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Don West

Photographer Don West was born November 15, 1937 in Boston, Massachusetts, to Elise and Claude West. West attended Brookline High School, graduating in 1955, before going on to study math at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. In the 1960s, West studied with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and was a professional bass guitarist. He taught transcendental meditation in Detroit, Michigan throughout the 1970s.

In the early 1980s, West became a staff photographer for the Bay State Banner in Boston, Massachusetts, documenting the movements, struggles, and successes of Boston’s African American community. During this period, West worked as a press photographer for United Press International. In 1983, West was the official photographer for Melvin King’s “Rainbow Coalition” mayoral campaign. Also in the 1980s, West regularly documented performers, including B. B. King, Whitney Houston, and Diana Ross, at Boston’s Concerts on the Common. In 1990, West served as official photographer for Nelson Mandela during the South African anti-apartheid leader’s visit to Boston on June 23, 1990. The Museum of African American History on Beacon Hill exhibited his work in the exhibit Portraits of Purpose, which was well-received and featured prominent social leaders of Boston’s African American community. West photographed Governor Deval Patrick’s inauguration in 2007; and in 2009, was a Resident Artist in the African American Master Artists-in-Residence Program at Northeastern University in Boston. In 2012, West founded Blackwire News Service, a wire service for people of color worldwide. The Urban League commissioned an updated version of Portraits of Purpose in 2012. Then, in 2014, West co-authored Portraits of Purpose: A Tribute to Leadership with Kenneth J. Cooper.

West is the founder and owner of Don West Photography. His editorial and documentary work has taken him all over the world, including to Spain, China, Paris, Jerusalem, and the Caribbean. Prominent subjects photographed by West have included Alice Walker, Angela Davis, J. Keith Motley, and President Barack Obama during his 2012 campaign trail in the Northeast. West is a member of numerous organizations, including: National Press Photographers, Boston Press Photographers and National Association of Black Journalists. He has received multiple awards for his contributions in photojournalism, particularly for the City of Boston.

Don West was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on October 19, 2016.

Accession Number

A2016.078

Sex

Male

Interview Date

10/22/2016

Last Name

West

Maker Category
Schools

Edward Devotion Elementary School

Brookline High School

Morgan State University

First Name

Don

Birth City, State, Country

Boston

HM ID

WES09

Favorite Season

Spring

State

Massachusetts

Favorite Vacation Destination

None

Favorite Quote

Do It Now.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Massachusetts

Birth Date

11/15/1937

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Boston

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Sushi

Short Description

Photographer Don West (1937- ) documented Boston’s African American community for over thirty years.

Employment

Fotografiks

Sickle Cell Anemia

Transcendental Meditation

Various Endeavors

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Don West's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Don West lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Don West describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Don West talks about his paternal family's move to Boston, Massachusetts

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Don West describes his father's career

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Don West talks about his father's siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Don West talks about his mother's racial identity

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Don West reflects upon his family's experiences of racial passing

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Don West describes his likeness to his father

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Don West remembers his relationship with his parents

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Don West describes his family's house in Brookline, Massachusetts

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Don West describes his community in Brookline, Massachusetts

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Don West talks about William Dawes' ride through Brookline, Massachusetts in 1775

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Don West remembers his early experiences of social exclusion

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Don West talks about the Wampanoag community in Mashpee, Massachusetts

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Don West remembers his childhood activities

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Don West remembers the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Don West remembers rebelling against his parents

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Don West describes his experiences of segregation in Massachusetts

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Don West recalls his high school art instruction

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Don West talks about his paternal uncle's career as a lawyer

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Don West remembers the Boston Braves, pt. 1

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Don West remembers the Boston Braves, pt. 2

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Don West recalls his experiences at Morgan College in Baltimore, Maryland

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Don West remembers working at the post office in Boston, Massachusetts

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Don West talks about his Boston accent

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Don West remembers reconnecting with a college classmate

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Don West recalls opening the Folklore Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Don West describes the guitar technique of Reverend Gary Davis

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Don West remembers the folk music scene of the 1960s

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Don West talks about the blues musician Taj Mahal

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Don West describes the development of his artistic interests

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - Don West remembers his early experiences of religion

Tape: 3 Story: 12 - Don West reflects upon his early experiences of social isolation, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Don West reflects upon his early experiences of social isolation, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Don West remembers his introduction to transcendental meditation

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Don West remembers becoming a transcendental meditation teacher

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Don West talks about the need for transcendental meditation in the African American community

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Don West describes his experiences as a transcendental meditation teacher in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Don West talks about the changes in the transcendental meditation movement

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Don West remembers teaching transcendental meditation at San Quentin State Prison

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Don West talks about his work with sickle cell programs

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Don West recalls his start as a freelance photographer

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Don West talks about becoming a professional photographer

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Don West talks about developing his photography skills

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Don West describes the Portraits of Purpose exhibit

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Don West talks about his book, 'Portraits of Purpose: A Tribute to Leadership'

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Don West recalls documenting Nelson Mandela's tour of Boston, Massachusetts

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Don West talks about his international travels

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Don West remembers photographing Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick's inauguration

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Don West talks about his early camera equipment

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Don West talks about amateur photography

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Don West describes his photographic process, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Don West talks about the skills of a professional photographer

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Don West remembers his transition to digital photography

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Don West talks about his plans for his career

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Don West talks about the photography of Sebastiao Salgado

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Don West describes his philosophy of photography

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Don West talks about the advancements in digital photography

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Don West talks the African American Master Artists in Residence Program at Northeastern University

