How a Fort Wayne photographer is calling attention to the ‘whys’ behind the George Floyd protests

As a musician born and raised in Fort Wayne, DJ E-Clyps has been a photographer for about six years now, taking photos for local concert venues and festivals, as well as taking on clients for weddings and senior pictures.

About two years ago, he started his company Blacklight Media, and it’s safe to say that 2020 is taking his life and work in a new direction.

After feeling the effects of the novel Coronavirus pandemic, which canceled live events across the country and put photographers out of work, DJ is experiencing an unlikely turn of fate with the George Floyd protests.

A black man himself, he attended the first protest downtown to stand in unity with his brothers and sisters across the country. But he quickly discovered that this gathering was way bigger than he expected, and thankfully, he had his camera on hand to document it.

For the past two weeks, DJ has been bringing viewers around the world into the streets of the George Floyd protests in Fort Wayne. His up-close-and-personal, black-and-white images have appeared in TIME Magazine, New York Magazine--even publications in the U.K.

But while his Instagram account is enjoying newfound fame, DJ remains humble and focused on the true intent of his work: Lifting up the voices of the protesters and redirecting the national conversation to the “whys” behind what they are doing.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with DJ E-Clyps to learn more about his photography, his approach to covering the George Floyd protests, and his plans for the future.

Photo courtesy of DJ E-Clyps/Blacklight Media.

IFW: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

I was born in Fort Wayne. I’ve lived here the majority of my life, and when I wasn't here I lived in San Diego.

I’m a DJ/musician, so I started getting into music, touring and stuff to that nature. But I needed another outlet, which is when I got into photography.

As a musician, you get into a mode where you need to start developing your own content. I started off in video, and then when I really got into video, I started working at (the now-closed) Sunny Schick Camera Shop in downtown Fort Wayne.

While I was there, I would talk to all these photographers, and look at all this amazing work. I got heavy into it, and I discovered the works of Gordon Parks and Platon. It really caught my interest.

IFW: What about these photographers’ work captured your interest?

Gordon Parks was a famous black photographer, and he was self-taught. He basically bought a camera at a thrift store for something like $15 and ended up teaching himself photography and doing a lot of Life Magazine spreads, things of that nature.

He started doing a lot of photo essays about race in America. His photos were really more immersive where he would shoot them from a perspective that, when you look at them, you felt like you were part of a moment instead of just looking at a moment.

That’s what really drew me to this type of photography.

IFW: One photo you’ve taken that appeared in TIME Magazine is a powerful image of a little boy with a bullhorn. Tell us about that piece.

There was a crazy story that made me take that photo. I saw this boy’s dad protesting earlier with the same bullhorn, so when I saw his son with it, it was like watching a right of passage where he literally passed on protesting and standing up for his rights to his son.

When I saw the bullhorn in his hands, I happened to take that shot. But I didn’t think that one, of all the photos, that would be the one everybody chose to share.

IFW: Tell us about your company Blacklight Media and your work prior to the protests.

I started by really posting a lot of concert photography. I used to shoot for the Clyde Theatre, for Piere’s, and the Three Rivers Festival.

All of my photography has one central focus, which is emotion. I love the emotion of concerts because that’s when you really catch musicians at their most vulnerable point, full of emotion where they are connecting with the crowd. I enjoy diving into stuff that evokes emotion.

IFW: Tell us about your experience at the first protest in downtown Fort Wayne.

I didn’t ever think we would have a protest of that magnitude in Fort Wayne. I went initially just to support the protest, and when I realized, “Wow, this is way bigger than I thought,” I grabbed my camera. I’m never more than five feet from my camera.

IFW: How have you been personally processing the protests these past few weeks?

It’s a lot. At first, I didn’t want to watch the video (of Geroge Floyd’s murder). And then I decided I should watch it, and I think my stomach turned for the rest of the day.

I was just in a really odd place, and I would even tell some of my friends that if you’re really not ready to see it, you shouldn't watch it. But I'm glad that I did because it really drove my photography in the protest.

A lot of people had a lot of emotion from seeing that video. You could see it in their faces. I think it was something about that video, to really see what happened to George Floyd, that made this a point to where it has become a worldwide protest. To see it in that manner was just so powerful that I think people couldn't ignore it anymore.

IFW: Have you been at the protests in Fort Wayne every day?

I've been at the protests every day about except for one. That was just because my legs were so tired I had to take a day off. I caught a couple of rubber bullets in the legs, and I got tear-gassed. I was taking photos so close to what was happening, that it was me, the media, and some of the upfront protesters who caught the tear gas at first. It really affects your eyes. My eyes were watery and itchy or blurry for days after, so I had to take a day off.

Photo courtesy of DJ E-Clyps/Blacklight Media.

IFW: Your photos have been featured in national publications, representing Fort Wayne’s protests alongside demonstrations across the country. How did that happen?

It was crazy. I didn’t think it was real at first because TIME Magazine was the first one that reached out, and they reached out to me directly on Instagram. I honestly thought it was spam at first so I ignored it. Then I got an email and a phone call, so I was like, “This is real.”

Since then, my work has been featured in TIME Magazine, New York Magazine, and a couple of other publications, one in the U.K. and BELT, a regional magazine out of Ohio.

I didn’t reach out to anyone. I’ve never worked in this field before, so I didn’t even know the process of submitting photos to editors. But I’m learning it now on the fly in real-time.

IFW: Your photos are all black-and-white instead of color. Tell us about that decision.

My mother always asks me, “Why do you only shoot in black-and-white?” (laughs) I think for me, it’s the timelessness of it. You can’t really put a timestamp on a black-and-white photo. Sometimes, when you see photos in color, you can tell by the color that it was taken in the 2000s or the 1960s. But with black and white, it forces you to look at the photo and not worry about when it was taken. It’s more about the subject matter.

IFW: There’s a quote by Gordon Parks that seems to define your work: “The subject matter is so much more important than the photographer.” Tell us about that and your approach to photography.

I live by that saying. I think sometimes photographers get caught up in trying to imprint their look on a photo, like trying to force something on someone. Real photography, to me, is to remember: It’s about the subject. It’s about: Can you make someone feel as if they wish they would have been there? Can they look at that photo and feel what that person was feeling?

It’s been inspiring to get a lot of messages from people who have been like, “These photos have really moved me emotionally to donate or to join the protest or to really evaluate how I view race in America.”

If a photo is making people feel that way and motivating people to do something, that's when you’ve done your job as a photographer.

IFW: In looking at the subject matter you’re featuring of the protests in Fort Wayne, you aren’t documenting any of the broken windows or destruction. Tell us about that decision.

I think in the beginning a lot of the reasons people were protesting got muddled. It turned into conversations about breaking glass and boarding up windows, so I think the reasons behind the protest got lost in the clouds of the whole narrative about destruction to businesses and all that.

I would have people comment on my posts and ask, “Why aren't you posting photos of the broken glass?” My reason is because the vast majority of people here protesting are here for the right reasons. If you want to see broken glass and riot cams, there are other places you can go. I want to do a service to the protesters to make sure their voices are properly heard, and I want people to understand the reasons behind why they are there. It’s about the “why” and not the “what.” I’m afraid that the narrative is being swayed from the main point.

Photography is art, and art is subjective, so not everybody is going to like what you do. Some may be ambivalent about it. But this is the art that spoke to me personally.

IFW: Of all the photos you’ve taken of the Fort Wayne protests so far, which one do you feel strongest about?

I have some that I haven't posted yet. Out of the ones I have posted, I think the one that really hit me more than anything is this photo of these two little kids, and they’re holding this Black Lives Matter sign (at the top of this story). The sign is made out of cardboard, and the look on the kid on the right’s face is just so intense. For him to be so little, his face is so intense. That one spoke to me a lot because those kids didn't say a word. They didn't chant or yell, but their faces and that sign combined said a lot.

