On the twentieth installment of our See It to Be It podcast series, Amy C. Waninger speaks with Monica Morgan, an award-winning international photojournalist who has documented historical events around the globe. Morgan has served as an official photographer for iconic figures like Rosa Parks and has snapped imaged of dozens of politicians, entertainers, other public figures and ordinary Metro Detroiters during a decades-long career. She shares what led her down the path to photojournalism, some of the incredible experiences she’s had in her career, and more.
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Amy: Monica, thank you so much for joining me on See It to Be It. How are you?
Monica: I am great. How are you?
Amy: You are great. I am so glad to have you here. So Monica, I was telling you that while I’m used to having really good guests on my show, I’m not used to having, like, world famous, best of the best, top tier, you know, the masters in their profession in this hot seat, and so I just want to make sure that everyone understands because I didn’t understand who Monica was when I was first talking to her, and I’m making suggestions and she’s like, “My neighbors would think I was crazy if I did that, Amy, because do you know who I am?”
Monica: I did not say that. I did not. [laughs]
Amy: You didn’t say it like that, but you should have. “Do you know who I am?”
Monica: But Amy, you gave me a great idea. There are a lot of photographers who are doing the legacy photos, so I let you know that it was a great idea. It’s just not something that I choose to do, but it is a great idea. So you were on track, and I think it was great to take the time to actually say to me, “Here’s an idea.”
Amy: That’s very sweet, but I had no idea when I said that that you were the personal photographer to, I mean, world-changing leaders, and…
Monica: But Amy, they’re the world-changing leaders. I just capture them doing what they do.
Amy: Yeah, but you’re so good they chose you, and not just one of ’em.
Monica: Well, I will say that I’m honored to be selected for a lot of different great assignments.
Amy: So let me ask you, before we namedrop some of the amazing people you have photographer and memorialized with your photography, how did you get involved in photojournalism as a career?
Monica: Actually I fell into it. I wanted to be an actress when I was growing up, and my mother said “I am not going to feed you for the rest of your life. You’re going to have to find something else to do.” So then I decided “Okay, I’m an introvert. I enjoy writing. I’ll be a writer.” And my mother said “No, not that either. You’ve got to come up with something that’s going to pay the rent.” And so I thought about it and thought about it and decided I would go into communications. So I majored in mass communications at Wayne State University, got a full academic scholarship there after graduating [?] high school, and went into communications. Well, my first job, first couple jobs, I did public relations for Domino’s Pizza and then I did public relations for the Detroit Public Schools. Long story short, I just started taking photographs and Domino’s started liking it. I saw photographers would come to work there, take photos and leave. I only did it on the side. And I said, “Wait a minute, I want a job like that,” where I just go in, do what I have to do and leave. So sure enough after I’d left Domino’s I went to the Census Bureau as a quick gig as, like, the Paul Revere where I was telling people, “Hey, make sure you get counted,” and I decided that I wanted to be a photographer. And I’m self-taught. It was just something that I loved, and I just started doing more of it, and I got better at it.
Amy: So you actually started doing it as sort of just part of your job, not part that you were assigned. You started doing it and saying, “Here, I took these photos,” and they saw the potential in you and kept hiring you to do that?
Monica: Well, what happened… when I got into the Detroit Public Schools they said I needed to be able to take photos, so I said, “Oh, yeah, I take photos,” and I showed them some family vacation images, and when I got the job I had a quick five-minute lesson, bought a used camera and used my theatrical skills. I was like, “Okay, that angle right there. Oh, there. There.” I was pretending, and I muffed my way through and decided, “Okay, I’m gonna take a class. I’m gonna take a [?] class in photography so that I won’t feel like a fraud.” Well, the teacher told me I was the worst student in the class. She had no idea that I was in PR for the Detroit Public Schools Adult Education department, and she told me that and I said, “I need to have this woman’s job” for a second. I said, “How can she tell a student that?” But it only made me just be a little bit more motivated to show her I can do this. So that’s what I did. I just kept on taking pictures, looking at images, reading books, watching angles, seeing what moved me in photos and just doing more and more of it. So the actual moment where everything changed was where I had written an article for the Michigan Chronicle newspaper, and my article went on the front page. It was our governor’s inaugural law, and I wrote the article that was on the front page, and they took photographs–well, I took photographs, and they used ’em, and the thing is they wouldn’t pay me–they didn’t pay me for the article, but they paid me for the photos. I said, “Now, wait a minute. Article. Pre-interview, interview, potential writer’s block, gotta do this, do that, lots of work. Photograph. Click. Either you get it or you don’t get it.” I said, “Wait, there’s something wrong with this.” So I just started doing more work for them, and they paid me more and more because I was taking more and more photographs, and then I said, “This is something that I enjoy and I want to do,” and one day a gentleman named Harold Robinson–he was the first African-American hired by a major daily newspaper. He took interest in me and said, “You want to do this? This is something you’re interested in?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “I will mentor you,” and he was there every step of the way for me. He was hired by the Detroit News because he was the one photographer that could go in areas during the riots when a lot of others couldn’t. So Harold was determined, and he was motivated, and he gave that to me. He said, “Hey, you can do whatever you set your mind to do.” So he started telling me, “All right, when you go in and you take photos, you charge at least $125 an hour or so.” When Harold believed in me it made me believe in me, and I started charging that, and when I told him he said, “You’re charging what? You’re doing what?” But there was nowhere else to go but up because he made me feel like I could reach the moon and grab it and just go even further. So a lot of times if I didn’t think I could do something, I would call Harold. “Harold, they want me to photograph the crowd at this park during this concert with Chris Brown and Aaliyah.” I said, “Can I do that?” He said, “Yeah, put your camera on infinity. Just look out the window and shoot.” And I said, “Yes, I can do that,” and I negotiated a price with the city, and I took those images. It was all because of his belief in me, and then because of my looking at photos, studying images, reading and learning about business. That’s what really took me over the top.
