UNCC grad breaks out of his comfort zone with photos of his community near Charlotte

·4 min read

Malik Norman just earned his degree in photography from UNC Charlotte, but his work had already gained local and national attention.

His photographs have been shown at The Light Factory and in a juried show at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago that’s on view through July 4. He had a solo exhibition at UNCC’s Student Union Gallery and his images have been published in “Fraction,” an online photography magazine.

“Fraction” printed works from Norman’s “Ebb and Flow of Rural Black Spaces” series. Marriott Hotels bought pieces of the collection that now hang in the restaurant at the new on-campus hotel.

His artistry isn’t limited to one medium, though. Norman, 24, creates collages using paint and his photographs. And, he speaks like a poet.

“I was interested in seeing the world. My brothers and I used to climb trees and reside in those branches for hours, and there was this beautiful kaleidoscope of light and shade that would take over the silence,” Norman said. “I’m always looking.”

He grew up, and still lives, in Mineral Springs, a rural town in Union County. The Norman family has lived in the Western Union Park neighborhood for four generations. Though Norman’s work is getting attention far from home, he’s in no hurry to leave.

“I don’t want to lose sight of rural realms,” he said.

This photograph depicts Malik Norman’s maternal grandfather, Richard Allen Coffey, and his prized truck. The image is part of Norman’s “Visual Waters of Mineral Springs,” series, a photographic archive for the rural Black community in Mineral Springs where Norman’s family has lived for generations.
This photograph depicts Malik Norman’s maternal grandfather, Richard Allen Coffey, and his prized truck. The image is part of Norman’s “Visual Waters of Mineral Springs,” series, a photographic archive for the rural Black community in Mineral Springs where Norman’s family has lived for generations.

A past that was erased

Norman’s senior thesis, “Visual Waters of Mineral Springs,” is a project he intends to continue pursuing.

The series focuses on Western Union School, a historically Black high school that opened in 1940, burned in the ‘50s, and was integrated in the ‘70s. Today, it’s a predominantly white elementary school.

During his research, Norman discovered much of the area’s Black history has been lost. “The Black history was erased when the school was integrated,” he said.

“Visual Waters” is his attempt to right that wrong. In fact, his intent with his entire photography practice, he said, “is to educate, agitate or advocate.”

Photographer Malik Norman won a FUJIFILM “Students of Storytelling” contest in 2020, which provided the support he need to complete his “Visual Waters of Mineral Springs” project. This photo, of a barn in the rural Black community where he grew up, is part of that project.
Photographer Malik Norman won a FUJIFILM “Students of Storytelling” contest in 2020, which provided the support he need to complete his “Visual Waters of Mineral Springs” project. This photo, of a barn in the rural Black community where he grew up, is part of that project.

He made use of new technology and old printing methods to create the pictorial tribute to his hometown. Analog photographic processes, such as Van Dyke printing, make new photos appear old.

Van Dyke printing, named for the 17th century Flemish portrait painter Anthony van Dyck, involves coating a canvas with chemicals, including silver nitrate, then exposing it to ultraviolet light. The result looks like a sepia-tone photograph. The benefit to the modern photographer is that it doesn’t require a darkroom.

Norman digitally combines his photography with archival documents to create collages. He has begun painting them, too, saying, “brushstrokes are an interesting way to show the artist’s hand.”

This panel is one of 18 pieces in photographer Malik Norman’s “Ebb and Flow of Rural Black Spaces” installation. Norman used different print, painting and photographic processes to illustrate the evolution and resilience of the historical Black community of Western Union Park in Mineral Springs where he grew up.
This panel is one of 18 pieces in photographer Malik Norman’s “Ebb and Flow of Rural Black Spaces” installation. Norman used different print, painting and photographic processes to illustrate the evolution and resilience of the historical Black community of Western Union Park in Mineral Springs where he grew up.

A new way to communicate

While in high school, Norman went through something traumatic. The experience — he won’t discuss it — led him to become silent for a time.

“I stopped communicating,” he said. “I became a phantom of myself. When I started taking digital photography at my high school, Union Academy in Monroe, it became a way I could communicate. It’s how I opened myself up.”

“Photography was a way of expressing how I see the world,” he said, “with an instrument that I can control.”

But he’s not just photographing landscapes. He’s engaging with people.

“In narrative photography, you have to put yourself out there,” Norman said. “Photographing is about a relationship — not just with you and your camera. I had to break down my comfort zone of silence and ask people if they wanted to do a photo shoot.”

For “Visual Waters,” he’s going door to door to ask people to share their oral histories.

This is Malik Norman’s “Ebb and Flow of Rural Black Spaces” installation, a visual essay that reflects upon Western Union Park, the rural Union County community where he grew up. Norman combined various techniques to create visual essays about Black rural/farm life and reframe the relationship of Black Americans to Southern land. The piece now hangs in the restaurant at the new UNCC Marriott.
This is Malik Norman’s “Ebb and Flow of Rural Black Spaces” installation, a visual essay that reflects upon Western Union Park, the rural Union County community where he grew up. Norman combined various techniques to create visual essays about Black rural/farm life and reframe the relationship of Black Americans to Southern land. The piece now hangs in the restaurant at the new UNCC Marriott.

Choosing a path

Norman’s mother bought him his first camera, a Nikon D3500, when he was in high school.

The first time he saw a darkroom was in college. “I went in and never left,” he said, likening the darkroom to a cave he likes hiding out in. Film is now his preferred way to shoot. He loves printing from 4x5 negatives because “you have more control over your composition.”

Western Union Park may be small and rural, but it’s not impoverished. Norman, even with his easy way with words, had a hard time describing it. “It’s just home,” he said, but settled on calling it “predominately Black and middle-class.”

His mother is a paralegal. His maternal grandfather started his own construction business. He says his maternal grandmother “is a pillar of the community.”

The photograph in this panel, from Malik Norman’s “Ebb and Flow of Rural Black Spaces,” highlights Western Union school, a historically Black school in Union County. It opened in 1940 and was integrated in the ’70s. Though it started as a high school, it’s now Western Union Elementary. The school has played an important role in the Mineral Springs community.
The photograph in this panel, from Malik Norman’s “Ebb and Flow of Rural Black Spaces,” highlights Western Union school, a historically Black school in Union County. It opened in 1940 and was integrated in the ’70s. Though it started as a high school, it’s now Western Union Elementary. The school has played an important role in the Mineral Springs community.

Norman commuted to UNCC from Mineral Springs. Eventually, he will leave this place; he plans to go to grad school. But he’s taking a gap year to build his business and apply for fellowships. For the time being, he’s staying put.

“I’m from these country grounds, these clay soils, and I love them,” he said. “They molded me into the man I am becoming.”

His early success is validation he’s on the right path. “It’s a humbling experience,” he said. “And it’s just showing me I should continue to stay diligent and disciplined and reaching for the heavens. Photography is a tool. The medium is light, and I’m a light bringer.”

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