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It was the first day of the Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to be nominated for Supreme Court Justice. East Bay native Sarahbeth Maney was covering the historic event as the first Black photography fellow at The New York Times and the first-ever photo fellow at their Washington D.C. bureau.
Maney never expected that one of her photos from that Monday, March 21 assignment—of Jackson, flanked by her husband and beaming daughter, Leila—would bring her national notoriety.
An early indication came on Tuesday when she posted the photo on her Instagram account and it racked up so many comments and shares that she had to turn off her notifications. But it wasn’t until Thursday that Maney began to understand the extent to which her photo was resonating with the public.
“I got a text from a New York Times reporter who was like, ‘Hey, you need to tweet out that photo of [Judge] Ketanji Brown and her daughter from day one, because people have been posting it on Twitter, not crediting you and it’s rude.’ I tweeted and watched the numbers of likes and retweets start moving,” Maney said. “That’s when I realized, okay, this is something that people are paying attention to.”
Meena Harris, the niece of Vice President Kamala Harris, shared Maney’s photo in a tweet, in which she mistakenly identified Maney as being from Oakland. (Maney actually grew up in Martinez, but lived in Oakland for a short spell and has family who lives here.) From there, local and national outlets began reaching out to Maney to interview her about the viral moment. Maney even penned an essay for Today about what taking that photo meant to her as a photojournalist and Black woman.
But the now-famous photo of Judge Brown and her daughter Leila wasn’t the first time that Maney’s lens had captured a historic moment that went viral.
In May 2020, Maney was wrapping up an internship in Flint, Michigan, where she was covering the pandemic. She’d graduated from San Francisco State the year before, and flew back to the Bay Area after her internship ended—one day before the death of George Floyd.
When protests erupted on Oakland’s streets in the days following Floyd’s killing, Maney wanted to be front and center with her camera. “I wasn’t working for anybody. I was just documenting for myself,” she said. Maney, who’d previously interned at The San Francisco Chronicle, said she isn’t aware of many Black women photojournalists working at local Bay Area news outlets full-time—one reason she felt motivated to be present.
“A fellow photojournalist who works at The Sacramento Bee said to me, ‘SB, you really need to be out here in Oakland documenting this because I don’t know of any Black woman photojournalists who are going to be out there doing that.’”
During one protest, Maney noticed Louis Michael, a recent college graduate who’d shown up wearing his cap and gown. Maney saw that most of the other photojournalists that day had positioned themselves near the police line, hoping to capture interactions between protesters and officers. But Maney was struck by Michael’s decision to wear his cap and gown, and she decided to keep her eye on him instead. “I waited until he put his fist up in the air and took the picture.”
The moment was revelatory for Maney. “That was the first time where I realized just how powerful and important my voice is as a Black woman photojournalist,” she said.
After the photo of Michael went viral, he began receiving requests to participate in other organized protests and eventually went on to found Vessels of Vallejo, a grassroots social justice organization providing mutual aid and political education. “He basically turned into an activist overnight,” Maney said.
As Maney continued covering the protests over the ensuing days, she spoke with an organizer and mentioned the photo she’d taken of Michael. That conversation led to the photo being turned into a mural in June 2020 on the corner of 14th Street and Broadway, at the former location of a Walgreens pharmacy.
The mural, titled Turning Anger Into Action, was painted by Fremont High School students, their art teacher, John Christie, and contributing artists LC Howard, Joy Johnson, and Gina Martinez in collaboration with Maney, Michael, and his wife Destiny.
“It meant so much to be trusted with SB’s photo of Louis, and to play a role in bringing it to life in a collaborative painting,” said Christie, the Fremont High teacher.
On one particular day when Maney was at the mural site, she witnessed a group of Oakland high school graduates, who weren’t able to have an in-person graduation ceremony because of the pandemic, using the artwork as a backdrop to take pictures as if they were walking across a stage.
“It was a beautiful and touching experience that came out of the photo,” she said.
The mural has since been taken down from its location on 14th and Broadway due to a building renovation at the site and hasn’t yet found a permanent home.
“I want to spend time investing in a community where I feel like I can lend my voice in a really positive and productive way.”