Photographer and National Geographic Storytelling Fellow Ruddy Roye grew up in Jamaica, a cradle of reggae and social justice movements. He describes how that background prepared him to cover the historic protests and civil unrest in 2020, what he’s tackling in his new National Geographic project "When Living Is a Protest," and what he tells his sons about growing up in America.
RUDDY ROYE (PHOTOGRAPHER): My mom always said that it's always best to give bitter news with honey. And so, if you know anything about Bob and the science behind his music, every song has a one drop rhythm, and the one drop rhythm is a simulation of our heartbeat. So, do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do.
PETER GWIN (HOST): That’s photographer Ruddy Roye talking about reggae icon Bob Marley.
ROYE: So he wants to find your vibration, and it's the vibration that everybody lives with—the vibration of our heartbeat. And he uses that to push the needle in. And that needle is the sound of your heartbeat. And he gets you to the music. And once you are there, he can now give you the medicine, and those are the words. I mean, he never left that methodology.
GWIN: So why is a documentary photographer musing about reggae music?
I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic magazine, and you’re listening to Overheard at National Geographic, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. This week, we sit down with photographer Ruddy Roye as he talks about growing up in Jamaica, and how the songs of reggae musician Bob Marley prepared him for a journalism career—and ultimately led him to the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil rights protests.
Can you take me back to Jamaica and your childhood? Like what's your earliest memory of Jamaica?
ROYE: You know, the ‘70s in Jamaica were tumultuous. It was—a country went through this idea of Michael Manley versus Edward Seaga. And it was really the People's National Party versus the Jamaica Labour Party. And I remember as a kid going to school, watching people run out, chase each other with broomsticks, with two by fours, you'd hear on the news people shooting at each other. Different parties shooting at each other.
And out all of that tyranny came music. Leroy Smart would sing “Ballistic Affair”. And it's—these are the songs I grew up on. “I Need a Roof Over My Head” by Mighty Diamonds. And then Rita Marley brought to the floor the idea of the woman's voice and she sang “Harambe.” Again, peace, this idea of oneness. And I think in Jamaica it was either the church songs or the songs from these entertainers that really lifted us out of that tumultuous time.
GWIN: So tell me about your—tell me about your parents. What are they like?
ROYE: Both were from the country, like rural. So it would be comparable to say they're from down South. They're both—both their parents were farmers. But my mom grew up on a farm.
We went to the farm. It was one of the sweetest parts of the vacation because, though we didn't work the land, because, I mean, they thought that our hands were too soft. But we were allowed to go sit in the cane fields. Like they could never find me, but my mom said all she would do is to look over in the cane field and wherever she saw the bush doing this. She knew it was me, because I was in there doing this, and tearing the cane with my teeth. And so it would shake the bush, so she would know exactly where to find me.
My mom got her discipline from being a girl who grew up on a farm. She's one of the most hardworking people I know. Beautiful, witty, wise. She was one of the first women in Jamaica to run 10 seconds in 1968 in the hundred.
GWIN: Are you serious? Are you serious?
ROYE: Yeah, but she couldn't get to go to the World Cup because she got pregnant.
GWIN: Oh my gosh. Wait a minute, she ran 10 seconds in the hundred meters, in the hundred-yard dash?.
ROYE: In 1968. In the hundred, yeah.
GWIN: That is phenomenal. Wow—well, Jamaica is known for its sprinters. I mean, that's a—I guess that's a long tradition. I didn’t realize.
ROYE: It's in the food, man. It's how we train. So my father was quiet. He was the first person that I thought about when I started studying philosophy, he was the first person I thought about. And he always had stories. Every lesson that he had to teach, it was done through a story. And I think more than anything else, that's where I got that from. But my love for art I know definitely came from my mom. She gave me books very early. She gave me poetry very early. She gave me music around age nine or 10.
GWIN: Wow. At what point, Ruddy, did you start to pick the idea that you wanted to get into photography? When did you sort of pick up a camera?
