Redemption, Race, and Photography: An Interview with Francis Nwosu
Francis Nwosu has been at College Park for a little over year. But in that short time span, Francis has already begun to leave a mark—both on a ministry level and behind-the-scenes.
A photographer by trade, Francis joined the College Park Church Civil Rights Vision Trip this past fall to participate and document the experience through his perspective. I recently sat down with Francis to discuss his photography, his thoughts about the Vision Trip, and the ways he sees God at work in his life.
1. So, let’s start with the basics: when & how did you get into photography?
I guess you could say I fell into it. I’ve always been interested in the arts and I grew up doing a lot of traditional mediums. I did a lot of charcoal work, and I tried painting (I wasn’t too good though. It was too messy for me).
At first, with photography, I didn’t understand the technical aspects. I would just shoot anything. About a year ago, someone invited me to a take pictures at a live event. Although I didn’t understand anything, they paid me twenty-five dollars for ninety minutes of work, and I thought that was a lot.
After that experience, I really just started watching tutorials on YouTube. I kept practicing and booking gig after gig.
2. Why do you take photos for College Park?
On December 5 of 2018, I accepted Christ. And that was also my last day of being an active drug user. As a new believer, I realized photography is now my opportunity to highlight the beauty of the world.
However, I realized early on that I was compromising myself spiritually. I was advertising musicians whose music wasn’t edifying. That’s what pushed me more toward taking portraits.
[Taking photos for College Park] started when I started hanging out with David McKissic. Shooting for the church felt like God was saying, “Okay Francis, I’m going to give you the opportunity to do what you love, make money, and not worry about compromising your faith.”
3. Tell me a little bit about the Civil Rights trip. Why was it important to you to capture those moments?
It was an exercise in grace for me. I had a unique perspective being that I’m Nigerian-born and raised in America. I’ve been middle class my whole life. And while we lived in impoverished areas in Nigeria, I don’t remember it. So, I inhabited a unique space on the trip. There I was, surrounded by a lot of white people who I grew up with my whole life and African Americans who I also grew up with but had never really been a part of their culture. I confronted a lot of deep-seeded anger about that. I felt guilty about knowing my ancestry. And it was humbling to know that my ancestors didn’t get taken, but Jeff Brown’s ancestors did. I realized the generational impact that has had on my family.
There were moments when I cried, especially The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I kept thinking: how many of those names are generational offspring of those my tribe could’ve sold off into slavery? In those moments, I saw how hard it is to be exposed to that stuff on a daily basis. To see the concrete representation of slavery and lynching was really disheartening.
Prior to the trip, I decided that if the Lord made it possible, I would show my appreciation by documenting the trip. I went radio silent for five days because I wanted to be one hundred percent in-the-moment with my camera. The decision to do so came naturally to me as a photographer—I was having this life experience that could only be the grace of God; the only thing to do is to document it on my camera.
4. As an artist, what did you learn on the trip?
As a portrait photographer who’s predominantly had creative control of my situation, switching to a journalism style of video/photo, was challenging. I had to respect the spaces people were in. There were some really good moments, but I didn’t want to go in on those moments with my camera because some of those were intimate moments between people and God.
At the same time, because I’m somewhat introverted, the camera was a buffer between me and having to talk to people. Being a new believer, anything I know about friendship and community is from my flesh. I had never been around such an eclectic, genuine group of believers who care about each other. That was neat to observe and be a part of.
5. As a Christian, what did you learn?
I learned that God calls us to reflect him when it comes to relationships with all kinds of people. There is a lot of prejudice, stereotypes, and biases ingrained from the way I was raised. As a Christian, I know those are wrong. The culture of a true believer is unlike anything in this world.
I learned that when it comes to dealing with people, I should deal with them as Jesus would. There are people I don’t want to deal with, and I have to understand that everyone is made in the image of God—whether they choose to acknowledge that or not. Just because I don’t see them as worthy of discussion doesn’t mean I shouldn’t extend myself. As Bryan Loritts said at the THINK|19 conference, “tolerance is a low-ethic word”
6. What moment from the trip stands out as impactful for you?
Hands down, [the most impactful moment for me] was when we were at the Equal Justice Initiative and The Legacy Museum in Montgomery. There was an individual there who had been wrongly incarcerated at age fourteen. He spent sixteen and a half years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He was talking to the group and seemed so lighthearted, elated, and jovial. I waited until everyone walked away and then I asked him, “How do you not have anger and resentment in your heart? Knowing people will always view you through this lens?”
He answered, “You have to learn to let go of the past and give it to the Lord, or else it’ll kill you.”
Those words were especially meaningful because I had a drug addiction and I have been incarcerated in the past. I still have bitterness and resentment for the wrong choices I made. But this man wasn’t bitter at all, for things he didn’t even do!
I’m very conscious of my past mistakes and how others would react if they knew. I don’t look like the average attendee at College Park. But these are all little things the devil tries to use to tell me I don’t belong here. It was interesting to meet a man who’s had such a profound experience with the criminal justice system and has that view.
People I knew started asking me what I thought about meeting the man, and I immediately opened up to those on the trip. I told them that I’d been locked up. it was encouraging to see how receptive they were to what I had to say.
7. What do you hope people experience through your photography?
I just want the people to see the beauty in God’s creation as I interpret it through my own eyes. The more I grow as a believer, the more I understand that I have a responsibility to tell stories. I want people to see my work and see that God’s greater work is glorious; it’s meant to be admired and respected. I think that’s what drew me to portraiture in the first place. Humanity is the crown jewel of God’s creation, and it’s worth capturing.