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Background Image Ann Dean standing in front of exhibition of photographs

Big Idea: Images from the Mind of a Bi-Racial Black Woman

By Ann Dean

Inspired by Gordon Parks and his book "A Choice of Weapons," photographer Ann Dean wields the camera as her weapon to tell the truth, examine identity, share stories, and communicate her worldview through the eyes of a bi-racial black woman growing up in St. Louis and living in Lawrence, Kansas in the 21st Century. As she shows us her unique perspective, Dean challenges others to find their own weapon of choice to tell their stories and to express themselves in the world they inhabit.

I am a photographer. A documenter, a storyteller, a silent observer. The art of photography puts you in a unique position to observe the world around you from a distance. To record flashes of life that have meaning to you. When I was very young I realized the power of the still image. I remember seeing the breathtaking and haunting photograph of Florence Owens Thompson, the ‘Migrant Mother’ by Dorthea Lange, who became the face of the Great Depression. The piercing eyes of Sharbat Gula, the ‘Afghan Girl,’ by Steve McCurry, on the cover of my mother’s National Geographic magazine. The desperation, urgency and freedom of Gordon Parks’ ‘Emerging Man’ crawling out from the depths. These photographs stuck with me throughout my life, like a great image does. The photographers brought us into the worlds of their subjects and I wanted to know more. It is incredibly valuable to be able to stop for a moment, take a look at the world, appreciate the tiniest details and capture them from behind the camera. To record a fraction of a second that will live on forever. To tell your stories from your own unique point of view that only you can see. This is why I decided to become a photographer.

main emerging from a hole

"Emerging Man" by Gordon Parks

In 1970 I was born and adopted by a black family in St Louis, MO, who had already adopted a baby boy, my brother, 18 months earlier. My parents had a small 2 bedroom apartment in the city, but just before my birth they decided to find a larger home with more space for their growing family. My father had been awarded the position of Chief Microbiologist at St. Louis City Hospital so they were ready for a fresh start. They soon found a house on the north side of the city very close to the county line, or what would soon be known as the suburbs. At the time it was an all white neighborhood where the unwritten rule was no blacks after 6pm unless they were domestic workers. As a result they were petitioned by the residents who tried to block them from moving in, but my parents were not having it and they fought against what they called a ‘line restriction.’ They felt that if they could vote in elections and go to war and fight for this country, which my father had done in Korea, they deserved to live anywhere they pleased. They did not back down and despite these actions they moved into their new home, while at the same time some of the neighbors moved out. This was the beginning of ‘white flight’ in our area, and by the time I went to high school our neighborhood would be almost entirely black.

family sitting on couch

Dean Family, 1971

When I looked into the faces of my family blackness is what I saw, what I have always seen. I had never known anything else, this was my identity, where I felt most comfortable and at ease, although I knew deep down inside there might be something a little ‘different’ about me. I was 5 years old when my mother told us of our adoptions and about my racial background. You see, I am the product of a black man and a white woman which makes me bi-racial by definition, but in my heart and mind I am black because my family is black. So I shrugged it off, I knew who I was, and never really questioned it, until I went to school and became socialized. My classmates would rudely ask, “What are you?” It always caught me off guard. “What do you mean? I’m a human being, a citizen of the world,” I would think. But they wanted a concrete answer. Even at that young age race was an issue, and I learned that I would have to answer those questions for the rest of my life. The white kids would stare at my face, my skin. They would touch my hair, which still happens all the time. They asked me why I didn’t ‘talk black.’ The black girls teased me relentlessly. They called me white girl, high yellow, said I talked ‘proper’ and hated my so-called ‘good hair’. They wanted to fight me in the neighborhood, in the schoolyard. The mere sight of me made them, irritated and angry, I could always feel it the moment it started and I would immediately work to diffuse the situation. But I thought to myself, why were they saying these things? What was happening? Why did they hate me? I was a black girl too, why couldn’t they understand?