ROYE: I got an assignment to photograph people who were living on the defunct train line in Montego Bay. So the train that used to run from Kingston to Montego Bay had stopped running, and it had stopped running for such a long time that people were now living on the train line. They took over the train houses, they were living close to the train because it was good property. And the newspaper said, why don't you go up there and do a story on a family that's now living [there]. So, because if the train comes back, these families will have to move.
So I went and I did it, and I walked 121 miles, from Montego Bay to Kingston, finished the project—and used those images to get a job at the Associated Press in New York.
GWIN: Oh my goodness.
ROYE: And that's the beginning of that—this journey.
GWIN: So walking from your hometown to the capital in Jamaica, taking pictures all the way is what led you to your professional career, really, in a way.
GWIN: So Ruddy, tell me about your first National Geographic assignment. I mean, I'm—you know, we're skipping big chunks here—but tell me about the first call you got from Geographic and what was that assignment?
ROYE: The first assignment I got was to photograph the people or the individuals who were donating their artifacts to the Smithsonian African-American museum in Washington, D.C. For me, it was a huge deal because I was photographing people who have lived with Nat Turner's Bible, they had lived with their ancestor’s freedom paper. They had lived with the clothes that—and the belongings of James Baldwin.
And for me, finally, they were going to be put in a space where they could be shared in the world. I was often quoted as saying that I would never go to anybody else's museum until I had one. And so finally I get to, like, embrace a history that I thought I was lacking.
It was beautiful to me. It was beautiful to travel around the country photographing Nat Turner's great-great, great-great-grandson and seeing a history that is not in our history books. It's not told anywhere. Photographing a sign that says “Blackhead Signpost,” and knowing that this signpost was erected to instill fear in any other people of African descent who were working in Virginia—for free—from having another insurrection, and that's why that sign was there. It said Blackhead Signpost—still in Virginia.
ROYE: And so that every story that I've done for Geographic, every one—I follow that up with the Race Issue [April 2018], which made me sit at Morehouse University and look at the next generation of our Black leaders, and see the pros and cons of what it means to grow up in a country that does not feed you its history. I've learned more from these than I think I've been able to, like, put into these pictures.
GWIN: Interesting. Interesting.
ROYE: These are actually the histories, or the history that I've brought back to my sons, to the effect that when my son was given this assignment to write on a civil rights leader, he said to his teacher that he'd prefer to write about his father because that's where he gets his history from.
GWIN: Wow, that’s powerful.
ROYE: So these stories have been more than just stories for me. They have been pages in our history that has not been written yet because it's not a part of our curriculum and it's not in our history books.
GWIN: Yeah. So you mentioned, you have two sons. It's interesting, I think you have a son who's 12, just turned 12, I guess, this summer.
GWIN: And I have two daughters, a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old. And so I kind of know in terms of age what that's like. But I can only imagine. Well, I know, you know, like talking to my children about this moment that we're all living through. But as the father of Black children, how do you—how are you talking to them about all of this? And how are you talking about what you do with your work?
ROYE: Well, it is beautiful to see, especially this summer, my son, the 15-year-old, blossom into the kind of photographer that—it sounds narcissistic for me to say—but it feels like me, which means that he can only push off from a good space. I watched him photograph some kids at a park for his photography assignment, and I made sure that I was like, away, and I could hear him talk and ask questions and move the person emotionally to get the images that he wanted. And I was just like, I felt good. because I'm always, like—and this might sound morbid—but I always think about leaving, like dying. Like I always think if I left him now, would he be OK? And so, hearing him move into this place that I'm like, yes, like yes. If I was unfortunately to leave right now, I kind of know how his vision would mature, bar any corruption, any—anything, because I've been very good about not allowing capitalism to corrupt the way I choose images or shoot, display, or tell stories. But we sit down and we talk about weekly events. I mean, we don't do it every day, but we did George Floyd, because I was out in Houston.
GWIN: And what did you say to them, and how did they respond?
