Photographing the Black Panthers

New York Times photography editor Jeffrey Henson Scales and ‘unofficial’ Panthers photographer Stephen Shames share the stories behind a pair of new photo books dedicated to the political organisation

Photographer Jeffrey Henson Scales started taking pictures of the Black Panthers when he was just 14. Having grown up poring over copies of “big picture magazines” such as Life, or Look, and with an at-home darkroom and a pair of creative parents, it seems inevitable that he’d get behind a camera eventually.

Scales, who now works as a photography editor at the New York Times, spent his childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area, first in the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood, and then the city of Berkeley on the other side of the bay. “The Panthers were people that were around my parents, because my father was a bit of an activist, and would do fundraisers for political organisations,” Scales tells CR, adding that this meant their house was often under FBI surveillance. “These were the sort of people that were in my world. They were around and they were exciting. It was very exciting visually, and it was an exciting time in America.”

Top image: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1970, by Stephen Shames; Above: Black Panther security at DeFremery Park, 1968, by Jeffrey Henson Scales. All images by Jeffrey Henson Scales: © 2022; Jeffrey Henson Scales/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Courtesy Claire Oliver Gallery

The Black Panthers, originally established as the Black Panther Party for Self Defence, were founded in 1966 in Oakland, California, with the aim of ending police brutality against Black people as well as advocating for armed self-defence. The mission expanded over time, with the political organisation setting up various social programmes including providing free breakfast to children. J Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI at the time, famously described the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”, with the FBI presiding over a major counter-intelligence programme to undermine the party.

Sign in

Creative Inspiration Photography