Mathieu Bitton talks shooting BLM protests as a white man, working on Dave Chappelle’s “8:46” special, and more
“The fact that there has to be a campaign called Black Lives Matter upsets me — that it even has to be a discussion,” Mathieu Bitton told REVOLT. “My whole career has been Black lives, everything I collect.”
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Mathieu Bitton is a Grammy-nominated photographer and designer who recently photographed Black Lives Matter protests in a new collection titled “Reflections of an Uprising.” With all the profits going toward various Black Lives Matter charities, Bitton has sold 165 prints so far, and raised tens of thousands of dollars to Movement For Black Lives; The Innocence Project, Color of Change, The Bail Project, EqualJustice.org, The Central Neighborhood, and The Minneapolis Foundation.
Born and raised in Paris, France; Bitton came to the states in September of 1987 and attended high school in Los Angeles. At 19 years old, he moved to New York and was between coasts until 1999. His accomplishments do not go unnoticed. The photog was most recently the only shooter on-site for Dave Chapelle’s Summer Camp in Yellow Springs, Ohio; an experience he described as “Warhol’s factory of ultimate higher consciousness.”
Bitton also photographed live from Chappelle’s “8:46” special, designed Marvin Gaye’s His Classic Duets and unreleased You’re The Man album, designed the Beastie Boys book, and consulted on the Box Set for the expanded reissue of Prince’s double album Sign O’ The Times.
REVOLT caught up with Bitton, who was shooting Chappelle in Ohio. Read below as we discuss his working relationship with the comedian, white privilege, police brutality, what he aims to express through his photographs, and more!
What is your relationship with Dave?
I met Dave in 2008 at a Prince after show in New York at Hotel Gansevoort on the rooftop. We met again at Prince’s house in February 2011. Our connection is all Prince, we hit it off. Four years later, my friend Ruth was Prince’s assistant tour manager. They reached out to me to come shoot a little club show. Dave’s like, “I remember you, I met you at Prince’s house.” I started shooting for him. Once he started doing the Netflix specials during his comeback, I shot the stills.
At the time, I was with Lenny Kravitz full-time. Started touring with Dave, we’ve been nonstop. We started off really strong this year. We went to the Philippines, did a European tour in February. We thought we’d be on tour all year, then this s**t happened. I’m really proud of what he’s created because he’s found a legal way, a healthy way, a safe way to have shows every night. The whole audience has masks on, everybody’s six feet apart.
I saw the photo with Dave, Kevin Hart, and Chris. How’s capturing these moments?
That’s when Dave did his last residency at the Radio City Music Hall. That was backstage, I was the only person shooting so I’ve got a million moments. We talk about doing books of all this. I actually have a permanent gallery here at his clubhouse. It’s also my photo gallery of all these moments, which is pretty cool.
Your popularity as a photographer really ramped up while working with Lenny Kravitz. How did you two connect?
I’ve known Lenny since I was 13 years old. He was living with a guy named Christopher Enuke, a fashion designer who was my mom’s assistant. That’s how I met him back when I was a kid. I’d see him at family functions. In 2008, we connected in Paris. I was there working with a French artist, he’s there with legendary photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino. We reconnected, I started shooting with him and started designing. I designed tour merch, posters, the album. He took me on the road with him — 10 years on the road, nonstop. I directed a documentary called Lenny Kravitz: Looking Back on Love. We actually started shooting another one a couple years ago. Lenny and I are family.
What does Black Lives Matter mean to you?
The fact that there has to be a campaign called Black Lives Matter upsets me — that it even has to be a discussion. My whole career has been Black lives, everything I collect. Artifacts, movie posters, records are from Black culture. Since I was a kid in Paris, I was always obsessed with jazz and funk. All the projects I do are surrounding that music and art. Dave’s my favorite comedian. The reason I started this fundraiser is because I was upset to begin with that there has to be a movement, that it’s not obvious. The fact that people have to go out to the street and say “Black Lives Matter” is crazy in 2020, but it’s a reality we live with. I started this whole initiative to be able to help. It’s the best I can do. I’m out there shooting all these protests, making these prints. I had this idea that people would want to buy these prints and I could donate 100% of the profits to different charities surrounding the movement. I’ve been discovering a lot of great organizations: Black, transgender charities, schools in Minneapolis.
What’s it like being white and shooting Black Lives Matter protests?