ROYE: Actually, I started out by saying to them that when I was allowed to go into the church and photograph George Floyd, I did not photograph him for 12 minutes. Like, people were behind me going, Dude, let's go. You know, the line. But for me it was important to tell George’s body “Thanks.” Thanks for his life. Thanks for the opportunities that we're all going to get because of his death. Thanks for what is going to shift the narrative, that's going to be moved, because of his death. And it was important to do that. And I wanted him to understand that moment—that you're not going to get an Angela Davis on the front of the—was it Vanity Fair?—just because. A Breonna Taylor does not go on the front of a magazine just because. You know, we're getting all of this influx of interest and attention—it’s coming from us. All these names, all these hashtags.
And so it was important for me to let him understand what that death means for us. That it’s not just he's dead and gone, and here is another dead person that's not going to be a hashtag—that his death is going to allow us new life, a new voice, a new push, and that our job is to be a part of this struggle and a part of this fight in a very positive way.
They can’t go anywhere. They understand what that is. I do not allow them to ride around the block in Cleveland. They cannot go take their bikes and go outside without me or their mom watching them. That's their reality.
GWIN: You know, you've recently been named as a new—as one of the National Geographic storytellers. And your project is titled “When Living is a Protest”.
GWIN: Can you explain kind of what you're thinking? What's your plan for that project?
ROYE: It’s to go somewhere deeper than everyday life. I mean, I could easily say over the past 400 years, our entire living has been one out of protest. I'd give you something to imagine. Just imagine, for an instance, watching your entire—watching as a family, your father being raped in front of you, and you cannot move. Imagine your mom being raped. You cannot move. If you move, you're going to be killed. Imagine your uncle, your brother, your father, maybe a neighbor, being hung, being whipped— cannot move, because if you move, you're gonna be killed.
Now imagine you holding that. And imagine seeing this every day of your life for as long as you're alive. And then you're free. But that pain is passed down in your DNA on a very cellular level. And imagine that it hasn't stopped. Imagine that they still kill. Imagine that through redlining and Jim Crow, there’s still lynching, there are still places that you can't live, own property. You can’t go to a water fountain, you can’t ride in the front of a bus. Imagine that there's variations, but there is still subjugation. And imagine you still pass that on. Imagine the civil rights movement come and your leaders get killed. And imagine then, still, you pass that on. And we come to 2020, and then imagine the trauma that folks have had to live with for 400 years.
And so for me, those images or these images are about a quote that Albert Camus said. And I know I’m going to butcher that quote. He said, When a people have suffered, they develop a taste for the misfortune. I think that's it. When a people have suffered, they develop a taste for the misfortune. And it is that quote that drives the work.
GWIN: Well, Ruddy, I'd love to end on a hopeful note. And maybe that's the future. And specifically, you know, in your Instagram post with your sons, it seems like there's a lot of hope there. I mean, you've already talked a little bit about that. But I remember one of the posts you talked about, Yoshi—is he the younger or the older son?
ROYE: He's the younger.
GWIN: Younger. I think you said Yoshi carries my heart and your older son carries your spear.
ROYE: It's the other way around.
GWIN: Oh, it’s the other—sorry. OK, Yoshi carries the spear.
ROYE: Mosi’s, my heart.
GWIN: If you were gonna paint the tableau of the future you would hope to see Yoshi and Mosi have—the country they would live in, the place we would be as a society— can you sort of, you know, paint that picture, what that would look like?
ROYE: For me, for me, there's this very—it's a very nuanced and complex scenario, to even, in my unqualified knowledge, try to even broach. But I'll say this. I think the lack of respect that African Americans get is because we're not unified, and we don't have the economic power and resources that would allow other people outside of our group to look at us and go—and it comes from the fact that nobody knows our achievements because our achievements are integrated into the larger narrative. That said, hip hop came out of this idea that this was our voice, our culture, and we sold it out of the back of cars.
