When George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, KingDemetrius Pendleton made his way to the scene of the crime. Having been well-versed in deaths of Minnesotans at the hands of police, particularly the shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, Pendleton recognized the value of documenting a scene, an uprising, a moment in American history that continues to inspire change and foment outrage.
That day, Pendleton went to the intersection of 38th and Chicago outside Cup Foods (now George Floyd Square) and started doing what he’d been doing while studying photography and digital imagery Minneapolis Community and Technical College, and what he’s been doing ever since. He shot hundreds of thousands of photographs — of people, protesters, police, pandemonium.
“I was the first independent media photographer there. Then I got sick,” said Pendleton last week, surrounded by his framed, laminated, and book-published photos in The Third Place Gallery, the gallery/artist cooperative owned by his mentor Wing Young Huie, that sits across the street from Cup Foods at 3730 Chicago Ave. “I got sick with COVID and almost died. I didn’t even know how sick I was. Double pneumonia/COVID, and what wound up happening to me is like all these angels was at my bed saying, ‘Hey, King, I thought you was gonna write a book.’ ‘Hey, King, I thought you was gonna run a marathon.’ ‘Hey, King, I thought you was gonna make a family unit.’ All these angels, and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I gotta get busy living or get busy dying.’
“So I just figured out how to get busy living. I decided to take on the challenge. That was very gut-wrenching. Putting a book together, going through all my files, all my archives, putting some snippets of images together and taking it from there, and it’s been very well-received. And I am totally thankful for the people who have been seeing my work and also purchasing my books.”
The photos span seven years and several locales, many of which can now be found in Pendleton’s book, “The Movement Never Stops: A glimpse into the social justice movement in Minnesota.” As a whole, the photos are quietly moving, disturbing, powerful, and lasting.
“We always say that so much of what King captures is traumatic,” said AJ Bantley, the volunteer administrative manager for Pendleton’s company Listen Media USA. “But he is out there from morning to night when these events occur, whereas mainstream media tends to just come for a few minutes, get their story, and leave. So he is documenting things, especially from a black lens, that may not necessarily be in the mainstream media. This is history in the making, right? King has a good eye and people know him, so they feel comfortable to just be themselves. He’s so much a member of the community and people know his dedication and trust him. He’s very real.
“And you have to realize that King did so much of this work from the goodness of his heart, and it was actually community that had to convince him to pursue this as a livelihood. We’re the ones who pushed on him and said, ‘You do deserve to sell your photos, you do deserve to make a book and become known and why not profit on it?’ He had this idea previously that you shouldn’t profit on pain, but he has dedicated his life to this, so he deserves something for it.”
A single father of six who lost his 21-year-old daughter Brandy Ann Banks-Sutta to a drunk driving accident in 2013, Pendleton has chosen to not look away from his own parental pain or the horror of the times, and to bear witness.
“The saying goes that, ‘A picture’s worth a thousand words,’ but sometimes it’s worth a million words, because you can have a million different conversations when it comes to a certain photo because everybody has their own philosophy of a different photo,” he said. “But bearing witness is basically looking through that aperture, and just taking that shot right at the right time at the right moment. Without no apology. The truth deserves no apology, and to be a photographer and to be a photojournalist is two different things. To be a photographer is to make a photo and you can secure it and put things in it, etc., etc. But to be a photojournalist is to put the images out raw. That’s bearing witness.”
Part of Pendleton’s mission is to “pass the torch to the youth” through his photographs. To wit, some of his favorite images from the book and exhibition depict the seas of angry and mortified young people who made up the bulk of the protesters.
“That was one of the most inspiring things—watching how the youth came out and stood in solidarity,” he said. “They didn’t just stay at home on a computer because they could have. They came out boots on the ground, and a lot of grassroots organizations came up. Not only that, going to the funeral of and watching what happened to George Floyd and seeing all the talks, all the politicians, the photo ops, et cetera, et cetera., those were memorable moments, but one of the most gut-wrenching moments was when the whole nation was on fire. And I was able to capture that and not only that, but how helicopters just got loose and policed us in the sky. I was just like, ‘This is not TV. This is reality.’ And then it just kept happening, not just with George Floyd, but with Daunte Wright, and others. I just couldn’t believe it just kept happening again and again. Whenever we thought we were going to get to that point where our soul was healing on our skin, somebody came to just rip the scab off and it happened again. We got reinjured over and over and over again.
“I want to make sure that my kids understand that our photos will outlive us, right? So whenever something happens, later, it’s ‘I remember when this happened, I remember when all that happened.’ Photos outlive us. So I want my children to bear witness. Because what happened this year, may not happen next year, right? And not only that, a lot of times, for some of us it might be our last photo, we never know. But that photo was right there to say, ‘Hey, this is the last photo he took before he took his last breath,’ or a drunk driver will kill her when she went on a blind date, not knowing that will be her last selfie. So those images are very powerful.”
These days, along with promoting his book and exhibition, Pendleton continues to do his work, which includes livestreaming and photographing events and happenings. As the anniversary of Floyd’s death approaches, he’s more committed than ever to capturing the times we’re living through.
“The main thing is basically getting funding, getting a big media company behind you, to be able to push the narrative,” said Pendleton, a practicing Muslim. “But we also know whenever it comes to raw images and raw footage, some people who have the big money don’t want to upset the masses, right? So, since I know that I am a mustard seed of faith, and I know that once a person watered me so I could grow like ‘Jack in the Beanstalk.’ But at this particular point of time, nobody really wanted to see these raw pictures, so I had to water myself. That whole process makes sure that I believe in myself and constantly show up, when nobody else is watching. Always show up. That’s what I tell my kids: always show up.”