Q&A: He’s a photojournalist, pastor, police department employee and mentor to young Black and Latino men

An interview with the Rev. Kenny Irby on race, religion, policing and good journalism

June 10, 2020
Category: Ethics & Trust

I can think of few people more prepared to speak to the current moment in American history than the Rev. Kenny Irby.

For more than two decades we worked side by side at the Poynter Institute, where Kenny, if I may call him that in this instance, created the photojournalism sequence and taught diversity and ethics. He created a program — in which we often taught together — called The Write Field, which brought young men of color together on Saturday mornings for enrichment in their literacy and life skills.

Irby came to Poynter during a distinguished career in photojournalism. He has been an honored leader of the National Press Photographers Association and has received its most prestigious awards, including for ethics and for lifetime achievement. He is the founder of the Men in the Making: Right Choices program, offering positive role models and encouraging academic achievement for young Black and Latino men.

Kenny is pastor at the Historic Bethel AME Church, the oldest church in the city of St. Petersburg, Florida. Today he serves the city as its first director of community intervention and juvenile outreach for the St. Petersburg Police Department.

In the spirit of transparency, which the Rev. Irby honors, I reveal that he is one of my closest friends.

As a prominent journalist, pastor and now employee of a police department with its own painful history with its city’s Black residents, it should be obvious why I’ve turned to the Rev. Irby to help make sense of the current moment.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Roy Peter Clark: As a pastor, preacher and minister, Rev. Irby, what have you been saying to your congregation about what is going on around the nation?

(Kenny Irby)

Kenny Irby: Individually and collectively, I am consistently telling my folk to be safe, trust GOD and to seize this moment of service. Loving service to humanity is most essential during this multi-layered pandemic of woe that we are facing. My sermons have more about love, reconciliation and triumph, rather than the judgment, division and humiliation that comes from the person currently residing at 1600 Black Lives Matter Plaza.

The last 12 weeks of messages can be found online.

Clark: For many years, you were among the leaders of photojournalism throughout the nation and across the globe. At Poynter, you taught not only visual journalism, but ethics and diversity. You have been out on the streets documenting reality at some difficult moments in our history. What advice might you offer to your brother and sister photojournalists as they risk their safety to capture what is happening?

Irby: My recommendations to journalists covering conflict have been greatly affirmed in this instant, thus I see no reason to amend that advice. I still say: Do your research, be aware of your surroundings, travel with an accountability partner — someone to watch your back — park your vehicle away from the epicenter of the protest and travel light.

I must say that I honor the courage of those attempting to bear witness to the news for the greater good of informing others.

Clark: No justice, no peace. Is there anything that journalists can do better to help bring about both justice and peace?

Irby: As I consume news coverage — reading, listening, watching and experiencing — it strikes me that there is an awful lot of opinion posturing. I am still of the school of thought that wants you to report the authentic facts and offer context and transparently disclose your opinions.

We have such polarizing views in our country today and have to find our way to a common place of civility, decency and mutual respect. I think that fair and balanced reporting is one avenue to that intersection.

Clark: Images of police brutality — including murder — are rarely captured by professional photojournalists. They are caught by civilians on their cellphones. Do you have any advice for citizens who find themselves in a public space where there may be violence or other trouble?

Irby: That projection has become the absolute order of the day. Back in the early ages of digital camera research, I saw this coming — the age of the ubiquitous camera lens. Now the cell phone and surveillance units are all around. Everybody with a device is a camera person, not a photographer and certainly not a photojournalist. Nonetheless, the visual information captured has great power to inform and to contextualize events.

My advice to citizens with cameras is to use this choice of weapons fairly and with integrity.

Clark: As someone who has worked so closely with young black men in programs such as Men in the Making, what would you say to them at such a moment of chaos, confusion and violence?

Irby: Funny that you should ask as we are in constant dialogue with our youth, now Men & Women in the Making. We are telling them that they are brilliantly equipped to face these challenges and to lead us into the future. Our message to our youth is that we are stronger together. 

One of our youth brothers called me last week to say, “Rev., I am going to protest the murder of George Floyd and demand peace and I am prepared to use everything that you taught me, Sir.”

That says it all. As we teach respect, responsibility, restraint and teamwork as our values.

Clark: As someone who works closely with the city and police department, how would you counsel law enforcement officers on their responsibilities?

Irby: For me, this is on what I would do. I am privileged to work in the office of the chief of police and have seen firsthand the kind of reform and culture shift that Anthony Holloway has implemented. We have created a department vested in public safety and relational policing. We are committed to diversity that is internally interwoven into the general orders of the agency and externally manifested ´in our “Park, Walk and Talk” philosophy.

We commit to building relationships across the community during times of calm and our practices are fair, transparent and accountable.

Clark: Over the years, you have introduced me to a number of police officers, including police chiefs and leaders who came to policing from the African American community. What can we learn from them about how to find peace at the line where black crosses blue?

Irby: Recognize that police officers are human beings first. Witnessing the pain, anguish and despair up close is both heartbreaking and frustrating, I must admit. As a 25-year resident in this community, I know the great progress that we have made and to see much of it destroyed over the last 12 days is painful.

And yet I am beyond hopeful that we will continue to purge the people and practices that have harmed our commitment to be peacekeepers and agents of change.

Clark: We are at an unprecedented time, it seems, in U.S. history, in which we are suffering from a pandemic, an economic disaster and now terrible violence across the nation. If you could offer a prayer, Rev. Irby, what would it be?

Irby: My constant prayer is for justice and diligence attending to the unfair race equity issues in America that are 401-plus years old. I pray that now is the time that America takes its knee off of the necks of African Americans and the lynching of potential in our country.

I pray that we restore faith in humanity and move from the vigils to the vigilant work of justice for ALL.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at roypc@poynter.org or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark.