5,000 African American soldiers and civilians have found their final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery. But yet their stories remain largely untold, and their existence feels like a secret.
“I have made it my job as a photographer to give a voice to the voiceless,” Michael A. McCoy boldly states. Michael is an African American Veteran and documentary photographer who knows first hand what it means to sacrifice for your country. Because of this, he’s focusing his work on those who fell and paved the way for future generations. Not the least of which are those whose selfless and brave contribution seems to be living deep in the shadows.
Editor’s Note: Visual Momentum refers to the flow of storytelling and its effect on the viewer’s thinking process. This series highlights creators who are successfully using their tools and minds to create an impact on the world through imagery with the intent of inciting action. With the support of Fujifilm, we share their stories. Be sure to also check out the interview on This Week in Photo
What Is Arlington National Cemetery’s Section 27?
“I visit section 27 a few times a year,” Michael tells us. “I often visit section 27 for Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Christmas.” For over 150 years, Arlington National Cemetery has been the burial ground for thousands that served in America’s conflicts. Purposely built for the military, people visit the cemetery annually to pay respects to those who have fallen. During moments of remembrance, visitors go to popular sections, such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the JFK Memorial Site. But amongst them is a far less known and less talked about part of the cemetery: Section 27. 5,000 African American Soldiers and Civilians rest in Section 27. For Michael, it’s difficult to see their contribution almost go unnoticed.
“It saddens me as an African American and a Veteran, but I’m not surprised.” He adds, “…throughout history, African Americans have made tremendous contributions and sacrifices to this country. And many times those contributions and sacrifices go unnoticed.”
Section 27 isn’t just another part of the cemetery. It holds significant value and history. In 1864, 21-year-old Private William H. Christman, a black soldier, became the first military man buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Yet, this significant moment in history goes unrecognized. When asked what more could be done to raise the value and appreciation of Section 27, Michael replies, “…it would be nice to see the section mentioned during cemetery tours, for example.” Michael also wants to see other influential members receive the recognition they deserve.
“Many people are not aware that Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for General Daniel James. General James was a World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam Veteran. He’s also the first Black Four Star General in the United States Air Force. Also, many people are unaware that former World Heavyweight Champion Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis rests at Section 27. Not to mention Civil Rights activist and World War II veteran Medgar Evers who is also buried there.”
“Oftentimes, when we celebrate holidays such as Veterans Day and Memorial Day, the same level of recognition is not given on a national scale for the African American soldiers who participated in the Civil War on both the Union and Confederate Armies at Arlington National Cemetery, and as a result, our culture misses out on a critical piece of history.”
This isn’t the notion of just one man. Many people have spoken about their concerns over the forgotten history of those buried in Section 27. Author Ric Murphy wrote a book highlighting what he describes as the “unsung heroes.” And while verbal dialogue and the written word spread the message, Michael is using photography as his way of spreading the truth,”…I’m using my lens to educate the world about the soldiers that lie in Section 27.”
“…it brings back memories of my battle buddies that were killed in action while serving overseas.”
Because of his past and identity, Michael deeply empathizes with the 5,000 deceased. “As a veteran, I find it easy to relate to my subjects since we both have a connection to the military.” Having served two tours in combat, Michael finds himself reflecting on the past when he’s amongst the fallen soldiers. War isn’t easy, and for those involved, it can cause many emotional wounds and mental scars. Michael opens up to us, “…it brings back memories of my battle buddies that were killed in action while serving overseas.”
How does one transmute all that emotion into the creation of a photographic story rich in meaning and substance? Michael’s experiences allow him to immerse himself fully into the project. Although difficult for him put into words, Michael says, “It’s a feeling that’s hard to explain. But what I would say is that my creative process flows organically from the heart.”
Losing a Critical Piece of History
“My intent isn’t to take anything away from the rest of the cemetery; their contributions and military sacrifice is equally important. However, in this instance, I have made it my job as a photographer to give a voice to the voiceless and use my lens to educate the world about the soldiers that lie in Section 27.”
The work Michael is doing goes beyond those in Section 27. It’s also for all the people who are unaware of its importance. “Our culture misses out on a critical piece of history,” he tells us, as he explains that on holidays like Veterans Day and Memorial Day, the stories of those African American soldiers fall into darkness.
“No matter how long it takes, I trust my process and follow my heart.”