IFW: Have you seen an increased interest in your work since the protests started?

Interest grew quickly, like the saying goes, “From zero to 100, real quick.”

It was weird. I've been working as a photographer for a while now. But when it came to social media in the past, I wasn't really getting the traffic that I think people hope for.

If you start to look at the numbers, you can really get frustrated. People will tell you, “Oh my gosh, you shoot these amazing photos.” Then you post one on Instagram, and it's crickets. (laughs)

As a photographer, you're constantly asking yourself, “Should I even do this on social media?”

Then I started posting the photos from the protests, and it just went haywire. That’s not what I did it for, but that’s what happened.

Photo courtesy of DJ E-Clyps/Blacklight Media.

IFW: Do you have any advice for other up-and-coming photographers trying to get their work out there?

In the past few days, I’ve had a couple of aspiring photographers reach out to me, asking me to post their photos to get them “exposure.”

They say, “I would post them myself, but I have zero clout.” Now, I’m telling them: “You need to post photos because you believe in them and you feel strongly about them.”

If you're doing this for the likes and the re-Tweets and the comments, you're ready screwed because now you're doing it for the wrong reasons. You're doing it based on what you think might happen.

That's why I think a lot of people in creative fields battle with depression. They get sucked into this vacuum of thinking, “This didn't get enough likes or feedback, so I'm going to delete it, and try something else.” Every day you can get caught up in this whirlwind thinking: What can I do to get attention? But if you don't believe in your work, you shouldn't post it.

IFW: Have you had any mentors who have helped you grow your skills to where they are today?

Bill Christie, the Owner of Sunny Schick, was really instrumental in my photography because he taught me a lot about composition. He taught me a lot about being able to use the light that's given to you and not having to rely on artificial light. And just the ability of being able to go into any environment and shoot it without having to rely on other stuff. That’s why I don't use a flash. I don’t have to.

Bill was also really big about not being a hired gun as a photographer to the point where you can't shoot the things that you’re passionate about. The protest photos were a passion project for me. I really wanted to document these voices and make sure their voices are being heard. That’s been my consistent statement throughout everything. The whole purpose is to make sure their voices are heard, and I hoped it would speak to people, but I didn't know it was going to go this far. I’m just as shocked as everyone else.

IFW: As far as full-time work as a photographer during COVID-19 goes, how are you coping so far?

All of my bookings except one or two got canceled or pushed back until fall/winter. All the concerts have been canceled, and the Three Rivers Festival is canceled. So it’s a strange time. For photographers, April through September is usually the peak season, with weddings and festivals and senior photos. But this year, that is pretty much all gone, so you have to be creative as far as how you supplement your income.

Like I said, the protest photos were a passion project for me. I don’t feel like I should be making any money off of this. Ethically, I can’t bring myself to sell prints. I don't want to feel like I'm profiting off of a bad situation.

That said, I am in talks with some people because I would like to find a way to do something with the photography to help raise money for an organization if I can. So we’ll see what comes of that.

IFW: What other plans do you have for the future of your business?

At some point, I would like to have a gallery/studio in downtown Fort Wayne just because I want to be centrally located and easily accessible. Plus, with the way downtown is building on the art community here and so forth, I think it is important to be in the mix of that versus outside of it.

At some point down the line, I’d also like to get photography into the hands of youth in the inner city, too. I think it would be really great to see more young Black and Latino kids who can get into photography.

IFW: Is there any way that our readers can support your work and mission?

Hyper Local Impact is currently running a campaign for people to donate directly to my work. I would like to give a big thank you to Hyper Local Impact and everyone who has donated. The outpouring of support from this city for just appreciating my photos is unreal, and I’m extremely grateful for it.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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