Again, Again, I Rise is a striking response to the collective trauma of 2020, using nature, poetry, and the human body
Amid the anxiety and high emotion that came with pandemic, self-isolation, political strain, and police brutality in 2020, we also witnessed great acts of resilience, kindness, and creativity. During these trying times, photographer Marcus Riggs began making a series of work in response to the fortitude of the human spirit. “Through all of the pain we may have endured thus far and will continue to endure collectively, we will also continue to rise and rise again,” he says.
Inspired by the poem ‘Still I Rise’ by the late, great Maya Angelou – which celebrates self-love as a potent act of resistance and defiance – the Berlin-based photographer decided to create a photo series he felt embodied these stirring words. Again, again, I rise is Riggs’ photographic ode to Maya Angelou’s empowering mantra, and to our collective capacity to rise up and overcome suffering. Taking in diverse landscapes – from idyllic lily ponds, lush, green forests, and arid deserts – Riggs’ captures naked figures communing with the natural world and sharing tender moments with one another.
Take a look through Again, again, I rise in the gallery above, while below, we talk to Marcus Riggs about survival, taking solace in the natural world, and how 2020 tested us to the limits.
Could you share with us the impetus and inspiration for Again, again I rise?
Marcus Riggs: This was my first shoot after taking a long unexpected break from photography after I moved from Paris to Berlin. When I did light the fire under my ass to shoot again, it was in the midst of the craziness of 2020, especially with the BLM movement making a dominant appearance in Europe. Watching the police savagery on social media tends to bring up past trauma in those who have experienced it firsthand. From the global pandemic, being confined to my home, and feeling the distance of my family in the US, to racism being an open hot topic in every direction of my life, I decided to make a decision in how I wanted to process it all for myself. I chose to put my feelings of anger; the memories of blatant mistreatment due to the colour of my skin; my frustration, disgust, and irritation into my photography to create something beautiful in a world where so many ugly things are being thrown at you from every angle.
I wanted to shoot something that brought me a sense of calmness and took it back to a very basic foundation that we all are connected to in some way or another, nature and the naked human body. Sure, it’s not a new concept to the human eye or experience, but I wanted to start from a simple foundation; to connect with a natural environment that is larger than me and brought a sense of balance, patience, and release from the pandemonium many of us are experiencing.
The title is taken from the poem, ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou. This feels to me like a powerful mantra. Why did this poem speak to you? And what can we take from Angelou's words?
Marcus Riggs: Starting from the very first time I heard the poem. I must have been in fourth grade when one of the teachers gave students the opportunity to perform poems live as part of the curriculum. One of the middle school students read ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou and I remember them performing it with so much passion, emotion, and a cadence I had not seen from any of my peers at that time. Anyone who witnessed the performance was thoroughly impressed, or at least that was my perception of it at nine year’s old. The spoken word presentation was so captivating I could feel the words touch me in a way that it felt like a new experience. Especially to hear the intro, ‘You may write me down in history/ With your bitter, twisted lies/ You may trod me in the very dirt/ But still, like dust, I’ll rise.’ It’s amazing to hear something so powerful at such a young age, performed by a peer. You never forget it. And serves as a powerful mantra to constantly refer to.
“I remind myself that, 100 years ago, what I’m doing now was not in the line of sight for someone who looked like me” – Marcus Riggs
Although at the time, I didn’t fully understand the meaning of the poem and how deep-rooted the words were, I do remember how they made me feel. Ever since then, it’s always been a poem that has stuck with me as I grew up and, later on, I found it applicable to some events in my life. Grasping the full meaning of the poem as I educated myself more of the history of African Americans in the US, going through and understanding the complexity of systematic racism, with personal encounters of setbacks, disappointments, and many other circumstances that force you to grow as a person.
I believe what one can take from the poem is up to the individual. It’s a poem that comes from the heart of a unique, yet collective, experience that varies from one person to another. For me, the words in this piece serve as a poetic engine and a reminder that I need to get up and rise for my younger self and those who came before me, and who gave me the physical and spiritual opportunity that placed me where I am today. ‘I am the dream and the hope of the slave’ couldn’t be more accurate for me. Whichever way you want to look at it, I’m living a life of privilege to those who came before me. Men and women who were slaves, sharecroppers, mistreated after serving their country in the military or trying to vote to have a political voice in their government. Here I am having had the opportunity to get higher education in the US and abroad, to live abroad in some fierce major cities, and going into places and taking up space in a very authentic and beautiful way just by being who I am. Leaving behind the fear, trauma, and encounters where people would have celebrated to see me buckle and fall, only for me to push forward and not let anything derail me from accomplishing what I have set out to accomplish for myself. In that privilege, I remind myself that, 100 years ago, what I’m doing now was not in the line of sight for someone who looked like me.
