In the spring of 1970, I was a twenty-year-old psychology major at Yale, a junior enrolled in my first photography seminar. But I was no longer attending classes. On April 23rd, Yale President Kingman Brewster “suspended academic expectations” for students in an attempt to diffuse tensions building on campus around the arrest for murder of Black Panther Party leader, Bobby Seale. Seale was accused of ordering the killing of a suspected police informer in New Haven. Brewster shocked the nation but expressed sentiments shared by many students when he proclaimed he was “skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.” On May Day, 1970, fifteen thousand young, white, mostly middle class students gathered on the New Haven Green to indict the criminal justice system in America for Seale’s arrest.
The seven rolls of 35mm film I exposed that May Day became my first self-assigned documentary project. At the time it wouldn’t have occurred to me to call myself a photographer, but I see now I was well on my way to being one. I possessed then one essential quality for any documentary photographer: the ability to immerse myself in a world and at the same time observe it, to step back from the moment I was experiencing and make a photograph. What I couldn’t see at the time was how to edit my pictures. I didn’t think to print any of these May Day photographs for almost thirty-seven years, until asked to exhibit “early work” at Duke.