“Firstly, I need to be really passionate about the topic,” explains Michael. “If I’m telling a story, I ensure that I do my research so I’m confident in what I’m communicating. This kind of work takes time; you don’t see results overnight.” Michael’s dedication to the documentary process is one that surely takes a lot of time. For him, it’s been about continually spreading the metaphoric gospel of Section 27.
A Fight for Social Justice
It’s sensitive times in 2019. The term “social justice” is taking a beating, and parts of society regard it with negative connotation. When one movement asks you to listen, another says, “What about us?” There’s a social and political war occurring, and with work like Michael’s, it must not create a wider divide. “My intent isn’t to take anything away from the rest of the cemetery; their contributions and military sacrifice are equally important.” However, he’s quick to state that for his photography at least, he is committed to building a platform for those in Section 27.
“…during these encounters, it often happens that my subjects and I end up comforting each other.”
Part of that commitment is getting the story to the public, something Micheal admits hasn’t been easy. “I’ve shared this project with several publications, but not many of them have shown an interest in the story.” He’s unsure why that is, but states he’s undeterred and will continue to do all he can to promote the work. That kind of determination ensures a project keeps going. Without it, all the effort can come crashing down, and the message is quickly forgotten.
Projects like this tend to be polarizing topics for society. We live in a time where it’s challenging to get people to care, especially when the effect is not directly impacting them. It necessitates that a documentary photographer not only have a compelling idea, but a body of work that captivates peoples’ attention. Michael shares his process with us for ensuring he can get people to invest in the message he is spreading.
“…But over time, if you keep spreading the word, everything falls into place. No matter how long it takes, I trust my process and follow my heart.”
Building the Story and Legacy
With either his Fujifilm X-H1 or Fujifilm X-T3 in hand, Michael visits the cemetery a few times each year. While there, he will take his time, connect to the atmosphere, and begin to document the area. His photographs consist of gravestone messages and portraits of the few people who visit Section 27. His Fujifilm 16-55mm XF f2.8 and Fujifilm 50-140mm XF f2.8 – which he uses for most of his work – allow him to create a varied aesthetic in his photography. It’s somewhat of a chilling feeling to see rows and rows of buried African Americans, with only one or two people there taking notice.
In contrast, Michaels’s work also shows the number of people who visit the cemetery on Memorial Day. Many Veterans and family members comfort each other, as sadness and pride begin to overwhelm them. During his visits, Michael tries to educate people about Section 27, but the lack of awareness isn’t only from those outside the black community. He admits, “Many soldiers – White and Black – are not aware of the history of Section 27.” But it’s during these conversations that something powerful happens. Describing almost a moment of therapeutic healing, Michael explains, “…during these encounters, it often happens that my subjects and I end up comforting each other.”
“There’s no secret recipe. I would suggest that you find a subject that you are really passionate about, do your research and follow your heart. You may not see results overnight, but within due time everything will begin to fall in place. Despite how long it may take, you have to trust the process.”
Michael is still young in his photography journey. Already he’s tackled topics involving government, Black Lives Matter, and Blackness in modern America. Social justice is important to him, and he refuses to allow those fighting against it to stand in his way. It may be too soon to start talking about what Michael’s legacy may look like, but in his words, “What would I like my legacy to be? I want people to know that it is my duty to give a voice and platform to those who would otherwise go unrecognized.”
About Michael A. McCoy
I like to think of myself as a storyteller through photography and my camera lens offers a concrete expression that will transcend time. My passion for photography came in my early years and has allowed me to identify and navigate the subtle nuances that make each person unique. Catching them at just the right moment produces exquisite works of art that will be cherished forever. My photographs have been described as engaging, affectionate, insightful and alluring.
My entire life has been dominated by my passion for photography. From the minute I picked up a camera, I was captivated. I love telling the story about the relationships between individuals; capturing those special moments of joy and contentment. Whether it’s a family portrait, a wedding, or a special event, I like to capture the “in-between” moments that are the most candid and authentic.
Over the years I’ve worked successfully in every kind of setting: on the beach, in parks, at historic locations, on city streets, in churches, synagogues, you name it. I can handle the special challenges of shooting outdoors or indoors, in wide-open spaces, or in crowded rooms. I’ve also been able to use my skills as a photojournalist to capture the powerful, emotional moments during the Black Lives Matter protests and the protests surrounding the Freddie Gray case.
You can find his work on his website.
Follow the links below for more information on both Arlington National Cemetery and Section 27.
Editor’s Note: This is a sponsored blog post from Fujifilm
About FUJIFILM North America Corporation (Fujifilm)
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