A gentle smile touches the face of AJ, barber and manager of Millennium Cuts, as he reminisces about his friend and former customer George Floyd. “Out of all the clients I had, he was the only one that would ask me how my day was, he would ask and listen. We would laugh a lot. It’s crazy that he’s gone.”

We Are Present is a limited edition monograph by Laylah Amatullah Barrayn. Only 350 copies are available.

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn walked into Millennium Cuts almost by chance. She was exploring North Minneapolis, and discovering the barbershop still open (many businesses in the area had closed), she started talking with AJ, a barber and the manager at the shop. AJ told her that George Floyd, who had been murdered by police just days before, had been a client and friend for about four years.  

“AJ shared that George Floyd always asked about the well-being of his family and took a genuine interest in his life,” the photographer tells me. “AJ said he would miss those heartfelt conversations.”

That moment appears in Amatullah Barrayn’s historic book We Are Present: 2020 in Portraits, along with many others photographed serendipitously—in some cases, miraculously—during a year of pain, trauma, resilience, and joy. Spanning cities throughout the United States and beyond,* her portraits illuminate a singular time in American and global history, a year shaped by grief but also defined by hope. 

Amatullah Barrayn’s mother, who passed away a few years before 2020, was the family photographer. She introduced her daughter to photography, and through her, Amatullah Barrayn learned about the beauty of quiet moments and the importance of collaboration between a photographer and her sitter. 

It’s that abiding sense of connection—even and perhaps especially during a period of isolation—runs throughout the book, as we travel from the early days of the pandemic, the protests (with 15 million to 26 million people participating across the country, the Black Lives Matter is likely the largest in US history), the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and the very first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. 

We Are Present might be about a precise moment in history—the year that changed the world—but it’s also a book that we can and should return to ten, twenty, or a hundred years into the future. Amatullah Barrayn’s portraits invite us to look, revisit, read, and reread. Upon a second viewing of her portrait of AJ at Millennium Cuts, for instance, you might notice the barber’s chair in the foreground. “You feel the presence of Floyd in the chair,” the photographer says. 

We asked Amatullah Barrayn to tell us more about some of the portraits in the book. Order your copy today.

This is a portrait of Pap Dieng, the owner of Jollof Restaurant, which is one of the oldest Senegalese restaurants in New York City. This photograph is an outtake from a story I worked on for the New York Times, that looks at how restaurants were challenged with operating within a global pandemic.
“The Commitment March” was held on August 28, 2020 on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. The families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner and Jacob Blake with Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King II were in attendance to commentate the 57th anniversary of the original march, which was held to address racial discrimination and show support for the then-pending civil rights legislation. I was on assignment for the French publication, Le Monde. This portrait was one of the last photographs I made that day. It is of a young man, Deuce, from North Carolina.
This was another portrait I made while on assignment for Le Monde, in Washington DC at The Commitment March, on August 28, 2020. It is of a young woman, Daria, who was one of the many people who took to the wading pool at the Lincoln Memorial. It was one of the hottest days in the summer, and with over 200,000 people in attendance at the march, this was one of the ways to cool off while being present in this historical moment.
I worked on a number of stories while in Minneapolis, one of them was about young people who were getting tattoos of statements that were connected to the uprisings, namely, “I can’t breathe.” I wrote and photographed the story for The New York Times. I sat with a local tattoo artist and made portraits of the work that she was doing on her customers. “It’s something I wanted to carry with me,” Terace Diver said, who is pictured. “This is a symbol of representation. I’ve been feeling proud. We are standing up for ourselves.”
While in Minneapolis, I reported on many of the demonstrations. This photograph of a woman and her son was at a protest that was held in St. Paul at the residence of Governor Tim Walz.
While there are many photographs in “We Are Present” that are from my assignment work, there are also many images of my observations and witnessing while simply being present in my immediate communities. This is a photograph I made in Brownsville, which is the neighborhood that I grew up in in Brooklyn. I love this photograph because it reminds me of family and love and how that looks on a daily basis, with this couple being an elegant example on how to just be.

All images and captions © Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

*The book spans neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, NYC, Newark, Louisville, Washington DC,  Minneapolis, and St. Paul. Two portraits were made outside of the US in Negril, Jamaica. 

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