On a fateful plane trip home from South Africa, Steve Floyd was looking at his vacation photos when a photographer sitting next to him noticed his shots. “You have an eye,” he told Floyd. “You know what you see, but you need some training.” That conversation would spark a new passion for Floyd, one that would embrace his wanderlust and eventually launch him into a second career.
Floyd first connected with the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR) back in 1995, when he reached out to the publisher at the time to offer photos of the Million Man March in Washington, D.C.
Back then Floyd was just “taking” pictures, not “making” them. He explained the distinction: “Taking pictures is just, you see something and click, click. But to make a photograph, you see it and yet you’re working the background. You’re working everything just to get the right shot. Then the picture says a lot more than just somebody seeing something and snapping it.”
Learning how to make a photograph would come later for Floyd, after grueling street and gang outreach work left him depleted and he took to travel to decompress.
Heeding the recommendation of the photographer on the plane, Floyd signed up for a photography workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There he received extensive training from National Geographic veteran photographer James Stanfield, and went on expeditions to train his eye.
In addition to National Geographic, Floyd has done assignments for humanitarian organizations; for magazines and newspapers, including the MSR, where he contributes frequently to the sports section and other areas; and for the local architectural photography business Spacecrafting.
“I shoot everything: nature, wildlife, landscape, sports, street photography… That’s one of my favorites, street photography — capturing people in the streets and catching moments,” said Floyd, who cites Gordon Parks and war photographer James Nachtwey among his favorites.
If not for the click of his camera, you’d barely notice him at the many Sister Spokesman events he’s covered. Stealthy and discreet, Floyd stalks the room for a pop of emotion — a joyful hug or tearful eye. “One of the best qualities a photographer can have is patience. I’m always watching and anticipating for when something’s going down…catching the moments and moods. And that’s when — Pow! You just get the shot,” Floyd said with a satisfied grin.
“When your sixth sense tells you to get out of the way, keep shooting…”
Floyd credits longtime MSR Sports Columnist Larry Fitzgerald, Sr. with helping him get his start shooting at sporting events. “Steve and I go back many years,” explained Fitzgerald in an email. Both he and Floyd are from Chicago and grew up in the same neighborhood where Fitzgerald’s family owned a store.
“Our paths crossed again in Minnesota,” noted Fitzgerald. “He is so talented. He has traveled the world for years doing remarkable humanitarian work and helping many. He’s the best photographer doing NBA, NFL live action [and] one of the most…dedicated and dependable people I know.”
Floyd hopes to release a book of photos one day and also wants to start showing his work. “I’ve followed every Nobel Peace Prize laureate from the Dalai Lama to Desmond Tutu to Rigoberta Menchú and Obama… There are just a few more things and a few places I keep telling myself I want to go.” India is one such place he cited.
But it’s not all camera equipment and travel bags for Floyd these days. His more than two-decades-long legacy in street and youth outreach lives on in his work as a mental health practitioner at Change, Inc., an early intervention and mental health services organization in Minneapolis. “I work with mainly African American boys with behavioral problems,” said Floyd, who has three sons and two daughters of his own.
He illustrated his work by sharing a recent case: “We had a kid who was eight years old come in and cuss everybody out! They talked about how he was such a bad kid… I went to pick him up one day at his house, and come to find out, he basically lived by himself. His mom was never there. He was in the basement [with] just a room and kitchen, TV and clothes everywhere.
“The teachers had no clue,” said Floyd, adding that many kids in the community live in similar conditions. “It’s not that they’re just bad kids…there’s just no connection. So that’s a piece that I play — being with the kid, knowing the kid and observing them in school. It helps. It helps them in school.”
“I see…how slavery has developed us as a whole race of people in this country — the things we say or do and have no idea why.”
Over the years, Floyd has adopted a balanced approach to his outreach work. “They allow me to be flexible,” he said of Change, Inc. “I’ll take a break. I’ll step back because of all of the lessons I’ve had in the past of trying to do it all and [how] it eventually just catches up to you.”
Photography provides a respite for Floyd, but that, too, comes with risks, as safety often gives way to the thrill of the chase. Floyd seems to relish those moments.
