Law enforcement and photography may seem like disconnected realms to most, but South Minneapolis-based, self-taught artist, Den-Zell Gilliard, finds a novel way to roam between them.

Although he decided half a decade ago to pursue photography full-time, Gilliard recalls his nightly community policing walks as significant moments in his personal trajectory.

“Community policing is all about relationship-building. On my walks I would try to build people’s confidence, and counsel them,” said Gilliard. “The experience really opened my eyes because I realized how similar it is to being an artist.”

Gilliard would walk almost 10 miles each day as part of his study in community policing, forging relationships with people he came across on his path. Those serendipitous, often moving conversations became the wellspring of his community-based photography practice. Combined with his deep interest in the work of Gordon Parks (his favorite artist of all time), Gilliard sealed the camera, in fighting untruths borne of an increasingly hostile and chaotic world, as his choice of weapon.

After assignments covering the Release MN 8 campaign – a campaign to release eight Cambodian Americans in Minnesota detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement – Black Lives Matter protests and a series focused on survivors of police brutality entitled “Behind the Blue Line,” Gilliard teamed up with the Pillsbury House’s Art Blocks Program. Now, he’s diving into a new project chronicling the Bryant community. “In the Company of Others,” which was on view at the Gordon Parks Gallery at Metropolitan State University, offered viewers a selection from that body of work.

From portraits of urban youth captured in “Odyssey of a Black Boy” to “Sunday’s Best” and its visual missives from El Bethel, St. Peter’s AME, and Greater St. Paul Churches and congregations that have been neighborhood staples for more than 135 years, Gilliard’s repertoire spotlights his dual role as participant and photographer. He is as much an active member of the community as he is its dedicated documentarian.

“I was born and raised on the southside (of Minneapolis). I live in the same house that I grew up in. People in my neighborhood, and in the church … they all know me,” said Gilliard. “When I’m doing photography, I try to blend in. I want people to feel comfortable, and I want them to relate to my work.”

Gilliard notes that family also played an important part in sparking and sustaining his passion for photography. His adoptive mother was an early mentor and critic, from whom he inherited his love for film. Taking photos of quotidian scenes around the house with a Polaroid camera, she was instrumental in offering Gilliard some of his first lessons in the art of photography.

In addition, Gilliard’s grandfather is a preacher, and his grandmother continues to be a devoted follower – so, taking his viewfinder to the pews and parishioners of the Baptist churches seemed but a natural decision.

“When I started this project, it was my first time going to church after many years, but I could always go back there and call it home. They always supported me,” said Gilliard. “I made sure to be respectful. In church, I would go with the rules; I wouldn’t disturb what was going on. Maybe someone else wouldn’t have been able to get as close as I did and show these intimate times.”

Indeed, although curator John Schuerman is a resident of South Minneapolis, he contends Gilliard’s photos reveal a side of the neighborhood unknown to him.

“Den-Zell and I live about a mile apart, but we have totally different experiences,” said Schuerman. “I like to find work that is socially relevant … that gives us more ways to think about topics where we don’t have clear answers already. I hope the exhibition opens up more possibilities for Den-Zell as an artist.”

With grand plans to eventually buy his own gallery space, and retirement dreams featuring sprawling beaches, his camera, and an endless supply of Cuban cigars, Gilliard, only 27, is candid – he knows this is just the beginning for him.

“I want a part two, because this is barely scratching the surface. I’m always starting new projects, trying out new stuff. I want to use myself as art, too,” explains Gilliard. 

If, as writer and philosopher Susan Sontag posits, the painter constructs while the photographer discloses; Gilliard unveils a world hidden in plain sight. With his work, he places Black life – in all its complexity, exuberance, and vigor – in front and center.

“I want to give people a voice and shed a positive light on black youth. When you pick up a camera, you focus on what’s in front of you. That’s what I do,” said Gillard. “I love photography and I want to tell stories. I want to inspire people with my work. More than anything, I want to put truth out there.” |

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