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Don West talks about the history of African American photography

Tape: 6 Story: 10 - Don West talks about his family

Tape: 6 Story: 11 - Don West reflects upon his legacy and how would he like to be remembered

Tape: 6 Story: 12 - Don West narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

2$5

DAStory

4$7

DATitle
Don West remembers his childhood activities
Don West remembers photographing Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick's inauguration
Transcript
Mashpee [Massachusetts] was a place that they used to vacation in the summertime. My father [Claude West] would have two or three weeks' vacation.$$Okay and thi- (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) And it was a place where they could buy land and buy property, and so he bought property down there, and that was his getaway. He fixed up, you know, an old house that was there, and I used to help him do that. I learned a lot from my father though, in the sense of carpentry, bricklaying--I mean all kinds of--he could do it all, you know. He graduated from Hampton Uni- Hampton Institute when it was a vocational school [Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute; Hampton University, Hampton, Virginia] around the turn of the 20th century. So, he graduated as a brick mason. And what he was good at was building chimneys. So, when my uncle, the lawyer, they both--the two of them were the ones who were really interested in Mashpee. And they built a house for my uncle, my--William [William West], and my father built the chimney. So, I learned how to--I was--I could brick lay, I could do carpentry, I could do electrical work. I could do--because he could do all that stuff. So I learned a lot from him on that side of the--we worked together on--I mean he shared that with me. So, you know, to go to back to what I said before about how we were distant; well, he did connect, we did connect in that area. So he had a house down there, and we would go down there. And I think I was coming to that around the kind of isolation that I experienced. Even though I had the friends around, there was still--I was different. I still had--you know, I knew what color my skin was and what color their skin was, but I didn't pay it a lot of attention. But I knew it was different--that's about, probably the extent of that. So, that made me some degree--you know, because my whole environment is white and I'm brown, I had a natural outlaw feeling, so to speak, if you--? But then going to the Cape [Cape Cod, Massachusetts] and my being an only child, there was nothing, there was nobody for me to really relate to in those two or three weeks, other than I'd helping my father do whatever he was doing. And so that was--so I had a general isolation in growing up, which made me do for myself--you know, create projects on my own and create my own world often. One of the things I did, probably I was nine or ten, eleven years old, I was interested in radio, because TV was just coming along in those days. But radio--and I created a radio station in my room, and I hooked it up by wire to the kitchen, and I used to do radio programs for my mother [Elise Thurston West] while she was cooking dinner. I would do--and the radio show I would do would be kind of a disc jockey show. I would have music and then a little banter. So, I had a record player and I had the microphone. I had a whole little setup in my room.$$So, did you like a Heathkit thing, or what was it (simultaneous)?$$(Simultaneous) Well, it wasn't a--no, it wasn't a Heathkit. But it was just an amplifier, you know, that I bought. And the microphone, set that up to that and hooked the record player into the amplifier and ran the wires downstairs. So, that was sort of the beginning of my interest in media. I also used to draw a lot in my years of, let's say six to twelve years, thirteen years old. Because when I went into high school [Brookline High School, Brookline, Massachusetts], I thought I was going to be an illustrator. I wanted to a cartoonist or something like that, so I had a graphic sense, which I think then served me well as, when I finally became a photographer. I always had that sense of vision and applying it in some way.$One of the most famous photographs, or the one that, that I--when I was reading about you and people talked about the most, was the picture of Deval Patrick [HistoryMaker Deval L. Patrick] when--with the hands on him. You know, describe that (simultaneous)?$$(Simultaneous) Right. Well, that was the night before his inauguration to be the first African American governor in Massachusetts. And he went to a local church [Old South Meeting House, Boston, Massachusetts] for a very traditional ceremony, where many different pastors from around the community come together in a moment and place their hands on him to bless him and to give him spiritual powers and support going forward into the job that he's about to do. And there were many, hundreds of people in this big church that night. And this was up on a stage, and he was standing there. And all of these ministers up--eight or nine or ten of them were around him. And so all of the photographers--I mean there were seven, eight, nine, ten photographers there, and we were all jostling for position and so forth. And there are pictures from that moment where some photographer just got this broad shot. But I felt to get right in tight. And this picture of Deval is a tight shot, right up in his face, and you can see a hand on his shoulder and you can see a cross on the garment of one of the ministers right next to him, and another minister behind--so, it's a very intimate shot. And his eyes were closed, feeling the spirit. So, it was the hands on spirit piece that that picture was about. He then, in his inauguration the next day another unique picture that I don't know how many might have. But he did his inauguration al fresco, outside the front of the state house [Massachusetts State House] in Boston [Massachusetts], which nobody had ever done before. And they had this huge stage set up in front of the--and all the elected officials, everybody you can imagine, you know, in the political life was up on that stage. And I was on a press riser across the street, and I got this wide angle picture that has the state house up (gesture). And the interesting thing is when he was called to speak, it had been rainy--not rainy, but gray and overcast the whole morning, and a little chilly. When he came up to speak the sun came out--literally. I mean, it was just amazing (laughter). And I got that shot, you know. You can see the clouds kind of breaking, and the blue of the sky a little bit, and the light, you know, off the dome, the golden dome, and all of this wide stretch of stage and him speaking. So, that was my wide shot, and then I got a lot of close ups, you know, with the swearing in and all of that. But it was a very unique experience. And that's what I really cherished about being a photographer, is to be at events like that, to be where history is being made, and it's been good.$$Yeah, it places you right in the center of it. Yeah (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) Yeah, yeah, and being around those history makers.