Oakland helped focus the lens of photojournalist Sarahbeth Maney

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It was the first day of Senate confirmation hearings for Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first black woman to be appointed as a Supreme Court justice. Originally from East Bay Sarahbeth Maney covered the historic event as the first black photography fellow at The New York Times and the first-ever photography fellow from their Washington DC office.

Maney did not expect this one of his pictures from that Monday, March 21 assignment — of Jackson, flanked by her husband and beaming daughter, Leila — would bring her national notoriety.

A first indication came on Tuesday when she posted the photo on his Instagram account and it racked up so many comments and shares that she had to turn off her notifications. But it wasn’t until Thursday that Maney began to realize just how much his photo resonated with the public.

“I got a text from a New York Times reporter that said, ‘Hey, you gotta tweet that picture of [Judge] Ketanji Brown and his daughter since day one, because people posted it on Twitter, without crediting you and that’s rude. I tweeted and saw the number of likes and retweets start to move,” Maney said. “That’s when I realized, okay, this is something people pay attention to.”

Left to right: Patrick Jackson, Ketanji Brown Jackson and their daughter Leila Jackson listen to the first day of Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, DC on Monday, March 21, 2022. Credit: Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

Meena Harris, niece of Vice President Kamala Harris, shared the photo of Maney in a tweet, in which she mistakenly identified Maney as being from Oakland. (Maney actually grew up in Martinez, but lived in Oakland for a short time and has family that lives here.) From there, local and national outlets began contacting Maney to interview him about the viral moment. A lot, even write an essay for Today on what taking this photo meant to her as a photojournalist and black woman.

But the now-famous photo of Judge Brown and her daughter Leila wasn’t the first time Maney’s lens captured a historic moment that went viral.

In May 2020, Maney was completing an internship in Flint, Michigan, where she was covering the pandemic. She had graduated from San Francisco State the previous year and returned to the Bay Area after her internship ended, a day before George Floyd died.

When protests erupted in the streets of Oakland in the days following Floyd’s murder, Maney wanted to be front and center with his camera. “I didn’t work for anyone. I was just documenting for myself,” she said. Maney, who previously interned at the San Francisco Chronicle, said she was unaware of many black female photojournalists working full-time at local Bay Area news outlets, one of the reasons why she felt motivated to be present.

“A fellow photojournalist who works at The Sacramento Bee said to me, ‘SB, you really have to be here in Oakland documenting this because I don’t know of any black photojournalists who are going to be out there doing this. ”

During a demonstration, Maney noticed Louis-Michel, a recent college graduate who showed up wearing his cap and gown. Maney saw that most of the other photojournalists that day had positioned themselves near the police line, hoping to capture interactions between protesters and officers. But Maney was struck by Michael’s decision to wear her cap and dress, and she decided to keep an eye on him instead. “I waited for him to raise his fist in the air and take the picture.”

Louis Michael de Vallejo raises his fist in solidarity during a protest in Oakland, Calif., Friday, May 29, 2020. Credit: Sarahbeth Maney

The moment was eye-opening for Maney. “It was the first time I realized how powerful and important my voice was as a black photojournalist,” she said.

After Michael’s photo went viral, he started getting requests to participate in other organized protests and eventually founded Vallejo Ships, a grassroots social justice organization offering mutual aid and political education. “He basically turned into an activist overnight,” Maney said.

As Maney continued to cover the protests over the next few days, she spoke with an organizer and mentioned the photo she had taken of Michael. This conversation led to the photo being transformed into a mural in June 2020 at the corner of 14th Street and Broadway, at the former location of a Walgreens drugstore.

Left to right: Fremont High School art teacher John Christie, Louis Michael and Sarahbeth Maney in front of the ‘Turning Anger Into Action’ mural painted in the summer of 2020. Credit: Sarahbeth Maney

The fresco, titled Turn anger into action, was painted by students from Fremont High School, their art teacher, John Christie, and contributing artists LC Howard, Joy Johnson and Gina Martinez in collaboration with Maney, Michael and his wife Destiny.

“It meant so much to trust Louis’ photo of SB and play a part in bringing it to life in a collaborative painting,” said Fremont High teacher Christie.

John Christie and Sarahbeth Maney, a teacher at Fremont High School, with students and collaborators who painted the mural. Credit: Sarahbeth Maney

On one particular day when Maney was at the site of the mural, she saw a group of Oakland high school graduates, who were unable to hold an in-person graduation ceremony due to the pandemic, using the artwork as a backdrop to take photos as if walking through a stage.

“It was a beautiful and touching experience that came out of the picture,” she said.

The mural has since been removed from its location at 14th and Broadway due to a building renovation on the site and has yet to find a permanent home.

After her DC scholarship ends in May, Maney will leave for Detroit where she is accepted a full-time position as a photojournalist with Detroit Free Press.

“I want to spend time investing in a community where I feel like I can lend my voice in a really positive and productive way.”

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