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Free Press photographers reframe 2020 protests around overlooked stories

Several stacked blocks with photos on them
Photos of summer 2020 protests taken by Regina Boone and Sandra Sellars are on display at The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design until Sept. 11. The Richmond Free Press staffers said they selected photos to highlight undertold, positive stories from the protests. (Photos: Davis Alcorn/VPM News)

When protests erupted in the streets of Richmond after then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd on May 25, 2020, Regina Boone and Sandra Sellars were there to capture the unrest.  

Both Boone and Sellars are photojournalists with the Richmond Free Press, and the photos they took during the demonstrations are now on display in The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design’s "Re(Framing) Protest" exhibit. 

Boone said the pair have a history of covering protests, but “this summer of 2020 was definitely unlike anything we had ever put our lens up to. It was overwhelming … as Black people. It was refreshing in some ways to see. And then it was frightening in some ways.”

Sellars attributed the different feeling of the protests that summer to their duration and the “many hues of people from every walk of life” that came out. This, combined with the never-before-seen scale of the protests in Richmond, showed Boone and Sellars the magnitude of the moment. 

Sellars recounted how, after arriving on the scene the first night, cars were unable to drive down Broad Street because protesters filled all four lanes. 

“No traffic at all. It was that many people,” Sellars said. 

As Boone tells it, that was when they realized that they “were in it for the long, long haul.”  

Both journalists spent 65 consecutive days covering the protests, taking hundreds of thousands of photos. 

Although both photographers said they found this thrilling, they both said they’re still processing the trauma caused by the experience. 

“We also feel everything that we’re seeing. So, some days I just had to put my camera down and sit on the curb, and sometimes just take a breath,” Boone said. “Because I feel that when we push the shutter that it actually is imprinting on our souls. And I think people don't really understand that sometimes, everything that we see does remain with us.” 

Boone said they pushed forward: “We just had to do it for our readers, for our history books and for ourselves.” 

As the protests continued into the summer, Boone and Sellars said they felt that the media was too focused on a few cases of looting and vandalism, although the demonstrations were, by and large, peaceful.  

Banner hangs from building
A banner advertising the "(Re)Framing Protest" exhibit hangs on the exterior of The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design.

Sellars said in response to that, they devoted more of their effort into the overlooked narratives. So, when the Branch reached out about creating the "Re(Framing) Protest" exhibit, the two already had ideas for how to broaden the lens to include positive narratives. 

To do this, they decided to limit the exhibit to 89 photos that they said capture the community built by demonstrators that summer. As Boone reflected, the heart of this community was around the graffiti-covered Robert E. Lee Monument, an area that protesters renamed Marcus-David Peters Circle in honor of a man killed by Richmond police in 2018. 

Starting at the height of the protests in summer 2020 and lasting until a fence was put up in January 2021, the circle often was filled with community members and activists coming together to remember those killed as a result of police violence and other racial injustices in America’s past. These spontaneous gatherings were set to a backdrop of community kitchens, political graffiti and flower-laden memorials. 

Boone recalled a few specific incidents, “such as when all the cellists came together, and then different people would come and sage the area or people planting gardens.” 

However, protesters still called for the removal of the Confederate monuments, while taking action into their own hands to remove the statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Williams Carter Wickham. In response, the city began dismantling the remaining statues along Monument Avenue that summer, though the Lee monument was not removed until September 2021, following a lengthy legal battle.  

This is something that both said they feel conflicted about.  

“As we would go there every day and you'd see the art that was on the monument, the base and even around the barrier that's there, that started to feel like well, maybe they should just keep it up. Because it was truly in context. But I understand why people wanted it to come down,” Sellars said. 

Boone shared this sentiment and said that “after all those days and then just to see it gone, even though that evilness, needed to go. There’s still a love loss there.” 

On the other hand, Boone said that her father, Raymond Boone, founder of the Free Press, would have likely celebrated the Lee statue’s removal.  

“He always preached at the Free Press that this was an avenue of losers and he was always calling for these statues to come down. And that just because the statues come down, that does not mean the work stops,” Boone said. 

Both Boone and Sellars continue to have their cameras ready to capture news on the ground for the Richmond Free Press. And their photos will continue to inform visitors at the Branch museum until Sept. 11.