My father, Franklin Sims Sims, began his photojournalism career in the 1970s, after he had left the Army in the 1960s. He had been stationed in Europe. He was 23. He had come to the U.S. to attend school. And he was married. It took him five years to land a job as a photographer at the Chicago Sun-Times.
Finally, in 1975, he was hired by the Detroit Free Press. He would go on to work as a photojournalist for the Detroit News for 11 years. I was born in 1982, and would be born again in 1987. He went from the Army and from school, and eventually returned to his hometown, Detroit, where he would die of cancer in 1997.
I see my dad’s work as being a product of those times and spaces. The racism and the inequality he would encounter. The everyday workaday sexism and the ordinary demonization of people of color. And his lens — with its yellow-eye, some say “peel-less,” American Film Institute lens — would become a symbol of the ever-present scourge of the “gay white male” in America.
My father was also, of course, a photojournalist. And when he took snapshots, they were what they became. Yes, he often took photos of my mom and other family members. They were more than family; they were my siblings and I.
If there is something to celebrate in photos of people, the images of my father — black, taking pictures of black people — are the part of this reality that I have always found of most value. I feel that way when looking at photos of my kids, holding my two oldest children’s pictures against his. It’s as if, somehow, the subjects of these photos, the very portraits that my father took, are my own.
Now, as I go about my days, discovering new kinds of evidence of my own country’s history — and I am not sure there is really any reason to — I also keep coming back to one small collection of photos of my dad that I do not have — not 100 or even 50 of them. It was one that showed his dead body, lying on the ground, and for what? That is what I think it shows.
I hold this visual, physical reminder of his death. This is the silent reminder of the racism in America that had to be addressed. This is the small reminder of how much a photographer, and indeed anyone of us, have to know about racism and inequality.