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  • Brandon MacMurray

A Chocolate Lens Review and Q+A with Director Gabriel Veras and Photographer Steven Cummings

A Chocolate Lens, dir. Gabriel Veras

In the first minute of “A Chocolate Lens'', photographer Steven Cummings shows a bunch of old photos from publications to director Gabriel Veras' camera. He describes the way they negatively depict the black community. This is a powerful introduction to a film that spends the rest of its 19 minutes highlighting an artist that has been spending his whole life trying to change that. Steven Cummings is a Washignton, D.C.-based artist and photographer, who has been taking photos that show black communities and the city of Washington, D.C. in a positive light. When he talks about his goal with photography he states: “When I photograph somebody I am trying to find the power. The beauty and the power.” This short film acts as an overview of Steven's career and shows how the world around him has influenced his expression of that beauty and power.

When he talks about his career, he starts from the very beginning, the moments where he only had enough money for food and black and white film for his polaroid camera. Each minute holds a new fascinating detail about his journey, from his humble beginnings to present day. Interspersed throughout the film and interviews are pictures of Steven's striking photography. The film does not feel 20 minutes long. The depth of the interviews and skill of direction and editing make the film feel like a feature in terms of content, whereas the rhythm and pace are that of a short film. Steven Cummings is a charismatic and engaging subject that communicates his ideas well and understands the importance of his work. It is an absolute joy to follow his journey.

While Steven’s work spotlights the black community, he also tries to show the beauty of his city and the effects of gentrification through both photos and analogies. As he states how poorly managed D.C. has been recently, he still manages to capture the beauty of the city in the background. It is interesting to see him talk about his D.C. self-portrait series, an ubiquitous action that left his mark on the streets. For those who didn't know Steven, it created a feeling of mystery of who the man in the photo was. All the creative projects that Steven has produced are well represented in the film and engaging to learn about. Gabriel Veras' composition of beautiful shots is impressive and it is entertaining to follow Steven's journey of identity, art, and love for the city along the way.

“A Chocolate Lens” is a gem about an artist's story that interweaves the black community and the city of Washington, D.C. The film is a meaningful exploration of an artists work and how it reflects the city and culture around him. It won the Cleveland Film Festival and is qualified for the 2024 Academy Awards.

Q&A with Steven Cummings and Gabriel Veras from “A Chocolate Lens”

Q - Steven, in the first minute of the film, you talk about the negative perspective taken into the black portrait. Do you think that it has changed in recent years?

I think a lot has changed in the last 20 years regarding how people photograph black individuals. Firstly, more black people are capturing themselves because everybody has a camera now. The camera phone has certainly brought about that change. I must say that my goal was never just to capture black people in their best light; I wanted to try and capture a black community in a way more akin to a Norman Rockwell painting. I always felt that white communities used photography as a tool that works for them. It is employed to convey to people what to think of them without saying a word, letting the images inform the world of how they wish to be seen.

I say this because I suspect they are not merely attempting to show you a pretty picture of their community; they aim to maximize this opportunity. It might be a visually appealing image, but the focus is on power and what this photo can do to convey a message. This is how I envision them thinking about their community. Perhaps other black photographers are also contemplating similar ideas, but that is what I was thinking about when I aimed my camera. Sell, sell, sell.

Q - Gabriel, how did you find out about Steven’s story, and what caught your attention?

I had just finished directing my first short documentary and was in search of a new subject. That's when I stumbled upon an article in a local newspaper about Steven Cummings and his remarkable work. His photographs immediately captured my attention due to their ability to convey a compelling narrative in a single frame. Intrigued, I delved into my research and discovered that Steven was a highly regarded artist and photographer operating somewhat under the radar. It became clear to me right away that his story deserved to be brought to light.

Q - Steven, what were your thoughts when Gabriel proposed to tell your story in this film?

When Gabe asked me to be a part of his film, I didn’t think it would be as big as it became. Maybe I would have been more direct about my thoughts. I was relaxed. He said he was a filmmaker, and I believed him, so I just went with it.

Q - Gabriel, what are the differences, in your opinion, when you film a subject that is an artist? Is there any different aspect in your approach than usual?

Capturing the essence of an artist can pose its own set of challenges. When documenting the journey of an artist, it is crucial to honor and respect their creative vision. In undertaking this project, I approached it with the delicate balance of showcasing Steven's work to its fullest potential while infusing my own perspective into the narrative of his story. Working with Steven was a seamless experience; he was incredibly collaborative and never hesitated to embrace any creative direction I suggested.

