PICTURED: Jason Cotter at the VC BLACKOUT on June 7, 2020, in Ventura. Photo by Jonathan Dixon

 

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

nshaffer@timespublications.com

A young girl at the June 7, 2020, VC BLACKOUT in Ventura. Photo by Jonathan Dixon

When peaceful protests started breaking out across Ventura County following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands (or, rather, knee) of Minneapolis police, local photographer Jonathan Dixon found himself moved to act. His images of the VC BLACKOUT at the Ventura County Government Center on Sunday, June 7, show a community rising up to be heard, be seen and demand justice. In his lens are protesters of every race and age, marching, kneeling, holding signs, accompanied by their dogs and children.

It’s a stunning body of work that documents a day when locals joined the rest of the nation in saying, unequivocally, that black lives matter.

“This is the most vocal and most vulnerable I’ve ever felt, dealing with these issues,” said Dixon, 29, of Camarillo, via phone on Saturday, June 13. “I’ve always found a way to turn my back on the issues and get back to my own life. But this was just different.”

 

The great outdoors

Dixon is a self-taught photographer who purchased his first camera — a Sony a7III Alpha digital camera — almost exactly two years ago, on June 6, 2018. He’s been following his muse ever since. And while, like many photographers, he’s found work doing weddings, engagement photos, portraits and similar jobs, it’s the outdoors that truly call to him.

“My passion lies in landscape photography,” he said. “Going out in nature and collecting my thoughts. The pictures are the icing on the cake.”

Trona Pinnacles, San Bernardino County. Photo by Jonathan Dixon

His landscape work — viewable on his Instagram page, @jdixon_shots — is gorgeous, capturing lonely stretches of Highway 395, a starlit sky that encompasses every shade of blue, rippled sand dunes that make Pismo Beach look like a place of myth. He’s done plenty of shots around Ventura County, too, highlighting the charm of its beaches and downtown areas. In a short amount of time, his artistry has earned him over 1,400 followers on Instagram — fans, other photographers, even organizations such as Ventura Harbor Village and Visit Camarillo.

“I grew up a hippie child,” Dixon said. The son of a white mother and a black father, he was born in Camarillo but lived in Ventura for most of his life. (He moved back to Camarillo this past year.) “My mom took us all over the Western United States in her VW bus.” 

To this day, he is drawn to wide open spaces. Recent trips have included Trona Pinnacles in San Bernardino County, the Alabama Hills near the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains and Anacapa Island.

“[Nature] helps me recalibrate my thoughts. It brings me a lot of perspective and a lot of peace.”

Documenting a movement 

Until recently, Dixon had not been particularly politically active. He said that the VC BLACKOUT “was the first protest that I ever attended in my whole life.”

When asked why he’s getting involved now, he admitted that, “I feel like there’s not a right way to answer that.” But being a biracial man, he was not blind to the racism, police brutality and injustice suffered by people of color.

Jason Cotter during the June 7, 2020, VC BLACKOUT in Ventura. Photo by Jonathan Dixon

“Having this happen to my culture . . . at some point, as a black culture, we were going to reach a tipping point.”

He noted the “domino effect” that the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery (Feb. 23, shot by a white man while jogging), Breonna Taylor (March 13, shot by police officers executing a no-knock search warrant) and George Floyd (May 25, killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes) had on the community. 

“That was the first time those happened back to back to back,” Dixon said. “It’s been our reality the last three months.”

He also pointed out how this particular moment in time has added impetus to the recent, and widespread, protests. With so many people sheltering at home due to the pandemic, “no sports, we’re not socializing . . . there’s a lot less societal distraction. Their [the public’s] eyes have just been opened because there’s no damn distractions.”

“In the onset of all of this,” he explained, “I wasn’t sure how I wanted to get involved.” 

As a first step, he decided to go to the June 7 protest with friends, and brought his camera along — because it’s just what he always did. He didn’t go with the intention of amassing a collection of photojournalism images, but “things just started falling in my lap.”

He “ditched” his friends and wove through the crowd, capturing all its facets: marchers, police officers, bystanders, individuals and groups alike. One shot in particular focused on a young girl in a mask, perched on a man’s shoulders, looking back at him.

“It was one of the most powerful photos that I got,” Dixon said. He also saw it as a symbol for the peaceful, community-based nature of the event. “This isn’t some Antifa movement . . . this isn’t rioting and looting. This is a kid!”

Black Lives Matter protest in Camarillo on Friday, June 12, 2020. Photo by Jonathan Dixon

Shortly after he started posting his photos to Instagram, Dixon was contacted by VC BLACKOUT organizers, who asked for permission to use his images on the group’s social media channels (you can see a collection of them set to music on Instagram page @vcblxout). He was honored by the request, and deeply moved by the protest itself.

“It was one of the most powerful events I’ve ever attended,” he said.

Wide awake

“That protest definitely woke me up,” Dixon continued. “It made me realize that I could play a pivotal part in this moment. As a photographer, as a black person, I feel it’s my responsibility to document my history.”

Dixon’s photos tell a story about a community choosing to stand up, and stand together, for the justice and equality that should be available to all Americans, but often have been denied people of color. He hopes his photojournalism will bear witness to these events and help others understand both what the protests are like and why they had to take place.

“Let it cut people a little deeper to see these issues for what they are,” Dixon said. “I want to get images across to people so they can understand what this is. This is our basic human rights. This is our future.”

Dixon attended the Black Lives Matter protest that just took place in Camarillo on June 12, and said that, “There could have been more support. But I was very optimistic to see the youth that were there.” He estimated that 400-500 people showed up. “If those protests can happen so close to home . . . maybe that turned some heads in the right direction.”

Jonathan Dixon at Oceano, San Luis Obispo County.

For more about Jonathan Dixon and his photography, visit his Instagram page, @jdixon_shots. His documentation of the VC BLACKOUT can be seen @vcblxout. Dixon will have his work featured at Rincon Brewery in Ventura starting in October.