At first glance, The Black Portlanders might appear to be a style blog showcasing local urbanites traipsing around town, similar to sites like Portland’s Pretty and Urban Weeds. But the photographs featured on The Black Portlanders, created by recent transplant Intisar Abioto, also shine a light on the social, cultural and economic aspects of the African-American experience in Portland.
Three years ago, Abioto and her family came to Portland from Memphis because the houses seemed “sturdier than the ones in California,” and the landscape seemed lush and beautiful. An artist and documentarian, Abioto set out to continue a long-term project she’s been working on since her undergraduate studies at Spelman College and Wesleyan University.
“I’d kind of constructed an exploratory project utilizing the Myth of the Flying African to document the stories of young people — the dreams of young people in the African diaspora,” explains Abioto from her home.
At 27 years old, Abioto is energetic, outgoing, friendly and polite in a way that is uniquely Southern. Her voice is sharp and laced with a subtle drawl that helps to identify her as ‘not from around here.’ Her medium-length dreadlocks fall just below her shoulders and her camera is often hanging at her hip, the strap crossing from one shoulder, down and across her chest.
The daughter of an airline employee who enjoyed virtually no-cost air travel to many of the destinations that the airline flew, Abioto has visited many different cities and countries.
“Atlanta, New York, San Francisco, different cities in the U.S. and also abroad, Morocco, Egypt — different places; filming, photographing, dancing and just talking to people — traveling to embody this folktale,” she says.
Since Abioto has been in Portland, she says the creative energy, the people, and the comfort that comes from landing at her current destination inspired her to bring The Black Portlanders to life.
“I think when you go on a journey to figure out where you’re going to be — when you make a decision to be somewhere, there’s a sense of relief,” she explains.
Continuing with her interest of documenting the lives of African-Americans, Abioto began to take photos of people she saw on the streets, starting near her home at 26th and Killingsworth, as a way to “seek out the survival and the thriving of people — black people in time and space.”
Abioto’s process is simple. As she moves through the city, she is aware of the people around her. If she sees someone of African descent, she approaches them, explains what she is doing and asks to take their photograph.
“As soon as I approach people, and they see my camera, they get it. Sometimes I don’t even have to say anything and they get what I’m doing,” she says.
“The street that I can bank on is Killingsworth,” says Abioto. “I mean, you can see ‘people’ everywhere, but I can generally always find someone around Killingsworth and Albina.”
Abioto is describing what many consider the historical heart of the African-American community in Portland.
“And also, MLK and Alberta,” she adds.
Abioto has observed the demographic change that has taken place in this part of the city. As evidenced by the approximately 420 photos she has taken, African-Americans are still here, but in rapidly declining numbers.
“Even when I first came here, it was different. And that wasn’t a long time ago,” says Abioto.
Other places in Portland have proved a bit more challenging for her.
“There are days when I would walk around The Pearl for hours and not see a single black person,” she says.
Abioto’s blog has unwittingly shed light on the issue of gentrification in Portland. A few weeks ago, The Black Portlanders was featured in a national story by Al Jazeera America which examined Portland’s reputation as the “Whitest City in America.”
Though it was not Abioto’s goal to bring to the surface issues of gentrification in the city of Portland, her project, which is an extension of her long term-study of Africans as they have dispersed throughout the world, has become one of the newest touchstones in the ongoing conversation about “black flight.”
According to the Al Jazeera report, Portland’s African-American community makes up 6 percent of the total population of Portland’s residents, giving Abioto the opportunity to photograph about 36,000 individuals out of just over 600,000 total Portlanders.
Abioto says it is possible to take photos of all 36,000 African-Americans, but she says that isn’t her project’s intended outcome.
“It’s not so much about numbers, but it’s about intrinsic and external effect,” she explains.
“I’m only one person in this city; I am only one black Portlander. But through one’s medium, or craft, you can affect things,” Abioto says.
What makes The Black Portlanders so compelling is its simplicity. Abioto is an artist, but she is also a documentarian and her method is simple, straightforward and efficient.
“I think about framing and lighting and composition, but the most important thing is just to get the shots,” she says.
You can listen to Insisar Abioto talk more about her work on The Black Portlanders during a segment on OPB’s State of Wonder.