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Cornell Watson: Local Photographer Makes National Headlines

Estimated Read Time:
3 min

Black photos matter. Durham photographer Cornell Watson is sharing photos of Black people through his Black lens.

Posted By Natalie Minott on Jan 07, 2021

Cornell Watson poses for a photo.

In the 1950s, the horrific pictures of Emmet Till's mangled body helped catalyze the civil rights movement. Last year, the image of a police officer kneeling on George Floyd's neck reawakened the Black Lives Matter movement. Wanting to showcase Black joy, Beyoncé recruited a Black photographer for her Vogue photo shoot, making him the first Black photographer in the magazine's 126-year history to photograph a cover image. Black pictures matter and local photographer Cornell Watson is sharing photos of Black people through his Black lens.

You may have seen some of his work in the New York Times, the Washington Post, on Buzzfeed, or plastered in T-Mobile stores in Durham. Initially, Cornell picked up photography to document his family, but he soon realized that his purpose was much bigger.

"I love telling Black stories. Sharing stories of Black joy makes me happy, and sharing our truth is liberating," said Watson. "Gordon Parks, a well-known photographer, musician, writer and film director, described the camera as a weapon. I'm using this weapon to make life a little bit better for us all."

Cornell took the photograph above on November 7th, 2020 during the Biden-Harris celebration in downtown Durham. It was featured as the cover for Indy Week on November 11th, 2020.

Last year, in the middle of the global pandemic and racial protests to police brutality, Cornell managed a full-time job while experimenting with photography on the side. His life took an unexpected turn when he got laid off.

"I got laid off – got my freedom papers – coincidentally on Juneteenth last year, so I went all-in on photography."

In just a few months, Cornell's photography business grew significantly. When Cornell showcased his first solo exhibition at the Durham Arts Council featuring his photo series "Behind the Mask," he had no idea his project would gain national attention and win several awards, including an Alexia Foundation Grant.

"I am using my talent and my platform to talk about important social issues. It's been an amazing journey, and I am so thankful for this opportunity to do what I love."

Cornell took the above photo of the Shabu family for the Dec/Jan 2021 issue of the Durham Magazine.

Cornell has lived in Durham for five years. He is continuously inspired by the Bull City and his experience of being Black in America, history, music, movies, art, and much more.

When asked about Durham and what makes it beautiful, Watson replied:

"I love Durham. It is a special place. I love its diversity and progressiveness. There are some really good things happening in Durham, and there are some areas of opportunity. I hope that Durham continues striving to make this a city for all, especially when it comes to affordable housing and livable wages."

Stay tuned because Cornell will be continuing his "Behind the Mask" series in 2021, as well as another personal project that explores a unique way of characterizing people's identities.

You can visit www.cornellwatson.com to purchase prints and help fund future projects like "Behind the Mask.” He is also available for family photography.

A glimpse of Cornell's photo series, "Behind the Mask," which was published in The Washington Post on Sept 14, 2020.

About the Author

Natalie Minott - Freelance Writer

A mother and writer who loves celebrating people and telling their stories. Find me rocking colorful headwraps, singing Disney songs, and drinking too much coffee.