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Gordon Parks’ photos are all over Kendrick’s new video

K-Dot’s clip for ‘ELEMENT.’ is littered with references to the African-American photojournalist’s iconic work

Last night, Kendrick Lamar dropped some of his most stirring visuals yet. The Jonas Lindstroem-helmed video for “ELEMENT.” is a hard-hitting yet beautifully shot depiction of violence and mob mentality – and it didn't take long for eagle-eyed fans to spot a handful of references in the video, mostly to the work of iconic African-American photojournalist Gordon Parks.

Parks, as we recently explored, was a huge activist figure within the civil rights movement, and his transgressive work paved the way for black art and the politics within it. Nestled in with original imagery of their own, Lindstroem and Lamar pay homage to the work of the self-taught photographer who devoted his lens to highlighting both society’s diversity and its divisions. The artistic link makes perfect sense, since Lamar's own music examines a similar agenda: in his unapologetically black sound, his political subject matter, and his purposeful visuals, from the LA-inspired project with Kahlil Joseph to his performance at the 2016 VMA’s commenting on mass incarceration.

Here are some of the ways that Lamar and Lindstroem paid tribute to Parks in the video.


This surrealist shot replicates the scene of Parks’ photo “Boy with June Bug” from 1963 closely. Throughout his career, Gordon Parks captured the lives of celebrities and performers as well as the nuances of marginalised communities. Against the brutality pictured throughout the video and the wicked lyrics of the song, this frame is beautifully intimate. Throughout the film, we see the innocence of the children in close proximity to the anger and rage of grown men – documenting the journey of black men in America.


To start, we're teased with the striking image of these women in a still formation – veiled in white – looking at the ground. By the end of the song, they raise their heads and our gazes meet. Parks captured a nearly identical scene of women in his 1963 series Black Muslims. Staring the camera down at the front of the group was Ethel Sharrieff, daughter of Elijah Muhammad – a religious leader of the Nation of Islam – that played a huge role in the civil rights movement, mentoring Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Louis Farrakhan.

“UNKNOWN”, 1963

In this scene, we see a group of smartly dressed black men perform choreographed ‘violence’, uniformed and calmly. The shot mirrors an unnamed frame taken by Parks where the same occurs, presumed to be from his series exploring the Nation of Islam. The group famously had incredible organisation and emotional strength during an era rife with chaos and riots. The room these dapper gentlemen are in and the orderly fashion of their punches feels contrasting in the same way within the video. 

“UNTITLED”, 1956

This cerebral image is pulled almost directly from the Gordon Parks' archive. In a series shot in Alabama in 1956, the artist photographed a child pointing and aiming a toy gun in a deprived neighbourhood behind a barbed fence. In the video for “ELEMENT.” the scene is extended as you watch the presumed target cross the screen as the child with the gun squints and closes his eye for focus, following him with the barrel as his friends look on with mild concern. The message is a crystal clear one of the brutalisation of kids from a young age through crime and institutionalised racism, in the age of Tamir Rice and Travyon Martin.


Here, a man attempts to train a reluctant child, maybe his son, to fight. Urging him to swing, he frustratedly grabs the boys hands and raises them to his own face while shouting something inaudibly. When you compare it to some of the photography Parks did for Muhammad Ali, the inspiration is obvious. In one black and white still from their time together, Ali is pictured encouraging the punches of an adorable little boy in his own hands. A possible exploration of the unconventional nature of black fatherhood, the boy could represent Kendrick who we later see strike a faceless victim with no hesitation at all.