‘This is real, this is life’: Duke Givens channels loss into his Power of Choice

Video by Nancy Raven Kirk

Duke Givens lost a generation of friends to gang violence.

Walking around the second floor of the Expo Arts Building, the Long Beach-born and bred photographer and documentary filmmaker points to portraits he took in the early ‘90s. Roughly half of those subjects—friends he grew up with, went to school with, played Pop Warner football with—are serving life sentences, or dead. Conversely, another half of the room displays prominent and esteemed community members, friends he grew up with, and colleagues he’s met in adulthood.

“This image,” he says, pointing to a photo he took at a friend’s funeral, “represents a generation; that’s what that casket represents. Just so many young men who didn’t get a chance to fulfill their purpose.”

The portraits showcasing the lives lost during the eruption of gang violence in Long Beach during the 1980s are just one half of the latest installment of his photography exhibit, Power of Choice. With one side of the room dedicated to the realities of the past, the opposite wall highlights community members who chose a different life.

Power of Choice, Givens says, is a Southern California perspective on those who chose to live the “street life” and those who chose to dedicate their lives to improving the community.

Some of the faces of those who chose the latter immediately stand out: Councilman Rex Richardson, Councilman Al Austin, Vice Mayor Dee Andrews and VIP Records’ owner Calvin Anderson. Austin, whom Givens refers to as a personal mentor, called the comparison and contrast of the images “clear and powerful.”

“[It] is a very real, in-your-face message of how our decisions affect our lifestyles, families, community and perceptions of who we are as a people,” he wrote in an email. “Each image is a unique story about the success and challenges of black Long Beach. It is also a blunt reminder of how deep and generational the gang subculture is in areas of our community.”

The series, inspired partially by Givens’ 1995 “Stop Gang Violence” calendar, which featured Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg and Warren G, among others, is primarily geared toward children. Givens says that he wants to “plant a seed” in the minds of young people, to inspire them to take control of their lives and to let them know that no matter their background or circumstances, they have the power to choose who they become.

“Duke’s exhibit gives us an opportunity to really break outside the stereotypes of men; men of color in our city, and really demonstrate the unsung heroes, the real stories of people who are enduring, leading and being really positive images for our community,” Richardson said. “I think we should support more culturally relevant art like that.”

With no text accompanying the images, Givens wants to send the message that the history of violence, death and incarceration is not unique to Long Beach, nor is the reality that individuals have the power to choose to live purposeful lives.

“Wherever you are, on your journey in life, you have greatness inside you,” he says. “It’s just how you tap into it to fulfill your purpose.”

Givens calls Power of Choice a “living gallery.” As he continues to meet people who positively contribute to the community, Givens adds portraits to the series. Farmers and Merchants Bank Senior Vice President Reva Hynes first met Givens almost 25 years ago. He photographed her wedding, and her son has been featured in some of Givens’ other work. Hynes, who has been working in banking for 27 years, said she was honored that Givens’ thought enough of her to ask her to pose for the series.

As one of a handful of women featured, Hynes hopes to send “a message to young ladies and girls that despite their fears, personal challenges or demographics … they are responsible for their legacy and can do anything that they put their minds too.”

Being a continually evolving series, Givens has shown versions of Power of Choice in the past. While most who have seen it have had a positive reaction, Givens says some people have viewed it in a negative light.

“I think it’s viewed as stereotypical in certain capacities,” he says. “People don’t like to be portrayed in a negative light. But this is real, this is life.”

Walking in front of his earlier portraits, Givens points to a photo he took of a childhood friend named Terrell. Givens says that when the drug scene hit Long Beach in the late 80s, “it just hit my childhood friends like a flood.

“I went from playing football in the streets… [to] not being able to be outside like I used to,” he says. “Guys we grew up with changed. They went from being innocent, nice young men, to becoming violent young men. Because you live on this side of town, you belong to this gang; because you live on that side of town you belong to that gang. Guys that we grew up with turned on each other and basically participated in genocide.”

Wanting to escape the gangs rising around him, Givens joined the Air Force in 1989. After being honorably discharged in 1993, he returned to Long Beach, only to find the violence worse and many of his friends dead.

“We went to a lot of funerals, to the point where it becomes numbing, it just makes you unable to feel pleasure,” he said. “When you have people who you play kickball with … road your bikes on the backside of Signal Hill and went swimming with. Now they’re gone. Why? Of course, it’s choice. But, they’re still gone, and you still miss them.”

Givens plans on continuing to grow the gallery’s content base and to work with local schools to hopefully incorporate the exhibit into the curriculum.

“I primarily designed it for young minds because it’s easier in my thought process to reach a child,” he says. “People, when they get older, get set in their ways.”

Eventually, Givens would like the images compiled into a coffee table book.

“I think what he’s doing is absolutely awesome,” says exhibit subject Tippi Hall who works at the Boeing Company. “It highlights the people in Long Beach and in our neighborhoods. It’s reflective of who we are, of who we’ve become.”

Power of Choice will be open for private viewing Dec. 16 at the Expo Arts Building in Bixby Knolls. Those who wish to view the exhibit can contact Duke Givens via email at [email protected]

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