Could you talk us through the photographs and how they speak to the idea of ‘rising’ and resilience?
Marcus Riggs: The rising aspect comes from what you may literally see in the opening image of the series of the woman emerging from the water to present herself as a manifestation of God or the universe. It’s the sense of showing up and being present; being present with everything that you have gone through including the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, which has brought you to stand in your own existence of truth and unique pathway in this life. ‘Just like moons and like suns/ With the certainty of tides/ Just like hopes springing high/ Still I'll rise.’
Moving on to the images of the man and the woman in the forest... Individually and together, these portraits represent part of the journey we travel to gain the strength to obtain resilience. Sometimes we walk this journey alone, sometimes we find someone along the way who helps get us through those trials and tribulations we face. Helping ourselves or one another to rise above the pain and suffering with testimonies of celebration, conquest, and glee; grabbing a fistful of that inner strength and confidence you’ve come to discover; wearing it proudly so that energy radiates from the depths of your soul to the outer layers of the skin; absorbing every beam of light that the universe has to offer despite the obstacles placed in one's path.
In the poem, Maya Angelou writes, ‘Did you want to see me broken?/ Bowed head and lowered eyes?/ Shoulders falling down like teardrops/ Weakened by my soulful cries?’ The image of the ebony man, against the pop art blue sky and bleached white sand exhibits poise, elegance, and grace despite the odds. The odds of a network of paradigms that have tried to dismantle a person's very existence for just being who they are in the skin they are in. Yet, we continue to rise again and walk in the light of the beauty of who we are. ‘Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear, I rise’.
“Each figure represents a sense of freedom and liberation of history’s past, today's present, and tomorrow's future” – Marcus Riggs
The images in this series are presented by you in a very specific order. Is the sequence an intrinsic part of the work as a whole? What, if any, is the narrative of Again, again I rise?
Marcus Riggs: I don’t think this series could be presented at random. So, yes, the order is an intrinsic part of the work. Starting with the emergence of a woman from the black and emerald water as if she’s being birthed from the belly of mother nature. To conclude the work with a man laying to rest with nature in a minimal and fine-textured environment. The opposite of how the series began from subject to surroundings. This sequence also gives the eye a natural flow from one image to another, where you have the introduction of the greens and yellows of a wet leafy landscape that slowly progresses to the blues and highlights from the sun and sky towards the end of the series.
There is no specific narrative to this work, but more so a reflection of the state of mind I was in when I produced Again, again I rise –a moment in time where I wanted a bit of balance and peace for myself without being distracted by everything else around me.
Who (or what) do the figures in this series represent? And why the diverse terrains – leafy woodland, to arid desertscape.
Marcus Riggs: Each figure represents a sense of freedom and liberation of history’s past, today's present, and tomorrow's future. As cheesy as that may sound, it’s the truth. They represent different perspectives and walks of life that draw similarities and drastic differences to one another. They illustrate confidence, vulnerability, humility, honesty, quality, beauty, a vision, and a manifestation of a higher energy.
I wanted to shoot in diverse terrains because, ultimately, these reflect locations where I can find a sense of nostalgia and escapism to get away from all that’s ugly. Places where I can immerse and appreciate myself in ecosystems of an ethereal setting. These locations were also a form of meditation to help me focus my anger and frustration into something more relaxed and peaceful. I wanted to capture those specific moments in time where that emotion was evoked in the midst of so much going on at one time in 2020.
In your life, what are the things that give you the daily incentive to ‘rise’?
Marcus Riggs: I think it’s many things that give me the daily incentive to get up and rise. My family, my puppy, a visual idea I want to photograph, a close group of supportive friends, and my younger self for sure. Also, to a certain degree, people who have contributed to traumatic situations I’ve been in. I say this so they’re never a reason as to why I do not rise.
These days, my younger self has really been the reason why I get up to rise. Because I think, how disappointing would it be to give up on yourself in this way? So many changes have happened for me to get here, many layers shed which lead to a magnitude of experiences gained and I really want to make the nine-year-old Marcus proud of it all… at least this is what I’d like to think. Also, knowing that my experiences don’t end here. There is so much to gain in this life and I’ll be damned if I limit myself to not try to go for it. So I want to do my best to have a go at it knowing that ‘I am the dream and hope of the slave.’