Amy: There is so much in what you just said, and I think it’s worth noting you and I met–’cause we’re doing a mastermind together where we’re studying the book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.
Monica: And you are amazing at the techniques that Napoleon Hill presents in his book. I’m trying to grow up and be like you, Amy, even though I’m a lot older than you. I’m gonna grow up and be like you.
Amy: Well, I appreciate that, but I heard so many of his words in what you just said, right? Like, you acquired specialized knowledge. You had somebody who gave you confidence. You surrounded yourself with people who pushed you forward. I want to take that moment, right, when you were going from “I had nowhere to go but up” to then fast-forward to you’re traveling the world, you’re following people like Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks and Aretha Franklin. I mean, huge, huge names in the world and in history. I mean, I’m honored that I got to live on the planet at the same time as some of these people for just a little bit. You were actually there with them with some of these history-making moments. Can you talk about what happened for you mentally making that jump from, you know, “I’m gonna take some pictures of Aaliyah at the park” to here, right? ‘Cause that’s a big leap, and there’s a lot of mindset change you’ve got to get in your head to go do that.
Monica: Well, the first thing is you have to surround yourself with the right type of people. There are people who will encourage you, and then there are those who will basically, with good intentions, say, “I don’t think you need to do that. That’s not something for you. That’s just impossible,” and those people may mean well, but they may only know it from their own scope and from their level of expertise. So I had a lot of great people in my life who believed in me. For example, Jacob Keely, he said to me, “Monica, you need to do something internationally, because once you become international you will no longer be thought of as the girl next door, as the photographer, the little girl, in the city. You will have become global.” So it was during the time of the first [?] selections in 1994, and I thought about it. I said, “Well, you know, I was selected to [?] with Nelson and Winnie Mandela when they came to Detroit, and so why don’t I go to South Africa and cover the first [?] selections? And I always had a desire to know more about Nelson Mandela because in middle school I could not believe that an apartheid system even existed during my lifetime. So I thought about it. “I want to go to South Africa.” And then I said, “Wait, hold it.” I saw it on television, and I saw the fights and the deaths and the war zones that were being depicted, and I said, “I don’t know if I really want to do this,” and so my grandmother who was very protective of me–I just said, “I’m gonna put it on here.” I told everybody, “Oh, I don’t think I’m gonna be able to go because my grandmother needs me,” and she said, “You need to do this, and I want you to go with God,” and she put a cross around my [neck?] and said, “You can do it,” and I knew then that I had to. So I hopped on a plane without a plan and ended up, three days later, covering a bomb that went off in the streets of Johannesburg, and I ran towards it, and my images were run all over the world via the Associated Press newswire, and I just couldn’t believe it because I ran–it took a moment where I said, “Do I run away or do I want to run to it?” And I said to myself, “This is what I’m here for. God has me. He’s got me,” and I just clutched that cross my grandmother put there, held my camera close and ran towards it and didn’t look back, and after that just things happened day after day after day, and then I was right in front of Nelson Mandela as he raised his hand and went from prisoner to president. I was right there for that moment.
Amy: It’s just… [at a loss for words] I don’t even know what follow-up question to ask to that. That’s incredible.
Monica: Well, you know, Amy, there was some fear, a little bit of fear, because there were people that were dying during that time, people who were in areas they shouldn’t be in and tires were put around their neck and they were set on fire. I went into some areas where there were strongholds for different groups, political groups, and I took a chance being there, but, you know, I say for people you don’t have to necessarily to run towards a bomb or you don’t have to necessarily go into a danger zone, but if you believe in something, follow that dream and don’t let anybody tell you that it’s not possible to accomplish. You have to stay focused and directed. I come from an era where people didn’t know about professional photographers, so I was creating a path that wasn’t something that people knew about, and often times people would say, “What kind of career is that?” I left a secure corporate job to do something that was not stable as some people might think or didn’t have benefits–
Amy: And was downright dangerous.