young girl school portrait

Ann Dean, Third Grade

I was in between worlds, on the outside. This was further proven to me when our parents decided we would get a better education and more opportunities by entering into the City of St. Louis desegregation program. Starting in junior high we were ‘bussed’ as they say, to the all white wealthy enclave of Clayton, Missouri (even though my stay at home mother drove us to school each day until we could drive ourselves). It was tough leaving the neighborhood and entering into this completely new world that I knew nothing about and couldn’t believe even existed once I arrived. I was shocked by their lifestyle, the houses, the cars, the clothes, the money.., Was this for real? Did people really live like this? But I adapted to my new environment, made friends, and realized that the gap could be bridged, but it had to be done delicately. Tread lightly, don’t be too aggressive. Watch and learn.

two girls sitting on a bench

"Jackie & Me"

It was here at Clayton that I saw ‘The Learning Tree’ by Gordon Parks, an African American photographer, writer, director and composer from Fort Scott, Kansas. It tells the story of a young boy growing up in rural Kansas and becoming a man at a time when racism was the norm and part of daily life. The film was beautiful, heavy and tragic, and it left a mark on me. A couple years later I would read his book, ‘A Choice of Weapons,’ which would solidify my understanding of the power of the still image as an art form. In it Parks says, “I picked up the camera because it was my choice of weapon against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, poverty. I could have just as easily picked up a gun like many of my childhood friends did, most of whom were murdered or put in prison. But I chose not to go that way. I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.” he said. So did I. These images are from Gordon Parks book ‘Segregation Story’, where he uses photography to tell the story of the Jim Crow south.

women and girl outside segregated entrance of a department store

"Department Store, Mobile, Alabama" by Gordon Parks

My mother gave me my first camera for my birthday when I was in 8th grade, a Nikon L35 autofocus with attachable lenses, and I took it everywhere. She was a painter herself, and always encouraged us to experiment with visual art, music, theater, anything that might interest us and spark our curiosity. I soon became aware that I could speak through the camera. I discovered a whole new world and realized that the camera does not lie. It expresses the truth of a situation no matter what. I was obsessed with capturing the beauty of the the world that often goes unseen. I understood the power that one single image could conjure. I wanted to harness this power and learn how to be the best I could be at telling stories through photography. At the same time though I could stay out of the mix, and it felt so comfortable to be behind the camera. I began studying other photographers and their work, paying close attention to the way they told their stories. Their images expressed feeling & emotion: pain, discomfort, fear, beauty, love, joy and truth. I was especially drawn towards the images orom the civil rights photographers and how they were able to encapsulate the feelings of an entire movement towards social justice with only a few choice photographs. It was then that I really understood the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

"I soon became aware that I could speak through the camera. I discovered a whole new world and realized that the camera does not lie. It expresses the truth of a situation no matter what." 

I moved to Lawrence, Kansas in 1988 and studied English at KU, but photography was never far from my mind and I always had my camera with me to record my journey. I remember a college class that I took called ‘The Black Experience in the United States since Emancipation,' which would be taught by a female professor and I was excited. The room was crowded and the ceilings were low. It was nice to see that the class was very split racially, which was rare, with white students mostly from small Kansas towns who had never met a black person before, to black students from larger cities who had little to no interactions with white people. It was tense. I would sit quietly and listen week after week to the arguments, frustrations and prejudices each group had towards the other. When I finally spoke up and tried to find some common ground the professor called me a ‘bleeding heart liberal’ and quickly dismissed my comment. This cut me to the core. I thought, ‘how will we ever learn to understand each other if we cannot hear one another and try to come together in some way? And why does that make me a bleeding heart liberal?” As if it were more comfortable to perpetrate the hate. It was discouraging.

