Editor’s Note: This is a recurring interview series exploring how photographers find visions of freedom through their lenses. 

As a kid growing up in Jackson, Tennessee, Noah Stewart spent a lot of time scrambling up trees, reaching from one branch to the next with curiosity for a different vantage point. Finding a new way to see was exciting to him, so he started bringing a cheap digital camera to document his destinations. Habit became passion as he grew up and set out for college.  

Stewart arrived in Memphis in 2018 as a freshman at Rhodes College. That year, he attended an artist panel community event at the Tone gallery in Orange Mound that featured one of his heroes, Memphis-born photographer Silas Vassar

“I just remember 18-year-old me being in that space, being surrounded by so many other Black people who all came together for the love of creation, the love of art,” he said.

Photos by Noah Stewart for MLK50

Two images side by side. Left image: A Black couple seated and seen from behind. Right image: A Black woman in a low-cut dress and pearls gives a sultry look to the camera.
Left: A couple at the Tone Juneteenth Gala inside of the Cadre Building Downtown. Right: Aminah Nacemah poses for a photo. 

Over the years, Stewart began documenting Tone’s Juneteenth Festival, from the wings of the stage to the connections in the crowd. This year, as the rain saturated the ground outside, the festival took shelter inside the Orange Mound Tower. Attendants and performers filed away from the late afternoon thunderstorm to pick up where they left off in the party spaces fashioned within the building’s concrete bones.

Stewart described the vibe as like a family reunion where he felt safe enough to let his intuition lead him. As he walked through crowds with his camera, folks who know him or his work on Instagram stopped and struck (vulnerable; joyful; powerful) poses. 

The crowd fills the dance floor at the Juneteenth Gala.

Moving inside was an unexpected turn of events for the party; Stewart, 23, wasn’t sure what he would see. The festival’s inertia slowed as people settled in and caught up with one another. Stewart made a mental checklist of places in the room he thought would be good for photos, including a small ledge above a door. When the performances started again, he glided from one spot to the next. 

“I was like ‘Wow, you can’t rain out what’s already going to happen, what already is happening,’” he said. “So it was just cool just to have that ah-ha moment like, ‘Yeah, we’re still here. We’re still in The Tower. We’re still going up.’”

Victoria Jones, executive director of Tone, speaks to the room.

In the thick of that concrete Orange Mound dance floor, with smiles and singalongs and hems swaying and bodies moving joyfully, the iconography of Ernie Barnes’ famous “Sugar Shack” painting came to Stewart’s mind. 

Club lighting traced only glimpses of movement on the dance floor, and he knew he needed a way to see what he felt. The agility of his tree-climbing youth helped him onto that ledge. 

The weekend celebration’s theme was honoring the film “B.A.P.S.” (Black American Princesses.)

He positioned his lens and popped his flash to illuminate the room.

Stewart’s images, similar to his days of discovery in tree branches, show how he continues using what roots him to help us know what is possible. They are an appreciation, an offering, for the beauty of living with curiosity.

A toast at the gala.
Left: A contingency of cowboys from West Texas, the 4 State Riders Horses and Car Club traveled to Memphis to join the Juneteenth festival celebration at the Orange Mound Tower. Right: As rain clouds rolled in, the location changed, but the vibe was untouched.
Left: People catch up in the shelter of the Orange Mound Tower as the rain intensifies. Right: A grill greets Stewart.
Left: Cowboy Dew stands on one of his horses. Right: A couple poses for Stewart.
Left: J.D. Daltrey performing inside the tower. Right: The party stretches into the night.

Andrea Morales is the visuals director for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at  andrea.morales@mlk50.com

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