Monica: At some points. Not all the time, but that particular aspect was. Now, I’ve covered some other dangers. I covered 9/11 a few days after it happened. I covered Katrina. So I’m not afraid to do those things, but also I’m there for the happy moments too. It’s not just that. I mean, I was there when they celebrated and danced and all of the wait staff came out of the Carlton hotel and they were saying [?], and Nelson Mandela and Coretta Scott King, they started dancing, and Nelson Mandela did a dance called the toyi-toyi. I’ll never forget it. To watch him dance, to see the animation in his eyes, I wouldn’t give that up for anything. But that was my dream as a child, to experience something like that, and I didn’t even realize that was my dream. So I say to anyone, whatever your dream is, it’s possible. You just have to stay focused on it and believe and put all of your energy towards it and surround yourself with the right people.
Amy: So I’m gonna ask you, because it sounds like you had some really strong, carefully selected mentors in your life. How did you approach those conversations? How did you find those people, and how did you put yourself in their path so that you could learn from them?
Monica: Amy, I’m actually an introvert. Now, when I pick up a camera, I mean, the camera is my superpower, but one-on-one, even today, I am still a very shy person, but if I had a goal in mind I wouldn’t let anything stand in my way. So as far as mentors, I think about clients that I would have. If there was a client that I wanted, I would go and approach them and let them know that I was the best and that they needed me to bring out their essence, and then I would turn my head and say, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe I said that,” and then I’d go back and look all confident towards them. So you just have to step outside of your comfort zone and move forward. If you believe in yourself, why wouldn’t somebody else believe in you? So that’s basically how things happened for me, and I [?] into many corporate doors doing lots of corporate photography for many different [?] companies, for many major Fortune 100 companies. I was their photographer documenting their events. I was Halle Berry’s photographer when she was with HBO and she presented her movies. So HBO hired me to, you know, follow her. Now, the interesting thing was I was on another assignment with the mothers of professional basketball players, and I gave up an opportunity to go to Shaq’s house to a birthday party he was giving for his dad in order to go to be the photographer for Halle Berry. What a choice. And then another time I was in New York, actually in Serena’s box when she was playing in the U.S. Open, and I left that to go to Muhammad Ali’s home–there was a [?] being delivered to him and I was the photographer for that particular company, and he performed magic for us. I was at his home, and it was just one-on-one. So again, I left one opportunity to go to another, and so you have to be able to say, you know, “This is what I want, and this is what I’m going to go after,” and not let anything get in the way of it.
Amy: That is amazing, absolutely amazing. I’m doing the calculus on it, and I’d pick Halle Berry any day over Shaq. No offense to Shaq.
Monica: No, but I mean, it was–he sent cars for everyone, and it was like [?]–there were lots of basketball… it was the mothers of basketball players. We’re talking about masses of basketball players and their families and spending one-on-one time with them. I’m not really into sports, but it was just being around them. So it was hard to make that choice.
Amy: I bet it was, my goodness. So you’ve been, I assume, all over the world, not just South Africa. Can you tell us some of the places that you’ve been that you probably would not have gone to if you hadn’t chosen this line of work?
Monica: Well, I went to Southern Sudan, to Darfur, when they had the refugee camp issues. So I went into the camps and covered that. I’ve covered children with AIDS in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. I’ve been to Niger. I’ve been to Tripoli, Libya, and actually had conversations with and photographed Muammar Gaddafi, who said I captured his essence. I’ve had opportunities to photograph probably all of the African presidents during that time because I would go to Organization of African Unity meetings and Yasser Arafat was an honorary member, so I was around him. I mean, in a small room, and a lot of them didn’t speak English, but they would say, “Monica, Monica,” and there I was with the camera. They recognized me with the camera, even if they didn’t know my name. So I’m the kind of person who would pretty much go everywhere. I don’t mind. I love to travel. I went to Israel. I got a call to document Winnie Mandela’s inaugural visit to Israel, so I was there with her when she went to the Sea of Galilee and to the Dead Sea, which they call the Sea of Life, and we went to Leah Rabin’s funeral, and President Clinton showed up as well as other dignitaries around the world for those ceremonies. So again, I would pretty much go anywhere, it doesn’t matter, because anywhere is an adventure. I could find an adventure in my backyard, you know? [laughs]
Amy: During the current pandemic that’s about the only place you’re gonna find an adventure, unfortunately. [laughs] But I’m just wondering if there’s some common thread, you know, as you’re talking about some of the most triumphant events in human history and some of our darkest hours. I mean, you’ve kind of been through all of those. Is there something that unites those moments in your mind or something that’s in common that you’re looking for when you’re there?
