As seen by Monica Morgan

Monica Morgan — PHOTO: Cydni Elledge

One of Detroit’s most well-known photographers talks about how she started her business

Pamela Hilliard Owens:
So tell us Monica, how you got started in photography. What made you want to be a photographer, a little bit about your trajectory from the very beginning to where you are today?
Monica Morgan: Well originally I was a writer. I used to write articles while I was in college for the Detroit news. Then once I graduated I started to contribute to the Michigan Chronicle. I loved writing, however I would have to interview, pre-interview, sometimes I would go through writers block trying to get the information together. I realized that the photographs that accompanied the stories either you got them, or you didn’t get them. Also, having a capitalistic nature, the Michigan Chronicle originally did not pay me for my first articles, but they paid me for my photographs.
Monica Morgan: So I said, wait something’s wrong here. I’m going through all this extra work with writing, and I’m not being compensated. However, the photography, which all I do at that time was push a button and an image came out, and they said they would pay me for that.
Monica Morgan: So I said maybe I need to look at this differently. In the meanwhile, I was working for Domino’s Pizza. I was a promotional tools coordinator for Alkaline, the Pizza Ponies, and the Classic Car Collection.
Monica Morgan: So as a result of that I used to watch photographers come in, take a photograph, and leave. I said wow, I want to do that. So those things combined led to me to start my own business.
PHO.: Wow. Now that’s something I didn’t know. So then once you decided to go to the photography route, how did you actually start up your business?
Monica Morgan: Well, first of all I had a great mentor. His name was Herald Robinson. He was the first African-American hired by a Michigan daily newspaper because he was able to go in areas during the riots that other people could not, and would not go into.
PHO: Right. That’s the 1967 rebellion here in Detroit.
Monica Morgan: Exactly. So Herald was the person who helped me out. We would be on photo shoots, and I might not have had the correct equipment. Herald would let me use a lens, and he would give me a quick pointer. He actually just became, you know he put so much into me that there was no way I could fail.
PHO: So then, you started working small. You started getting exposed…
Monica Morgan: I started writing a column in the Michigan Chronicle called About Town, with Greg Dunmore. His father actually discovered me, Al Dunmore. So my writing initially was focused on the single woman and dating, and it grew into the column About Town. His father said hey I really want you to do this. I think you’re the perfect person. Then he said and would you work with my son. So he pulled in Greg Dunmore, and that was, well we started probably in the 1990. Yeah probably around 1990 because I started my business in 1987. I went full time in 1990 so I haven’t looked back since then.
Pamela: OK now I want to ask about my favorite story. Your meeting with President Nelson Mandela.
Monica: Well, initially when I was in middle school my teacher told me about apartheid in South Africa. And I did not believe that that existed … in that day and age. So I always had a fascination. Well when he was released, he visited Detroit-
Pamela: I remember.
Monica: And I was selected, I was told, I was selected because I was the top photographer, to travel in his motorcade when he came here. And I was even further fascinated by him. I didn’t get a chance to meet him but I got a chance to photograph he and Winnie Mandela.
Monica: So fast forward to 1994 when he was going to run for president or when he was running for president. And people started asking, “Are you going to South Africa?” I said, “No. I’m not going to South Africa.” “Are you sure? You should go!” “Hmm right.”
And I started to think about it and think about it more and more. I was having lunch one day with Amina and she was the wife to the brother of Malcolm X. And she said to me, “Well just say you choose not to go.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Well if you wanted to go, you would go.” She said, “I’m sure you charge whatever you want and this is no different.”
Monica: I put my business on hold. I took a loan out and … I went over there to capture the first all race elections. And then that wasn’t enough. I went back for the retirement of
Nelson Mandela. And then I went pack again for his ninetieth birthday at his home in Qunu. And again for his final rites. But one of the most important things is that … he was fabulous he was just, oh my gosh, when you were around him there was a peacefulness-
Monica: that was there. It was almost like everything was crazy just trying to get to him and then when you saw him, it was almost like I was in awe. And everything just stopped and all of a sudden this just peaceful state just took over.
Monica: I remember I was in the elevator in South Africa and a guy said, “Madiba! Madiba!” I’m like, “Madiba? Where is Madiba?”
Monica: That was an endearment name for Nelson Mandela. And he said, ” He’s upstairs!” And I said, “That’s where I’m going.”
Monica: I had no idea and he took me there. And so I heard he was being interviewed by Peter Jennings. And I was waiting out in the hall and there was this guy from the White House in the United States. He said, “You’re not going to see him! You’re not going to get in there!” And I basically said, “Excuse me sir, no disrespect, but you don’t run things over here. And it’s Nelson Mandela and I’m waiting.” And Nelson Mandela came out. My mouth just opened and he spoke to me. And I said, “Hello. Do you mind posing for me?” And he did! And I went, “Wow!” I could hardly take the photograph because he did. And I looked at that guy like, “See. You’re not running things over here. I’m at home. This is Africa.” And then Peter Jennings came out and I said, “Hey Peter! I’m from the US!”
Monica: It was amazing! I went over there, I had no credentials. I mean I was freelancing my way and just getting to know people. And day three of my visit, I saw a minister that I knew and I just followed him. And I ended up on the field with Nelson Mandela as he was performing a ritual. He was right in front of me. And this security was like, “Who are you?” And they kicked me out. Aww man! And so I went, “Wow though, I had the opportunity.” And they didn’t take the photographs. I have those images forever.
Monica: I started just talking to people and I was around him a lot and taking these pictures. And then Associated Press said, “Wait a minute. This girl has a in. She has some public photos of him when nobody has photos. How’s she able to do that?” So they gave me a pager and they offered to pay me for my photos.
Monica: And I was sending some back to the Chronicle. I was doing some live broadcasts on the radio, on the [inaudible 00:18:24] show and it was wild. So a few days went by and right before the elections a bomb went off. I was out taking images of people registering to vote. And I kept saying, “What have I done? Why am I here? Nothing’s going according to plan. I don’t know if this is going to work or be worth while.” And then a few minutes later I heard this noise and a succession of noises and I thought someone was shooting at me. And then I realized it was a bomb when people started looking up in the sky. And I said, “Wow. Do I run from the bomb or do I run towards it?” And I said, ” You know, this is why I’m here.” And I clutched this cross my grandmother had given me that was around my throat. And I took my camera and held it in and I ran toward those images and I photographed those compelling moments. It was so hard. I wanted to help. But then I realized I was there to tell a story.
Pamela: Exactly.
Monica: There to tell the true story. Cause people didn’t really understand what was going on out there. And I ended up having photographs that appeared on front pages of newspapers around the world. As well as the Detroit News.
See if I had let him control things, like a lot of times we do. We listen to other people-
Monica: And It’s not all through a textbook. Because I’m a self taught photographer. I have a degree from Wayne State University, I went there on a full academic scholarship after graduating Cass Tech. But I’m self taught in photography. And everyday I’m a work in progress. I’m constantly learning, reading, but photography is so much more than taking an image.
Pamela: So now where can people find out more about you?
Monica: Well my website is under construction, but it does exist: It’s a work in progress. You know when you’re an artist it is so hard to take time out to do the things you need to do for you. But that is one of my things to do, and if there are some great web developers let me know. Because I’m at that point where I’m trying to get it together. Or they can find me on Facebook, Monica Morgan Photography. There’s a picture of me and my late husband at the top, because I got several pages that are works in progress. And they can follow me because I’m over the limit, but I just love for people to connect with me. I love to hear stories. Sometimes it might take me a moment to respond, but I do respond to everyone. And if I haven’t, there’s an oversight, just reach out to me.



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