating. And she was one of those screaming girls. She is now my wife of thirty years.

RP: What are some common misconceptions about Richmond?

GL: I wish that the city’s image was more complimentary than what the news media gives it. A lot of times when you hear something about Richmond you’ll hear something negative. We need to stress this for our up-and-coming citizens — that Richmond does have a positive history.

RP: What advice would you offer the next generation of photographers and storytellers?

GL: Pursue positive things and absorb as much knowledge as you can. There are going to be circumstances and challenges that cross your path, but you have to keep on striving.

 

This is part of a series of Richmond Pulse stories for Black History Month looking back on the moments and people that helped define the African American experience.

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