Shooting Back

Stacey Palmer | 10/5/2011, 1:13 p.m.

A Conversation with Go-Go Photo Laureate Thomas Sayers Ellis:

"(Un)Lock It: The Percussive People in the Go-Go Pocket" is a collection of photographs taken in Washington, D.C., by poet and photographer Thomas Sayers Ellis, author of The Maverick Room and Skin Inc.

The interview is below the first section of Mr. Ellis's photo gallery


The collection conveys the depth of Ellis' 25 years of documentation on film in the form of black and white and color images that capture the essential D.C. as the go-go city. The exhibit ends this Saturday, Oct. 8, with a poetry reading by Ellis from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. The Washington Informer was able to catch up with the ever-moving Ellis to talk about the show and its future:

Informer: How long have you been photographing the go-go community and why?

TSE: I began taking a camera that I purchased from a trombone player to shows while I was a member of the Petworth Band in 1980-82, but I didn't take it seriously until 1986 when I started hanging out with MeShell Johnson (Ndegeocello) who was playing bass with Little Benny and the Masters. I was home from school and remember thinking how special it was that there was a girl bass player in the Masters. It seemed worth remembering and recording.

Informer: Your dedication to the go-go community is evident. Do you feel that the community is receptive and appreciate to what you do?

TSE: If I were really dedicated I'd be on the stage, so I guess you can say that even my dedication has its limits, and it would not be fair to measure the community's dedication to me by its support of me. The go-go community, like all folk expression, is dedicated to itself and that has to be enough for me. I need them to continue go-go (for now) more than they need me to photograph, but they will need me more later. It's a crooked handshake, so all in all, I'd say that the community has been about 30 percent appreciative.

Informer: Tell us about your exhibit at Vivid Solutions.

TSE: The great thing about the exhibit is that it's the first of its kind. Go-go has struggled to find a strategy that will allow it to climb out of the box from a local ghetto noise to a national art form. Photography can help go-go become modern in the same way that it helped jazz and hip-hop. Everyone knows what KRS-One looks like, but no one knows what James Funk looks like, so I wanted to change all that as well document what appears to be a struggling and vanishing folk cultural moment. I think of go-go has more than a beat. I dream about it as a resistance movement against gentrification as well as a powerful tool for true Home Rule and the struggle for black statehood in America. The authorities and outsiders who come to D.C. to live don't hate go-go. They are afraid (to death) of it!