It wasn’t just George Floyd’s name heard at protests across Buffalo this summer. The names of Quentin Suttles, Wardel ‘Meech’ Davis, and Cariol Horne were all chanted as a national fight against systematic racism continues. Photographer Tito Ruiz was on the front line with protestors to capture the emotion felt locally in Western New York’s fight for racial justice. Now, more than 30 of his large prints are on display as part of a solo exhibit at CEPA Gallery.
Tito Ruiz has spent years covering boxing through a focused lens ringside. Observing fighters as they weave between the ropes looking for an opening. He draws similarities in the passion and vigor from inside the ring to the front lines of a protest.
“When you're photographing boxing, everything is really fast paced, it's fast moving, so you have to be very intuitive," Ruiz said. "You have to anticipate the fighters next move, you want to capture that punch, you want to capture the emotion, the intensity.”
Ruiz love for photography started when he was nine with his mother’s 35 millimeter camera.
“It was always something I enjoyed doing. I always enjoyed being kind of like a fly on the wall and capturing moments when people weren't looking,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz continued to develop his craft at Buffalo State College while gaining additional experience in Los Angeles and New York City.
"I used to work in editorials. I worked for Vibe magazine as a writer. I worked for HighTimes (magazine), doing music reviews and features. I worked for Hip Hop Weekly, DUB magazine, which is celebrity automotive lifestyle magazine," Ruiz said. "And I've done feature stories on Floyd Mayweather and Bernard Hopkins."
One of Ruiz’s largest influences specialized in visual advocacy—Gordon Parks— who was the first African American to work for Life magazine in the late 1940’s.
“He was at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Documenting, photographing Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, you name it,” he said. “The camera was his weapon of choice during the movement for civil rights and he wanted to capture oppressed people in a more humane light. And he wanted to shed, basically provide mainstream audiences with a look at his subjects through his lens. Capturing poverty. Capturing oppression.”
Ruiz, like Parks, wants to enlighten an audience that may not be aware the issues people of color face every day. He’s doing it with this exhibit, Hope, Rebellion & Justice.
“People will have been locked away during quarantine. They come in here, and they're like, 'Wow, this is what was happening during the past couple months while I was locked away,' because what's shown on the news is a little bit different,” Ruiz said.
The exhibit is connected by five walls. Each with a theme.
One wall is entirely dedicated to activist Myles Carter, who was arrested at a police protest on June 1 during a live TV (WIVB-4) interview. Carter visited CEPA to see himself through a different lens.
“It’s almost overwhelming because it's like everything is happening at one time," Carter said. "I was here for a lot of stuff and then even some of the things that I wasn't here for, it's like I was being educated on them as I was walking through the gallery.”
On a wall titled Hope and Rebellion, there’s photos from 2017 that showcase community activists like Cariol Horne speaking out about police brutality after the death of Wardel Davis.
Carter appeared exhausted. He's not just an activist. He's a father. A business owner. And the summer has taken a toll. He said he is still in the process of dealing with charges stemming from the June 1 incident.
“I know that I'm, like, you know, in these pictures," Carter laughed looking at himself in photos from just a few months ago. "You can see it in my eyes, like I'm stressed, I'm tired. And it shows. For some of these other people who've been doing it as long as they have, I guess it's hopeful. That-- right 'Hope and Rebellion,' that it'll continue on and then I'll be able to find my energy and find my footing and be as strong as some of the other people that have been at this.”
Thoughts from Carter while viewing the exhibit
The fight is exhausting, but rewarding:
“I have a whole life outside of just doing this. I'm raising my kids like. I work. I have my mom who I helped to take care of. I have my community as well in the mosque, we do a lot of stuff proactively in the community. We have so much of that and then there then there's this, you know, and it's like, you don't plan for this to be part of your life. It kind of just happens. At least that's how it was for me. When the protests were going on for Quentin Suttles, I watched the video before those protests started happening and a lot of people in Buffalo became aware of it afterwards. Right, because it's not that big of a deal here.”
“Because in Buffalo, people aren't that connected. And you have people that are and thank God for them because they've been bringing the message so that people like me and so many other people that are disconnected from the idea or the existence of police brutality and the existence of the housing crisis here in Buffalo and the existence of the economic crisis happening on the east and west side and the disparity in how resources are being spent in the city. And then the fact that we're spending almost 30% of our entire city's budget on our police officers. Like, if it wasn't for those people that that have been doing this for so long, we'd be lost. We wouldn't even know and there's not that many of them. Right? So it's like we're hanging on by like a thread.”
“You know, there's like five or six, strong good people that are communicating to us. It’s when you put all that together. They're still moving. I can look at them and I could see, Oh, wow, this is really having an effect on my life. It’s beautiful. And I wouldn't really trade it for anything as much as it's so stressful that things don't move the way that you want them to move. In the way that you think they should move in or the direction that they should go in. You have to admit, being out there-- it's not fun. It's rewarding. And you can feel and you can see the positive energy from everybody else that's out there trying to push for the same type of changes and for the same movement, and they're looking for direction and leadership.
Erie County Legislature Chairwoman April Baskin has also stopped by. While looking at the same photo from 2017, she said everything that happened that year led to her running for the office she works in today.
“What is happening right now in this space is it's all-- I'm frozen," Baskin said, taking in the environment while sitting down. "It's finally been able to slow down and look at the journey. We have come some ways since 2017, since I was a teenager, since I was a kid, but we still have an extremely far distance to go. And I can appreciate somebody that's constantly going every single day, a moment to come in here on these white walls and capture these images in black, white and gray. And truly, truly freeze for a moment and take in the journey.”
Ruiz said he didn’t set out to take pictures for a history book. He just wanted to share an empathetic perspective of the fight at hand.
“I think that when I'm capturing this particular photograph, I feel like I just, I feel the intensity," he said. "I feel the emotion and the people who are protesting. I feel the anger. And I just want to do my best to encapsulate that in this photograph.”
The exhibit runs through this weekend at 617 Main Street, Buffalo. The times are as follows.
Wednesday, Friday, Saturday: 12-4 p.m.
Thursday: 12-7 p.m.