The Campaigner

Sarah Ismail

Cephas Williams is a photographer who started life as a campaigner for race related issues by creating the ’56 Black Men’ campaign.

His idea was a simple one. To take photographs of 56 Black men- men who looked like himself- wearing hoodies. The 56 Black men all came from recognised, professional fields. They had all achieved positive things in professions ranging from finance to the arts, from law to medicine, to business and more.  He took a series of portraits and launched the campaign in the UK officially on December 23rd 2018. He aimed to change the narrative regarding Black men in the media, where he felt they were often unfairly stereotyped, particularly as victims of knife crime. Fifty-six is a significant number. The number of Black people murdered in 2018.

What started as a visual campaign just three years ago, already has its own website and is viral on social media worldwide. It is growing, attempting to explore the voices, minds and lives of Black men through film and visual communication.

One of the campaign’s main aims is to enable young Black boys to see themselves represented positively in the media, in the hope that this might give them something positive to look up to. Its tagline is ‘I am not my stereotype.’

Cephas Williams is a busy man. As well as ’56 Black Men’ he is known for founding Drummer Boy Studios. This project requires him to use the skills he gained while studying for his Degree in Architecture.  He and a small team convert shops into all-purpose studios which are available to be used as creative spaces by local communities. The first of these opened in April 2018 in a converted old shop along Peckham High Street.

Cephas doesn’t only campaign for Black men’s issues, however. He is also involved in strategic planning and campaign development for The Women’s Association, which was set up to challenge historical ideas about what women can and can’t become so that women and girls can dream without limitations.

2020 was a busy year for Cephas. After the tragic events surrounding the death of George Floyd on May 25in Minneapolis, USA, Cephas released an essay, Letter To Zion, through another organisation he has founded, the Black British Network.

Letter To Zion was originally written in the form of a letter addressed to Cephas’ baby son, Zion. It starts with a description of George Floyd and his tragic death. It explains to the baby boy just why Black Lives Matter. Through Letter To Zion Cephas provides loving, valuable advice and life lessons in clear, simplified language to the young Zion, his generation of Black boys and people with all skin colours, worldwide,

Like everything else Cephas has done in such a short space of time, Letter To Zion has quickly grown far beyond its seemingly simple origins. It has been read as a monologue by Cephas, filmed and published on Youtube in December 2020 where it has already received thousands of views.

In 2021, Cephas appears to be busier than ever. One year on from the death of George Floyd, he created another visual campaign based on photographs of Black people. This time he asked eight young Black boys to write an open letter to their older selves, describing in detail the world they want to see. The campaign is appropriately titled ‘The World I Want To See.’ Cephas has teamed up with the Hammersmith, Fulham, Ealing and Hounslow branch of mental health charity Mind for this campaign, which was inspired by his Letter To Zion. The campaign’s main aim is to put pens in the hands of Black boys. As a part of this campaign Cephas facilitates writing workshops in partnership with professionals from Mind.

This year Cephas has also launched the 9 Minutes 29 Seconds Campaign. This campaign is intended to be a Digital Demonstration. It will run online for the rest of 2021. It asks people to repost images online of all the protests which took place last year to ensure that all the progress that was made around Black people’s issues in 2020 is not forgotten or lost. Its title comes from the recently revealed real amount of time it took for George Floyd’s life to end.

Cephas’ final campaign, so far at least, is Portrait of Black Britain. Yet another series of portrait photographs, this was created by Cephas and launched as part of the Manchester International Festival in July 2021. It is a major public exhibition at Manchester’s Arndale Centre which includes the profiles of a range of Black people living in the UK today.

Portrait of Black Britain is a clear visual description of what it means to be Black in the UK in 2021. It is a reminder of just how beautiful identity and diversity can be. It is meant to be a moment to give the spotlight to the Black community in a powerful, positive way and a reminder that all Black Lives Matter, every day.

Cephas Williams can be found on all the major social media platforms. He has been interviewed by a long and very impressive list of national and international media outlets. Full details of all of his campaigns can be found at his websites www.56blackmen.com and www.cephaswilliams.com.

When not campaigning or being a father to Zion, Cephas Williams is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a motivational speaker for organisations, of which his website already reveals an impressive list. 

It is impossible for anyone, whether they share his race or not, not to be positively inspired by Cephas Williams’ campaigning. As all great campaigners do, he started out on a mission to make positive changes for the community he has direct and deeply personal experience of.

It is very difficult to imagine that he has not already succeeded in his mission, at least in some small way. Whatever campaign he creates next is highly likely to be even bigger, even better and visually even more beautiful than everything that has gone before it.