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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Black Women Photographers on Getting Seen—and Hired

From the beginning, the photography industry has been predominately white. Like other fields, this has been the result of the same editors repeatedly hiring the same photographers. Polly Irungu wants to change that. In 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement was peaking, she began hearing from many editors that they didn’t know where to look to hire Black women photographers. So Irungu, a photographer herself, turned a list she’d been curating on Twitter into a platform for those looking for work and those seeking to hire. “I don’t just want us to be seen,” she says. “I want us to be hired.” Today, the Black Women Photographers website features more than 1,000 women and nonbinary photographers. Through grants and artist talks, it has also created a space for Black women to have access to opportunities and connect with each other. WIRED spoke with several photographers on the platform about their work and where they’d like to go next.

Tara Pixley

Photojournalist, Los Angeles

WIRED: You have a very vibrant style. Can you talk about where that comes from?

Tara Pixley: So much of the photography we have seen of the lives of Black and brown people is in black and white, which to me can sometimes give this sense of fungible devastation or interchangeable experiences. By showing people and spaces in all their vibrant, living colors, they feel singular and more multifaceted. I also just love showing the world in all its vivid realness.

Capturing movement is a large part of your portfolio. Can you talk about why you’re consistently drawn to it?

I was a dancer for many years, and early on in my career as a photographer, I began photographing and filming dance. It became the thing that kept me excited about making photos and kept me connected to dance. And when I was working with dancers of color, I just loved being able to capture moments of the Black body in ecstatic movement—that joy and freedom and strength and beauty.

What is something you want to shoot more of and why?

I really want to return to working more with dance, to have the opportunity to photograph dance in all its myriad forms. And I want to be doing work in Jamaica, returning to my family’s home there. I feel like people don’t see enough of the lives of Afro-Caribbean folks beyond natural disasters, political upheaval, or tourism imagery. There is so much vibrancy in Jamaica, Trinidad, the Bahamas, all over the Caribbean that I rarely see reflected in visual media. So, my next projects will be looking at environmental justice/climate impacts, queer activism on the islands, and work that depicts the socio-historical intricacies of Caribbean life that lie between the gloss of tourism and the one-dimensional images of poverty or disaster.

Myesha Evon Gardner

Photographer, Brooklyn

WIRED: Many of your photographs have a deep sense of feminine energy. How do you define and depict that energy in your photos and is that an intentional theme in all of your images?

Myesha Evon Gardner: I think feminine energy is less what I aim to depict and more what the subject chooses to bring forth. I am merely there to embrace and document this energy—and provide space for it to transfer through in my images.

My explorations on themes such as vanity and the function of the woman’s body, in addition to my own self-reflections, seek to examine the profoundly complex roles and expectations assigned to women by our culture and society—with a personal emphasis on Black women, in particular. These roles and expectations are not always aligned, nor reciprocated, and through my studies I have all too often observed women stripped down to a singular value dictated entirely by others. Womanhood, both traditionally and universally, has been directly linked to singular role expectation; women are predominantly expected to conceive, carry, give birth, and sustain life, regardless of other circumstances or her own personal will.

I often question where and how we, as women, are allowed to feel safe and nurtured, to demonstrate vulnerability and strength? It is my goal to document the many dualities that may coexist and show that there is no one way to be a woman, and rather we are multifaceted and magnificent. Being feminine is, and should be, however a woman chooses to exist.

What’s your favorite part about capturing Black women and men?

Black people embody so much divine beauty—it is our minds, bodies, and souls that make us unique, and I simply aim to capture that in a visual sense. I’m showcasing the beauty in truth and daily Black life as a form of resistance, and this is inherently tied to our emotional experiences.

From intimate portraits of my family to capturing the energetic movement of dancers in the studio to documenting everyday life through street photography, I’m most fascinated by subjects who are least expected to be approached or engaged—it’s their stories that most often deeply resonate with me.

I think it's important to show people that their stories have value by sparking those conversations, documenting their world, and giving them the opportunity to be seen and possibly even more understood than before.

How have you seen your work evolve over the years?

