— Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.
— National Association of Black Journalists
— B.A. in Studio Art (Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York)
— Secondary Art Education (Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York)
— M.A. in Fine Arts (Savannah College of Art and Design)
Favorite snack: Banana Bread
Pet: Her late dog “Zomee”
Super power: Inspiring others.
Velvet McNeil on the importance of visualizing greatness
Velvet S. McNeil was visiting New York for her sister’s wedding on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. She was just blocks away from the Twin Towers when they were hit during the terrorist attacks; committed to telling the news, Velvet made her way to the epicenter of the chaos, camera in hand.
Fast forward 20 years: Velvet, a successful photojournalist, reflects on the experience. She took many iconic images on 9/11. Her pictures captured the thick plumes of smoke swirling in the air, the rubble of the decimated buildings, and the shock and fear on the dust-covered faces of survivors and onlookers. Some of her stills appeared in the History Channel’s 10th anniversary documentary of the terrorist attacks.
As a young woman, Velvet earned a B.A. in Studio Art and a secondary Art Education degree at Marymount College. Her initial desire was to become an art teacher. Velvet later studied photography at the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom and earned a master’s degree in photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Upon graduation, Velvet worked as a page designer for the Courier Post. There, she met Ricardo Thompson, a colleague and a photographer who had once served in the office of former President Henry Ford. It was Ricardo who advised Velvet to “capture life as it happens every day.”
In 2000, while still employed at the Courier Post, Velvet had the opportunity to chronicle protests at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Her photographs highlighted her ability to capture powerful photos in chaotic conditions. On the strength of those images, Velvet was scouted and subsequently employed by The Detroit News. She began working as a visual journalist for the newspaper, a role that further honed her skills as a photographer. And just a year later, Velvet would rely on these experiences to capture the events of 9/11.
Velvet became an active member of the National Association of Black Journalists, where she served as chair of the Visual Task Force for 12 years. During this time, Velvet influenced and educated many others in the photojournalism industry.
“Velvet inspired me to always pay attention and build relationships,” says longtime colleague and friend Jarrad Henderson. They first met at the NABJ 2014 Conference in Boston. Velvet was managing the annual photo auction with proceeds to benefit the NABJ Scholarship Fund, and Jarrad was helping her to set up. At the time, Jarrad was early in his journalistic career and working with the Detroit Free Press. He says, “Working with Velvet jump-started my leadership skills within the NABJ.”
Velvet has used her talents to strengthen the community. She served as director of media arts at YESPhilly, a nonprofit in North Philadelphia, managing instructors in various multimedia disciplines from video production to mural arts. The YESPhilly program eventually grew to include an alternative high school. And Velvet transitioned into the role of director of marketing and recruitment, where her duties included recruiting and enrolling future students.
Currently, Velvet lives in southern New Jersey, where she remains active in her local NABJ chapter and designs and curates exhibits. Still passionate about storytelling, Velvet has since synthesized her educational background with her visual journalism experience into her new role: adjunct professor of multimedia and visual communication at Thomas Jefferson University.
“Velvet as a professor is not a mistake — she is service driven. She does the heavy lifting, making sure everyone in the room is important, seen, and heard,” Jarrad said.
Velvet makes clear in the instruction she gives to her students that power in storytelling comes from the unique experience of the individual relaying the story: “I teach them how to tell their stories, but not to change their stories,” she says.
As a Black American and a woman, Velvet acknowledges that her experience in journalism is unique: “I recognize that not too many Black Americans have had that opportunity,” Velvet said as she reflected on her career. Of all her professional accomplishments, she is most proud of her role as an educator, and she hopes that her experience can inspire the next generation of Black journalists.
“I hope that they understand their power and that their stories are viable and informative,” she said.
This profile is part of a series highlighting Black journalists and media makers in South Jersey as part of the South Jersey Information Equity Project.
Charles Curtis, III is a poet, songwriter, spoken word artist, freelance writer, and business owner, hailing from Camden, NJ. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a primarily grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.