A stranger raised his voice and threw a middle finger her way. Patience Zalanga froze.
This was not the first time someone had reacted violently to her presence. And it likely wouldn’t be the last.
Zalanga is a badass photographer.
A black woman and long-term resident of St. Paul, Minnesota, Zalanga recently moved to the St. Louis metro area. But when she heard about the shooting of Philando Castile, she hopped in a car and went back home.
Not just to mourn. Not just to protest. But to stand side by side with her community, and celebrate strength in blackness without apology.
Naturally, she brought her camera, too.
Zalanga has worked as a photographer for the last four years. But she didn’t always use her camera for activism.
“It wasn’t until two years ago, when Ferguson happened, that I decided to use my camera for … purposes other than taking head shots,” she said.
Zalanga arrived in Ferguson about a week before the grand jury announced their findings. During that first visit, she said, she was too worried for her safety to bring her camera.
“I was really scared that [the police] would confiscate my camera …” she explained, “I was really worried … I would be a target.”
Eventually, she returned home to Minnesota. But hours after she got home, the grand jury announced they would not indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.
Zalanga and her friends were watching it on the news when they decided they should go back. And this time, Zalanga took her camera, too. She wanted to document the real action — the stuff no one was seeing on the news.
Over time, Zalanga has become bolder and more confident about her storytelling.
She’s gone from not bringing her camera at all to standing on the front lines of the action to record history.
“When I take pictures, it’s so weird, but white men just have this track record of them getting up in my face and being super bold,” Zalanga said. “I’m [5 feet 2 inches] … and I only have a camera, that’s the only weapon I have on me. And yet they feel very, very compelled to intimidate me with their bodies, with their language.”
The man you read about at the beginning of this piece got upset when Zalanga started taking pictures at an impromptu demonstration at a hair salon. She says he jumped out of his chair and immediately got in her face.
“In that moment, my heart was racing. Everything went in slow motion,” she said.
But while the experience felt lonely, Zalanga wasn’t alone.
“All of a sudden, I had 10 black people surrounding me,” she says. It was the other demonstrators, standing by her side. As always, her community had her back.
Now, Zalanga sees herself as an activist as well as a photographer.
“When I made the decision to start documenting, at first I was doing it for everyone,” she said. “But I feel like through my photography … my style has somewhat changed, and it’s definitely more … centered on black people.”
She often shoots in black and white to draw parallels between the contemporary struggles of black Americans and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“For me, it’s important to shoot in black and white because it really forces you to pay attention to the subject and what’s happening.”
The photos here were taken in July 2016 during protests outside the Minnesota Governor’s Mansion in St. Paul.
While residents and community members were decidedly heartbroken about the death of Philando Castile — “There was a lot of frustration, a lot of rage, and a lot of anger,” Zalanga said — events at the mansion have been altogether peaceful.
And for Zalanga, capturing these moments in the movement is more than a passion or a profession — it’s a duty to humankind.
She hopes her work will serve as an archive, capturing not just moments of pain and struggle, but celebration and joy. Through her work, Zalanga says she is signal boosting a narrative we all need to hear.
“That’s the main reason why I do what I do,” she said. “I’m really curious about what pictures are going to be put in history books,” she said.
And we can all do our part to pay attention, really listen, and share the stories and images coming out of places where this movement is taking shape every day. History is happening right this minute, and we can all do our part to ensure traditionally underrepresented voices are at the center of it.