Michelle Agins on Perseverance and Photographing Martin
At the age of about ten years old, photographer Michelle Agins stood with her grandmother in the South Side of Chicago waiting for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to her neighborhood. Wearing her grandfather’s cap with handwritten a sign on it that read “P-R-E-G,” her attempt to spell the word “press,” she caught the eye of a professional photographer for the Daily News working the event. He asked Agins if she worked for a publication.
“I don’t work for a paper yet, but I will,” Agins responded.
Suddenly, the photographer grabbed her by the hand and placed her in front of Dr. King, who had just gotten out of his car. Dr. King greeted her and Agins froze with her camera in hand. The photographer yelled at her to take the photo and she did, her hands trembling. “I remember seeing that little shaky photograph. I used to have it for the longest somewhere in my house,” said Agins, now 68, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “You know, after that day, I knew.”
Over the past nearly 30 years, Agins has become a respected figure in her field, only the second Black woman ever hired as a staff photographer by the New York Times. (The first was Ruby Washington.) Agins joined the paper in 1989, a time when photo editors gave very few assignments to women — much less to women of color.
Over her career, Agins has won a Gordon Parks Award, a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for her series How Race is Lived in America, and two additional Pulitzer nominations. In 2022, she became the first woman of color to receive the Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award from the National Press Photographers Association, its highest honor. Adding to her list of achievements, on October 25, Agins will receive the Lucie Award for Photojournalism at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Her most memorable images include her photos capturing life in Chicago after a historic election, the essence of a young Black pageant girl after a chance encounter, and Serena Williams during her last dance. Her intimate images show her ability to form invaluable connections to any subject, allowing her audience to feel their emotions. Her stylistic choices capture moments profoundly, whether in black and white or in vibrant color.
Agins remains rare in the industry. Women Photograph, a nonprofit organization dedicated to elevating nonbinary and women visual journalists, analyzed the number of women photographers hired from 2017 to 2022 by major publications. The research showed that at the current pace newspapers hire women photographers, the number of women with lead photo bylines on the front pages of newspapers will not equal the number of men until 2057.
Even in the mid ’80s when she started at the Times, media outlets were asking, “Where are all the Black women photojournalists?” Agins told Hyperallergic: “There ain’t that many.”
In junior high school, Agins started to change that narrative without knowing it. She saw a posting for her school’s photography club in seventh grade. When she went to sign up, her teacher, Mr. English, told her only boys could join the club. “I told my grandmother,” Agins said. “Bad idea for that poor teacher. [She] came up the next week ’cause she was a member of the Parent Teachers Association. She said she wanted to see who this teacher was. And so she met Mr. English.”
“Michelle is very good. She can teach you how to take photos,” Agins’s grandmother told Mr. English. The teacher insisted Agins come back and join the photo club.
After taking a job as a “copy girl” for the Chicago Daily News while attending Loyola University between 1971 to 1972, Agins eventually graduated from Rosary College (Dominican University) in 1977. Despite an impressive portfolio, she could not find a job after graduation, and she went to the alderman’s office in Chicago to ask for one.
“I would like to be the photographer for the mayor of Chicago,” she says she told him. He laughed. It took a while, but six years later, Agins would have a job as a photographer for Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor.
Akili Ramsess, the executive director of the National Press Photographers Association, who has known Agins for over 20 years, says she succeeded in getting the role through her perseverance. “She showed up on the first day of his mayorship and started taking pictures, and he didn’t remember or realize who she was … She proceeded to tell him and what equipment she needed. And I think he actually had someone who was his official photographer and he became his second.”
In 1987, Agins left Chicago, after four years with Mayor Washington, for the Charlotte Observer. A few weeks into the job, the Observer’s photo chief sent Agins to Gastonia, North Carolina, to photograph what she thought was a choir.
“I thought it was the choir because they all had their ropes that looked like plastic bags, you know?” Agins says. It was a Ku Klux Klan meeting.
Agins says her Buddhist religion helps keep her at peace during times that tested her perseverance. “In 1986, I met some people who were Buddhist and they said anything you wanna be, chant about it. So I started to chant and sure enough things started to happen,” she explained. In 1989, Agins’s focus brought her to the New York Times, where she has worked for 32 years.
For Black women like Agins, persevering to achieve your goals often comes with feelings of self-doubt and the pressure of having to be ten times better than everyone else in the room. “I stayed the course, but sometimes I feel like because I had to fight so long, I really just missed the whole point of me being a photojournalist,” says Agins.
She offers a lesson on the best way to stay the course: “When they went low, I went high. That can make people frustrated at times because they plan for you to be a certain way, and then you don’t go there.”