In the midst of the largely nonviolent Civil Rights movement sweeping through America, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the legendary Black Panther Party in 1966 in Oakland, California. The party burst onto the scene with a militant vision for social change and the empowerment of African-Americans. Its methods were highly controversial and polarizing, so much so that in 1968, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover described the organization as the country's greatest threat to internal security. During the height of the movement, from 1967 to 1973, photographer Stephen Shames had unprecedented access to the organization and captured not only its public face—street demonstrations, protests, and militant armed posturing—but also behind-the-scenes moments, from private meetings held in its headquarters to Bobby Seale at work on his mayoral campaign in Oakland. Shames's prolific output has produced the largest archive of Panther images in the world. His remarkable insider status enabled him to create an uncommonly nuanced portrait of this dynamic social movement during one of the most tumultuous periods in U.S. history. In The Black Panthers (Aperture, 2006) Shames recalls that "a few years ago, I gave a talk at the University of California, Berkeley, and someone in the audience asked about my role in the Black Panthers—was I a member of the party? I said, 'No, I was just a photographer.' Several former Panthers got up and said, 'Steve, we always considered you a member of the party.' That is a badge I wear with honor. . . . For me the most important part of the Black Panthers' legacy is a belief that one can effect change even when things seem hopeless." When this image was taken, Bobby Seale was on trial for the murder of fellow Panther Alex Rackley, who was suspected of being a police informant.
Stephen Shames was born in Brooklyn. He has published three books with Aperture (Pursuing the Dream, Outside the Dream, and Empower Zone—featuring photographs by teenagers he taught). His work is deeply engaged with social issues such as poverty and race, and he has worked in collaboration with numerous not-for-profit organizations and art museums. Shames’s images are in the permanent collections of the International Center of Photography (ICP), New York; National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.; Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego; University of California’s Bancroft Library, Berkeley; San Jose Art Museum; and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. He has received awards from Kodak (Crystal Eagle Award for Impact in Photojournalism), Leica, ICP, and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial (RFK Journalism Award). Shames is the founder of the Stephen Shames Foundation, which puts AIDS orphans and child soldiers into school in Uganda. He lives in Brooklyn.