Haworth Hall University of Kansas

"Haworth Hall, University of Kansas" by Ann Dean

There have been so many other experiences along these lines in my life, too many to count. What lies at the core of this? I think it’s fear. Fear of what you do not understand. Intolerance and being closed off to learning something new about your fellow human beings. I also realized that my experience growing up was rare and that I wanted to share it. I started telling my own stories and showing people the world through my eyes and from my perspective. I learned to study social situations, to read the room, to blend in and become a chameleon so I could maneuver easily with my camera no matter what company I was in. A silent witness recording my observations about the world we all live in, straddling the line between black and white, not wanting to rock the boat. Going to school at Clayton each day and then back home to my neighborhood on the north side in the evenings had a profound effect one me. It helped me learn to adapt more easily to different settings, and allowed me to be flexible within them.

man carving a stick

"Felipe" by Ann Dean

After I graduated from KU I lived in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula for a short time where I still visit most every year. This experience furthered my understanding of different cultures as I got to know the Maya culture people. I try to travel as much as I possibly can to expand my horizons and broaden my knowledge about this diverse world and its inhabitants. One of the most enriching travel experiences I ever had was visiting Cuba for our honeymoon in 2002. To me it was a photographers dream. The Cuban people have very little and have put up with so much, yet what they lack in material things they more than make up for through art, music and their general attitude towards life. They made me understand that all the stuff we think we need is just an illusion, and that life is about so much more. We loved it so much that we went back again in 2017 and I’m sure I’ll go back to visit someday.

man sits in front of building in Havana

"Havana Vieja" by Ann Dean

The world we live in today is changing constantly and with the pandemic we are currently living through, these are very uncertain times. Ironically, a disease that attacks the lungs while we are all shouting collectively, “We Can’t Breathe!” There is still misunderstanding, ignorance and violence in terms of race and so many of the same wrongs are still being perpetrated today. Time seems to have stoked the flames of this fire. It is astonishing how the these scenes echo the same images we all saw from the civil rights demonstrations in the 1960’s. How can this be? These are the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the freedom fighters, still fighting for the same goals: justice and equality for all human beings here and everywhere in the world. This takes strength, tenacity and courage and it is inspiring to see young and older people today standing up for what is right, for what we all deserve. We have come so far but let’s look honestly at where we still are and what we are doing as a people, as a country, as these United States.

"Black in America" by Ann Dean


Just a few days ago I took a survey and one of the questions asked what race I identify with most, black and bi-racial were options, I am both. Yet I still identify as a black woman, and I still consider myself to be a citizen of the world. But I also know where I come from and who I am, and nobody can take that away from me. Not with harsh words, teasing, insults or hate speech. And I will remain true to myself no matter what others think they see.

woman in front of photography exhibition

Ann Dean, "From Kansas to the Caribbean" photo exhibition, Lawrence Arts Center

These days I teach photography to youth and adults at the Lawrence Arts center, and I run my own freelance photography business. Photography will always be a part of my life in some way. I will continue to tell my stories, to seek out new subject matter and expand on my viewpoints, to see the world in my own unique way. It’s never too late to learn something new about yourself and the world around you. So find something you enjoy and that makes you happy, where you can express yourself and tell your own stories. In the final words of his memoir Gordon Parks says, ”Poverty and bigotry would still be around, but at least now I could fight them on even terms. The significant thing was having a choice of weapons with which to fight them most effectively.” Your choice of weapon can take the form of a pen or a paintbrush, a trumpet or a drum, a microscope or a shovel, a sauté pan or a wrench, a sewing machine, a blackboard, a book, your vote, your voice. Or a simple conscious effort to be understanding and kind to the individuals around you. But what is most important is that we do have a choice. What will you choose?

boy reading in bed

"Norman Jr. Reading in Bed" by Gordon Parks

About Ann Dean

Ann Dean's photographs capture a range of moments from straightforward beauty to surrealist flashes within everyday life.  She says, “I love photography because it gives me a chance to savor the fleeting moments in life that we all take for granted and that give our lives meaning." Although travel photography is her passion, Ann currently teaches photography at the Lawrence Arts Center and is a freelance photographer specializing in event, portrait & commercial photography.