Q - Steven, you talk on the film about your work background with the Smithsonian. What are the differences between working for one of the most important museums in the world and shooting independently?

When I saw this question, it took me down a road I wasn’t prepared to go down, but here we are. When I came to Washington after college, my goal was to be a photographer. I applied for a job at the Smithsonian, but I never got a response to my application. My dad knew the head of security at the museum, and he probably could have at least gotten me an interview for a job in the security department. I passed on that opportunity. I wanted to be a photographer, not a security guard. I just started taking photographs.

I’m not sure if this is the answer to your question, but I need to say this. When I was turning in my paperwork to leave the museum, the woman behind the counter at headquarters told me I was making the biggest mistake of my life. Looking back, I don’t think she was wrong. When I left the museum, I lost my platform. I spent 10 years in the minor league and finally got called up to the big league, only to walk away. It was costly in many ways. It was a big mistake, but from mistakes comes opportunity. Here I am, answering questions about a film about my life. When Gabriel came into my life, he showed me something about me I hadn’t really thought of since I left the museum. I built something in this photography world on my own, and the Smithsonian was a stop on the way to where I am now. Oscar qualified. Who would have thought?

Q - Gabriel and Steven, how has been the festival circuit for both of you, and what has been most remarkable so far?

Gabriel - The film festival circuit has truly been a tremendous journey for us. When I embarked on creating this film, my initial goal wasn't to actively seek out festivals or awards. However, our first film festival was the Cleveland International Film Festival, where we unexpectedly won the Best Short Documentary award, paving the way for Oscar qualification. To this day, the recognition remains a delightful surprise, as I always believed in the film's potential but didn't anticipate the extent of its success. Subsequently, “A Chocolate Lens” went on to captivate audiences across the United States, Japan, and Canada.

Steven - The film festival opened up a whole new world for me. I’ve met so many interesting people. It reminds me of the photo world, only with moving pictures. Everyone is out there trying to make an impact on the world with their camera. Thanks, Gabe, for introducing me to this—hooked for life.

Q - Steven, one of the details that are talked about in your work in the film is your use of film to shoot your photos. What do you think it brings visually that is different from digital?

One of the biggest differences for me between digital and film photography is that when I shoot film, my mind has to be thinking about so many factors not necessary in digital. Digital, for me, is almost point and shoot. The cameras are so good now that you almost can’t miss. With film, you have to know what you are doing, and you won’t realize you messed up until the film is back from the lab. So, you have to be very aware of exposure, f-stop, lighting, and sometimes even color temperature. I could go on, but one of the great things about film is that it slows you down and makes you think through your shot.

Q - Gabriel, the film brings a lot of important interviews of scholars, artists, and professors. Could you tell us a bit about how the process of choosing them and your approach to the interviews?

My goal was to connect with individuals familiar with Steven's work while also bringing their unique perspectives on the changing landscape of DC and the dwindling black community. As I approached the interviews, I had a clear idea of the narrative I wanted to weave, necessitating a strategic direction in the conversations. I believe I succeeded in steering the discussions towards profound and meaningful insights, as each interview delved into the depth I aimed to capture.

Q - Steven, what do you think that Washington has that is so important for you and your work? What makes it so special for you?

I was born in Okinawa, Japan. My mom, dad, sister, and brother were all born in Washington, DC. It kind of makes me a Washingtonian by default. Washington, DC is a beautiful city. I see it as America’s Rome. When the world looks at Rome, they give it the respect it deserves. I can’t say if Washingtonians know what this city represents. Rome is always going to be Rome no matter what, and so is the Nation's Capital.

Q - Steven and Gabriel, here at ShortStick, we are always interested in knowing what artists and filmmakers are watching. What have you watched recently that you loved and would like to shoutout to?

Gabe - I haven't had the chance to catch new films lately as I've been deeply immersed in the production of my first feature film. I've literally watched it over a hundred times – it's a 95-minute journey! The film is titled "Athletes of War," providing a unique perspective on the Ukrainian conflict through the lens of sports and athletes. Keep an eye out for its release next year!

Steven - The Art of Weightlessness Short Documentary. What a film. It took seven years to make. I just loved the story.



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