black boy*Despite the fact that self-perception of black youth has improved over the last few decades, data released by Project Implicit shows that around 50% of African American youths still have some sort of anti-black bias. Experts speculate that this is due, at least in part, to a lack of positive representation in the media.

On average, African Americans watch more television on a weekly basis than the rest of the U.S. population, but black characters have been historically portrayed as having a lower socioeconomic status and as being ignorant, violent, immoral, or generally inferior.

Although there are some black celebrities that serve as a good role model for black youths, photographer Andrea D. Smith realized that these young black men needed other idols. That’s why she started a socially conscious photo series called Be Worth Imitating, wherein she showcases some of Indianapolis’s most influential black male leaders, portrayed by young black men.

“It started out with just trying to highlight some of the African-American men in our community, because there are so many negative connotations of [them] … I felt like I wanted to highlight some of the positivity,” said Smith.

 Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds

By Dreamerextraordinaire (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Instead of simply emulating rappers and star athletes, the boys in Smith’s series depict important community figures, from educators to politicians, businessmen to religious leaders. Of course, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds is in there too, alongside William “Bill” Mays and Supreme Court Justice Robert D. Rucker.

Smith chose to utilize younger boys in the representations in order to inspire other young folks.

“Some of these men grew up in neighborhoods where we have negative things going on, but they were able to beat the odds and do something positive,” said Smith. “Some of them have [passed] on and other ones are still going. By doing this with youth, it would inspire other young men. It’s something they can see themselves in and assimilate to.”

Smith knows firsthand just how inspiring these representations can be. Her own son portrays renowned broadcaster and community advocate Amos Brown III in the series.

Her son’s involvement wasn’t planned but rather happened out of last-minute necessity. The photo series was scheduled to be displayed at the Indiana Black Expo’s Cultural Arts Pavilion last summer and they were running out of time to find an “Amos.” Since the average attendee at a trade show or expo spends 8.3 hours viewing exhibits, Smith knew how important it was to finish on time. Smith’s son, Antonio, was originally her test subject, but since she was under the gun, she decided to use Antonio in the final shot.

The experience had a significant effect on Antonio. In fact, when her son finally met the real Amos Brown in person, his elation overwhelmed him. “My son saw [Brown] and took off running down the hall and jumped up and hugged him around the neck,” Smith laughed. “It was so amazing, and my son was so excited. He couldn’t wait to meet him.”

Ultimately, Smith hopes that other young black men will be just as enthused about the portrayals they’ll see in her series and that these photos can be a catalyst for change. “If I can help change the direction that one youth may go, then I’ve done my part,” says Smith.

Smith goes on to say that she hopes adults in the community will be inspired, too. “This goes beyond even just the young men and the men [whom] they are portraying. As adults and parents, we have a responsibility to be worth imitating… It’s the people that kids come in contact with on a regular basis that have an impact on them.”

Smith’s series has been put on display around Indianapolis and was most recently showcased at the Indianapolis International Airport. In addition, some of Smith’s images have been used on billboards throughout some of the city’s most hardened neighborhoods. Smith is currently looking to partner with other organizations in the community and hopes to add even more subjects to the series at a later date.