I think that was the one intersection where the rest of the world looked at African Americans, and was like, yo, we need to get a piece of that. I think we can go back to that. And I think we have to live in a world where I will buy, I will go out and support Blackness, until we can sit at the table and garner respect. Until my choice to go to G-Star and buy a pair of jeans is my choice and not the only choice I have. And until we get to that space, we’ll always be here, like we'll always be...Somebody told me today that we're finally going to get to a space where things are legislated. And I think that's the wrong approach because it's now based on somebody else giving us something. We just need to get into our own communities, and start farming, building our masonry, electrical work. Just start doing for ourselves, supporting, and then find that we have something to bring to the table, that we can now do this. We can exchange.
I think if I—and which is why I keep telling my boys that they have to be about loving who they are, loving their culture. I mean, I hope when people hear me say this, it's not saying that I don't love white culture or I don't love brown culture—just for political sense because I hate that word “brown”—or. My sons have the distinction of having a mom who is half Chinese, and so they do adopt parts of the Chinese culture. And their father is Jamaican, so they do adopt a lot of the Jamaican culture, and they are Americans. And so they live in an American culture. And way before people were talking about girls and the fact that you can say “You hit like a girl,” I was having a conversation with them at five and and two, or six and three, like they couldn't—I said girls can beat you. They run faster than you.
GWIN: Your grandmother can outrun you!
ROYE: Yes! Still! So I've always tried to give them this very holistic way of being in the world. But as they're doing that, they have to start loving theirs, and appreciating theirs, and not believe that outside of theirs is better than theirs.
GWIN: Yeah, right.
ROYE: We have to get to that space. We have to get to the space where we truly love our culture enough to be able to live in it before we give it up. I will say this on the record: Integration really hurt the Black community. Hurt it. And it's in our history books that the first—we call that word—that the people who were against it were teachers, because they said as soon as these Black kids were able to go to white schools, their history would no longer be taught. And so these kids are brought up without their history, so they don't know how they—what their achievements were.
The one thing about Jamaica that I can tell you, we went to school because we loved hearing about Nanny, Sam Sharpe, Marcus Garvey, Paul Bogle, Nanny of the Maroons, George Washington—George William Gordon. We love—see how the American and the Jamaican just got mixed up? But we loved hearing about our history. That is the thing, the one thing, that's lacking, I think, in our curriculum, that these kids are brought up to hear about a history that they have no connection to.
GWIN: Yeah. Well, listen, I really appreciate you taking the time. And this has been a fascinating conversation and moving. And I feel like you've given me a gift now that I have to—I have the responsibility to make sure that it is, you know, I do justice to it. So I want to thank you. And I really look forward to meeting you in person someday. Hopefully we'll be back in someday and have another photo seminar, or you'll be at the office and showing a photo show or something, .and we get to meet in person.
ROYE: That'll be wonderful, brother. Yeah.
GWIN: Ruddy, well, thanks again.
ROYE: Thank you so much.
GWIN: To see some of Ruddy Roye’s National Geographic assignments, including his coverage of the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, his portraits from historically Black colleges and universities, as well as his most recent photographs, depicting the impact of COVID on people of color and the Black Lives Matter protests, check out the links in our show notes—they’re right there in your podcast app. You can also find his photographs on our Instagram account @natgeo.
Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, and Laura Sim.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who also produced this episode.
Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.
Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorer Tara Roberts and National Geographic Explorer and Photographer Ruddy Roye.
“This cycle makes me sick”: Ruddy Roye on documenting protests against systemic racism in America.
Learn more about the sensitive moments and vibrant portraits captured in Ruddy’s photos.
Follow Ruddy on Instagram: @ruddyroye.
Ruddy reflects on the National Museum of African American History and Culture and its power to leave people “stunned as zombies.”
See Ruddy’s portrait of a descendant of Nat Turner, whose 1831 rebellion struck fear throughout the slaveholding South.
See the renaissance happening at historically Black colleges—a surge in enrollment and a new brand of African-American activism.