JP photographer Don West’s latest photo exhibit has been 30 years in the making, and he is not done yet.
“Portraits of Purpose: A Tribute to Leadership (1980-2011),” is a collection of 65 life-size pictures of minority leaders. It features local leaders—like state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, City Councilor Felix Arroyo and longtime activist and former mayoral candidate Mel King—“rubbing elbows with national and international leaders,” like Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou and Angela Davis, West told the Gazette in a recent interview.
The first version of “Portraits of Purpose” was a set of 25 images commissioned by the Museum of African American History in 1997. West unveiled the latest version when the National Urban League held its annual conference in Boston last year.
The Urban League conference was seen by many as a sign that it is shedding a long-held reputation as a racist city. That reputation stems largely from school desegregation riots in the 1970s. West said his exhibit is, in part, a story of what has happened in Boston since then.
“It confirms that the face of Boston has changed, and put a face on who has made those changes over the past 30 years,” he said.
The portraits also tell a large part of the story of West’s career, which has covered roughly the same time-span that the exhibit covers. He got his start shooting for the Bay State Banner—Boston’s long-running black newspaper—and United Press International. Since then, he has produced photos for the New York Times and Boston Globe, and done work for Gov. Deval Patrick and President Obama.
“Nelson Mandela was probably the high point of my last 30 years of professional photography,” West said.
West had been deeply involved in the local anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s, he said. And when Mandela visited Boston in 1990, West spent two days with him.
“To confront an individual who went through what he went through and stood for what he stood for was amazing,” he said.
West also reminisced about shooting Patrick’s first inaguration in 2006.
It was held outside, West said. The day was cloudy, but when Patrick got up to speak, West captured an iconic shot of the governor with the sun breaking through the clouds and reflecting off the golden dome of the State House in the background.
“I gave him a copy of it, and he put it up outside his office. I don’t know if it is still there,” West said.
“Portraits of Purpose” is on display at the Museum of African American History, 46 Joy St., Beacon Hill. For more information, visit afroammuseum.org. For more information about West, see donwestfoto.com.