It sounds stupid, but I don’t see myself as “white,” per say. My parents are from Egypt, Cairo and Alexandria, so I have African blood. I’ve always felt connected to the continent. I can take the advantage and influence I’m given for good. When it really heated up, those first protests in L.A. when they started lighting cars on fire and looting, Black people were coming up to me saying, “Go to the frontlines, we need white people on the frontlines.” I went to the frontlines. A cop saw me with my camera and said, “Get that camera out of my face,” then shot me with a rubber bullet. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, but lucky for me, he didn’t shoot me in the face like these other people who’ve been shot. I’ll never forget that moment, really crazy. I’m using my white privilege to help out, to spread the word, to raise money. I passed $40,000 in sales the other day; it’s a lot of money. It’s going to keep growing.
What’s your stance on white privilege?
It’s very real. It’s a societal reality. I’ve certainly had it whether I want it or not. Any situation you enter into, it’s a sad reality. Society looks at me differently when I walk in somewhere than when a Black person walks in… I’m not talking about the work I do because I’ve worked mainly with Black artists.
I hate seeing the whole movement going on with the “Karens,” how entitled people are feeling since Trump got elected. Trump’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. He enables and entitles all these people to come to the surface. In a way, that’s a good thing. It makes it visible. I’m not a big fan of cancel culture, but I’m a big fan of canceling racism. I’d rather people spend more time canceling racists than trying to destroy people’s livelihoods for a tweet they made 10 years ago.
What are your views on police brutality?
Police brutality is part of the narrative of American history. It drives me crazy. I hate to see it. Dave’s “8:46” piece really says it best. I remember the Rodney King beating, I was out during the riots. I got to see it with my own eyes. The first big protest I photographed on May 30  was like being there again. Now, everybody has phones. Back in ‘92, we didn’t have cell phones. I’m happy now, they’re trying to actually hold police officers accountable. Nothing’s been done to the officers who killed Breonna Taylor, that drives me crazy. There’s really too many officers getting away with this. At least with George Floyd, they arrested those guys and are actually putting them on trial. They don’t have a choice.
I recently watched a documentary about the Rodney King riots. You look at the reaction of people saying, “These guys got away with it, we’re going to destroy everything.” Then people say, “But look, you guys are destroying your own neighborhoods.” They’re not their neighborhoods, they’re neighborhoods where they’ve been placed. They still don’t own a lot of it. When they do own the businesses, they’re still answering to the man. There’s no Black community like how Black Wall Street existed, and that was destroyed. I’m hoping this era of police brutality and protests may actually change things. I was in the street, it felt different. This feels like something might actually happen, something might come of this.
White privilege might not be as stable and consistent as it’s been. This might actually shake white privilege. I call out to all the white people I know, I’m surprised I’m the only guy doing what I’ve been doing for the last six weeks. A lot of people say, “Man, thank you so much for doing this.” Yeah, you should do something, too. This is what I’ve figured out to raise money.
What is it about your photos? What’s the powerful meaning and message behind them?
I’m capturing a heightened sense of reality. Everything I do, I always try to inject a little surrealism into it. Obviously, it’s a photo. It’s not Photoshopped, it’s what’s actually happening. I try to capture it in a way that makes it a time capsule. That’s why I shoot black and white. My exhibitions too because it’s so timeless. Interestingly, a lot of people look and tell me, “Oh my God, I thought these were from the 60s,” which I got with my Darker than Blue exhibition. I’m such a fan of that era.
I try to inject my opinion and my beliefs into the photos. I feel very strongly about change. Someone looks at an image like, “Wow, that’s really intense.” That photo of that woman Felicia with the little boy under her shoulders that went viral, it’s the big one. It went on Essence, Barbra Streisand posted it. That gave me a sense of comfort knowing I’m a white guy shooting and talking about this. I got to know the woman in the photo and her partner, who’s the mother of that little boy Kash. I’m thinking of putting some money away for him. That photo alone probably sold for $14,000 dollars in sales. That’s the photo everybody reacted to. Even that little kid felt famous, which was so cute. He just turned 6.
What can we expect next?
I’m working on a book for my Darker than Blue exhibition, very similar to this. Not protest work, but it’s all about Black communities and hand portraits of Black celebrities. Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Cicely Tyson, Quincy Jones, Melvin Van Peebles, Trombone Shorty, Lenny Kravitz, Dave Chappelle — everybody’s in there.
Anything else you want to let us know?
How many freedom summers do we need to have before actually seeing long-term equality? I’m in it for the long run.
Head to Bitton’s website to check out his Black Lives Matter protest shots. All proceeds go to charities fighting systemic oppression and racism.
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