Watch Ann Dean present her a slideshow of her Big Idea photo essay

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Spark a Conversation







mother and children in 1930sView
"Migrant Mother" by Dorthea Lange
young womanView
"Afghan Girl" by Steve McCurry
man emerging from holeView
"Emerging Man" by Gordon Parks
family sitting on couchView
Family Photo, 1971
man and womanView
Ann Dean's parents
children at a partyView
Ann Dean's 5th Birthday Party
young girlView
Ann Dean, Third Grade
two girls sittingView
"Jackie and Me"
still shot from the Learning Tree movieView
Still shot from Gordon Parks' "The Learning Tree."
boy laying downView
"Boy with Junebug" by Gordon Parks
book cover of Gordon Parks bookView
"A Choice of Weapons" by Gordon Parks
a woman and young girl by colored entrance signView
"Department Store, Mobile, Alabama," Photo by Gordon Parks, 1956
woman drinking at colored only water fountainView
"Water Fountain, Mobile, Alabama." Photo by Gordon Parks, 1956
woman and child at an airport terminalView
"Airline Terminal, Atlanta, Georgia," 1956 by Gordon Parks
children looking through fence at parkView
"Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama," 1956 by Gordon Parks
First Camera
top of a tentView
Haskell Indian Art Fair by Ann Dean
"Emerging Sunflower" by Ann Dean
church View
"North Lawrence Church" by Ann Dean
woman in wheelchair and Frida Kahlo bannerView
"Mom and Frida" by Ann Dean
men standing at Olympic podiumView
Black Power Salute by John Dominis
soldiers in the waterView
"D Day" by Robert Capa
Tank Man by Jeff Widener
Ghandi by Margaret Bourke White
man and woman dancingView
Nuit de Noel by Malick Sidbé
Mohammad Ali and the BeatlesView
Ali Meets the Beatles by Harry Benson
people on a trolleyView
Trolley New Orleans by Robert Frank
protestors being blasted with firehoseView
"Demonstrators, Birmingham" by Charles Moore
Fireman blasting demonstrators with hoseView
"Fireman and Demonstrators" by Charles Moore
policemen and dogsView
"Police Dogs" by Charles Moore
"I Am a Man" by Joshua Rashaad McFadden
college campusView
University of Kansas by Ann Dean
Haworth Hall, University of Kansas by Ann Dean
tower at nightView
Campanile, University of Kansas by Ann Dean
"Haskell Pow wow" by Ann Dean
dancers at powwowView
"Dancers" by Ann Dean
dancers at pow wowView
Haskell Pow Wow by Ann Dean
closeup of a headdressView
Haskell Pow Wow by Ann Dean
man sitting on carView
Demolition Derby, Douglas Count Fair by Ann Dean
man entering car through the windowView
Demolition Derby, Douglas County Fair by Ann Dean
man sitting on carView
Demolition Derby, Douglas County Fair by Ann Dean
couple looking at carView
Demolition Derby, Douglas County Fair by Ann Dean
Virgin Mary statueView
"Blue Mary" by Ann Dean
red wallView
"Red Wall" by Ann Dean
young boy and young girlView
"Twins" by Ann Dean
young boys by the seaView
"Young Cubans on the Malecon" by Ann Dean
two men by doorwayView
"Comrades" by Ann Dean
man on stepsView
"Havana Vieja" by Ann Dean
people watching harborView
"Watching the Cruise Ships" by Ann Dean
man sitting in chairView
"Generoso Betancourt" by Ann Dean
family on porch wearing maskView
Porch Portrait with Masks by Ann Dean
women at protestView
"Philando" by Ann Dean
grafitti on wallView
"I Can't Breathe" by Ann Dean
"Say Their Names" by Ann Dean
"And Justice for All" by Ann Dean
"Black Lives Matter" by Ann Dean
"No Justice No Peace" by Ann Dean
Two protestors hugView
"Hug" by Ann Dean
man holding protest signView
"Being Black in America" by Ann Dean
young manView
Raymont Hayden by Ann Dean
man sitting on a barricadeView
Shaquille Williams by Ann Dean
police officer on building roofView
"On the Roof" by Ann Dean
woman in front of photo exhibitView
Ann Dean "From Kansas to the Caribbean" exhibition
young boy reading in bedView
"Norman Jr. Reading in Bed" by Gordon Parks


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