Monica: Well, Amy, first of all, sometimes when we have our darkest moments is when we find the light, and right now we’re going through a pandemic. Also we’re finding out that there are things that we can do to still survive. You are working from home. I don’t know if you’ve always worked from home, but in the past that might not have been something that you even knew was possible, that your employer would even allow something like that. Maybe you wanted it, but it just wasn’t going to even come into play. We find that when things happen, like, during the bombing in South Africa, there were all different races reaching out helping each other. No one saw color. People just saw other people hurting, and they went to help them. So again, in those darkest moments, you find the light, and sometimes you have to look at things differently. You can’t look at them the same. Yeah, of course we’re being quarantined. I’m an introvert. I don’t mind being by myself. I’m fine with that, and when I want company or communication, yeah, I just pick up Facebook and start reading my friends’ posts or watching live, and I feel like I’m a part of something then, but then there are times when I just need to shut the world out and I’m okay with that. The hardest part of course is anybody losing their life and being ill, but the other thing is we find our strength during this time. We’re finding that we can make it. I mean, [?] who are rich and making amazing progress and numbers monetarily during this time, probably that you may not have even known that you can do. So, I mean, we’re outside of our comfort zone, and that’s when we grow. It’s when we’re in the cocoon and we’re going through that stage when we’re just in the darkness. We don’t know what’s gonna happen, what’s next. “Oh, my gosh. What? What?” When all of a sudden we go through that metamorphosis and our wings appear, and we find out we may not be able to see those wings–other people can see ’em–but we find out we can fly. So with any particular occupation, just know that you can fly, you just have to figure out what it is that makes you fly, that you want to accomplish, and I can’t say that enough. There are so many people that I run into that say, “I wish I had [?],” or “I always liked to take photos.” Well, why not? Why is it too late? There’s no such thing. I’ve traveled alone, Amy. I’ve traveled the world alone, and I’m okay with that, because there aren’t strangers when you go to other places. They talk to you even more so if you’re by yourself. I’ve met great friends being by myself. So again, with any situation, you come outside your comfort zone and you grow.
Amy: Monica, I want to thank you so much for what you’re bringing to this conversation, because usually the conversations that I have are very centered on the work and the experience of doing the work, and I think you’re doing in this interview what you’ve done in your career, which is just elevate the moment, and I am so grateful for you, #1 for your friendship, but #2 for joining me on my little podcast. This is amazing to me, and I will say it again, like, I am sorry that I did not realize that I was in the presence of greatness when we first met.
Monica: Amy, if you don’t stop that–
Amy: No, I’m serious. You are amazing.
Monica: I think you are amazing. Listen, I have looked at the things that you’ve done, and I’ve been a part of some of the conversations that you’ve had and some of the projects that you’re working on. I am amazed by your energy and your dedication and your focus. I think it’s great, and I’m honored to have been asked by you to be here today. And I want you to know, Amy, I am shy. I don’t like doing these things. People think, “Oh, yeah, yeah, sure.” I don’t. I’m very uncomfortable, but I know it’s important to say to other people that whatever it is you want to do, you can do it, and I just always want to impart those words to someone. I mean, as far as photography, I am self-taught, but I do teach photography, and I’ve had more people–and this may not come off the right way, but I’ve had more people use my photograph as the final photograph to represent their life, and that in itself says so much to me. So I always want to bring out the best in a person. I always want a person to feel good about their image so that the image and their legacy lives on, and you’re doing the same thing with your work, with this podcast, your books and the other projects that you’re working on, so you need to be commended.
Amy: Thank you very much. I appreciate that. Now, I want to pick up on something you said. You’re teaching people photography. How can someone, if they want to learn from you, what’s the best way?
Monica: They can email me at email@example.com. firstname.lastname@example.org. My website is right now up as well, monicamorganphotography.com. The thing is people can just reach out to me. I’m on Facebook. I’m on LinkedIn. I’m just all over the place, and I do try to respond–I do respond to everyone that reaches out to me. I won’t say try to. I do. It may take me a minute, but I think it’s important because people reache dout or resopnded to me when I reached out to them, and so I try to do the same thing. I [couldn’t?] help them because they didn’t need help, but I can help [these] others, and that’s what’s important to do.
Amy: That is beautiful. Monica Morgan, thank you so much for your time today. Thank you for sharing your brilliance and inspiration with our listeners, and please, keep up the good work. These photos that you take, they bring the world to the people who can’t be there, and they bring us all closer. Thank you.
Monica. Thank you.