Sometimes history is shaped not by the famous figures in front of the camera, but by someone behind it.
For the past 44 years, talented photojournalist Antonio Dickey has been documenting American history. Based in Chicago, he’s photographed iconic celebrities like Stevie Wonder and Muhammad Ali, significant political moments like the election of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first Black mayor, and even the early careers of two aspiring changemakers named Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson.
During Black History Month, we sat down with Antonio to learn how he got his start in the industry, his life-long passion for documenting history for generations to come, and his hopes for his hometown, Chicago.
Photographs by Antonio Dickey
Q: Let’s start from the very beginning. Tell me how you first got into photography.
A: My mother was our family historian; she collected all of the old photos of relatives and friends and she had a Mamiya twin lens reflex camera, which was more sophisticated to what most people used in the 50s and 60s. I spent a lot of time looking through her albums and I think that’s where I got my enthusiasm for preserving history, which eventually peaked my interest in photography.
Q: When did you first pick up a camera?
A: After high school I picked up a used Canon camera. I started photographing events and people around the neighborhood and reading all I could about what skills I needed to become a a photographer. I really wanted to be a newspaper photographer.
Q: When you started out, were there many other Black photographers working alongside you?
A: My parents were building managers. When we moved from the South Side of Chicago further north to the Prairie Shores area, the complex we were living in was filled with emerging African Americans in the industry, like editors from Ebony and photographers from the Chicago Daily News. One neighbor, Norman Hunter, was the photographer and art director at Jet. He would critique my photos and give advice. Another neighbor, Metz Lochard, was the editor at the Chicago Defender, and noticed my interest in photography. He suggested that I talk to the sports editor to get a taste of the newspaper business. So, I started shooting high school sports for the Defender for about a year and a half. After that, I was hired as a full time photographer.
Q: From 1982 to 1987, you served as Harold Washington’s photographer. How did you get that role?
A: That’s right. When Harold Washington announced he was running for office, I sent him a telegram through CompuServe, I think it was. It was before AOL, which was just a funny Internet thing going on at the time. I sent the campaign a telegraph saying, “I’d like to help volunteer as a photographer,” and after meeting with Harold Washington and photographing a few events, I was selected as the campaign photographer. I don’t think people thought an African American could win back in ’82. I wasn’t so sure that he could win, but I at least wanted to do my best to help his campaign. I always advise people to volunteer if you can, to help out, especially with something you feel passionate about. You really never know what’s going to happen. I never envisioned working at City Hall. I just planned on helping out on the campaign.
Q: You’ve photographed a lot of important people in Black history, including Coretta Scott King, Nelson Mandela, and Muhammad Ali. Who were you most nervous to photograph?
A: I think I’m a little reserved, so the camera is like a barrier between me and whoever I’m photographing. I like to think that when people see me, they see the camera first. Muhammad Ali would always play games and do little magic tricks when he was around people. I never knew what he was going to come up with, so it made me nervous that I might not get the perfect shot.
Q: I can only imagine! What a special experience. What are you hoping to capture when you take pictures?
A: I just want to show what life was like in Chicago. I want to make sure moments aren’t lost. If there are no photos, then no one’s going to know what these moments looked like. I took all these photos of politicians and famous people, but also high school events, grade school dancers, and just people on the street. I want people to remember what people looked like and what people were doing in the city. Not just the big shots, but the people who made the city run.
Q: Can you tell us about the first time you met President Obama?
A: I first met President Obama when he came to Chicago back in 1991. I was meeting with Allison Davis and Judson Minor, a former corporation counsel to Mayor Harold Washington. He was retired from the city, but they had opened up the law firm Davis, Minor, Barnhill and Galland and President Obama, well, recent Law School graduate Obama (laughter) was working in that law office. I think his office was maybe eight feet wide—it was tight. But on the wall he had a photo that I took of Harold Washington. I thought, “Who was that man with my photo in his office?”
When he ran for Senate, I photographed one of his debates, and that’s when I really took notice of how far he had come and where he was going.
Q: Now fast forward to President Obama’s election night in Grant Park in 2008…What was it like capturing that moment?
A: I was still a photographer with the City of Chicago, so I had to beg for a press pass, which was difficult because I wasn’t with the press. I eventually got the pass, and I was confined to one little spot and I just stayed there the entire time. Even though I was emotional, I was just trying to capture that moment of history. I was proud that Barack Obama had come this far, that he had run a successful campaign. It just made me think of how far we’d come since Harold Washington’s election. I was proud of how far our country had come.
Q: There’s a photograph you took of Mrs. Obama talking to young people. Tell me about that picture.
A: She was Michelle Robinson at the time, and she was working as an assistant to Mayor Daley at City Hall. This photo was taken in 1991 at a school resource event. She was answering questions from students, just helping them out. They were enthralled by her because of her enthusiasm. They didn’t know she was going to be the First Lady of the United States. They were happy to hear what she had to say, and that’s what people still feel. That’s what I noticed back then in the moment and in the photo when I look at it now.
Q: A new chapter of the Obamas’ story is underway at the Obama Foundation. What do you think about the Obama Presidential Center coming to the South Side of Chicago?
A: I think the city was a little closer together in the ’70s and ’80s – especially the Black community. I feel like everybody’s kind of scattered now. I think the Obama Presidential Center can bring people together. That’s the feeling I get from the neighborhood – they feel it could be a place of togetherness for the city. I hope it is a place where we can all come back together to make the city better and closer like it used to be. I can’t wait to capture what life looks like when the Center is open—I think it will be a beautiful thing.