“When your sixth sense tells you to get out of the way, keep shooting,” he said. “I’ve been chased and screamed at and hollered at. It’s embarrassing; it’s a lot of different things at once when people don’t want [their picture taken]. I’ve been charged by an elephant… You gotta know when to drop the camera and go, but you also want to get the best shot!” Floyd said with a laugh.
As adventurous and curious as Floyd is as a photographer, he recently visited a location he found too emotional to shoot. After years of avoiding West Africa, he traveled to the region on assignment with Project Safety Nets, a local humanitarian organization.
During a break from shooting, Floyd ventured out and explored historic sites on Gorée Island off the coast of Dakar in Senegal, and Jufureh, the village of Kunta Kinte in Gambia. Both places are known as major waypoints of the transatlantic slave trade from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
Visiting the sites had a profound effect on Floyd. “Just being in those rooms [where slaves were held] — a nine by nine room, no windows, with 15 to 20 people packed in, shackled, naked and living among their own waste, vomit, etc. for three months…
“You just try to imagine how they felt. You can smell and you can feel victims in there, feel your ancestors. It’s like they crowd you,” Floyd recalled solemnly. “I mean, I’ve seen 12 Years a Slave; I grew up on Roots. But there’s nothing like being there and seeing it.”
Dakar also provided a poignant contrast to life in the States. “Small things like going to a wrestling match — which is their number-one sport. You have 30,000 people around the stadium trying to get in. When I first drove up I was like, ‘Man, I ain’t getting out there!’ Because my mentality is thinking about what would happen [in the States].
“At one point, the security came out and told everybody to get in line. And they grabbed each other by the waist and held each other until there was, like, three straight lines — two hundred yards long with Black men just holding themselves. I said to myself, ‘Man, brothas would never do that in the States!’
“But then you see people who look like you, but think nothing like you. You get inside and 30,000 Black people are sitting there and there’s no alcohol, and you’re having the best time! Drums are playing, there’s dancing…it’s just… You can’t put it into words.”
Why in all his years of travel has he avoided West Africa?
“I was tired of hearing about slavery and I wanted to go beyond it,” said Floyd. “Then when I started going down South, I started getting sick. I went to New Orleans and seen plantations and I got really sick. And, even when I hear Black people say, ‘Yes sir and yes ma’am,’ ya know, it just irritates me. Then when I finally went to West Africa, oh, I could see it how it would have been tough early on. I probably would’ve become an angry individual.”
He’s not angry now? “Yeah, I’m angry,” admitted Floyd, “because I see what we went through and how [slavery] has developed us as a whole race of people in this country — the things we say or do and have no idea why and how we hate each other. I’m angry because they have literally orchestrated this system so we will never be unified in the United States. It’s not made for that. It’s not made for us. I see it so clearly now.”
Floyd continued, “You know that show Atlanta, the series? My son watches; I laugh at it. I look at it. But I had been in Africa for three and a half weeks. I hadn’t heard the N-word [and other cuss words] and haven’t heard people arguing, none of that.”
Floyd went on to describe an episode of the show where a confrontation between two young Black men ended in bloodshed. “I literally broke down” on the plane watching that, admitted Floyd. “The contrast just hit me.”
Floyd said he has plans to tour West Africa again in a few months and has entertained the idea of moving there one day. And, as he’s done throughout his career, he’s searching for a way to use his pain for a greater good. He mentioned the possibility of developing a “rites of passage” trip for seniors in the Black Male Student Achievement initiative. Other people have also approached him about taking trips to the region to get “the gift of liberation and to just know who you are,” said Floyd.
Though painful, confronting the harrowing past of his forebears has brought Floyd a renewed sense of identity. “From being in West Africa and having that experience, I wouldn’t change my race for nothing in the world,” he said.
“I mean, however we’re put down and made to look small, I would rather be this, and know the strength of my ancestors and know that their strength is also in me.”
Paige Elliott welcomes readers’ responses to firstname.lastname@example.org. See more photos from Steve Floyd’s trip to West Africa below.
Read part one: From pain to purpose: Chronicling one man’s call to serve