I think my entire journey is about evolution—since the moment I started focusing on photography in earnest, I have seen my work evolve in more ways than one. I began studying photography at an arts high school in Cleveland under my instructor, Toni Starinsky, who was one of my first educational mentors and who really pushed me to experiment by studying a variety of photographic methods, such as the pinhole camera, analog vs. digital mediums, darkroom techniques, and so on. I spent a lot of my early years capturing portraits of members in my family, friend groups, and surroundings, which are still the main subjects in my personal work to date. I find so much joy in looking back on archival work, discovering ongoing threads right alongside attempts I may have perceived as failures at the time, which have culminated in very practical evidence of my growth as an artist and photographer.

How do you want your photography to evolve, if you do?

Lately, I’ve found myself revisiting older printing techniques that I learned in the darkroom years ago and applying them to my current work. As I move forward, I feel that a key element to watching the work evolve is finding a healthy balance between experimenting with new techniques and allowing space for foundational practices to resurface. I want to continue to rechannel my younger self and tap back into the things or methods I may have once abandoned to possibly find they’re now useful or creatively applicable. Roots run deep, and you never know what can grow from the foundation of the past.

Akilah Townsend

Photographer, Chicago

WIRED: Can you talk about the toning in your photographs? What inspired your style?

Akilah Townsend: I can’t really pinpoint exactly what inspired my style of toning because I manipulate the tones to a point that feels right. I like to play around, sometimes for a while with different tone options.

Do you want your photography to change or shift over time?

I want my photography to continue to evolve into meaningful work by telling stories in a beautiful way. I have been shy about actually using my voice to say something, but there is so much that I am passionate about.

What photo books or literature are you currently into?

I have been reading The New Black Vanguard by Antwaun Sargent that I got this year as a birthday present.

What about it captivates you?

It’s inspiring to see different young Black photographers with so many different styles, intentions, and ways of working. And they are all united by their contributions to a continuation of a Black maker’s archive throughout the diaspora.

Who are some current women photographers who inspire you?

Dana Scruggs, Deanna Lawson, and [Black Women Photographers founder] Polly Irungu. Not only is Dana's work groundbreaking and amazing, but her speaking out for Black people and our culture, especially Black women, is inspiring to me. And Polly dedicating herself to uplifting Black women photographers has been inspiring to watch.

Alexis Hunley

Photographer, Los Angeles

WIRED: How would you describe your style of work?

Alexis Hunley: If I had to describe my style it would be a soft landing space where art meets science. The place where light works hand in hand with emotional intimacy and authentic expression to encourage feeling. A glimpse into how I see the world.

In your protest imagery, you capture extremely intimate and precious moments in the most tense situations. Can you explain your method or strategy in doing this?

When I first began documenting the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement actions, I didn’t have a concrete plan. Despite the fact that I am Black, this wasn’t a space that I had inhabited before, and so out of respect for organizers and activists who have been leading this movement I arrived with only a single plan: to respectfully observe. However, I allowed my emotions and feelings to guide me and my lens. My mere presence in those spaces is also a form of protest. And it would be silly for me to act as if I was an objective observer as I stand in a crowd of people fighting for my right to live safely. In the midst of those moments of high tension, I would unknowingly look for energy that could help me anchor myself so I didn’t get overwhelmed by the emotions swirling around me. I look for the love, the care, the strength, the compassion that is the true undercurrent of many of the actions I attended in 2020 and 2021.

What’s something you want to shoot more of and why?

I want to create more work that spans multiple mediums that allow me to really flesh out stories. Projects that involve all of the senses—motion, sound, written word, interactive pieces, augmented reality, etc. I believe that multimedia projects will give me the room to push myself to a new level artistically.

Nicky Woo

Photographer, New York

WIRED: A lot of your photo stories revolve around social issues. How do you choose what to document? Are they usually assignment-based or personal projects?

I generally try to let curiosity guide me when choosing projects. I’m a bit of an anthropologist at heart, deeply fascinated by the binding that weaves culture together, especially when precipitated by a legacy of Western colonization. So I pay a lot of attention to international news stories, and when something piques my interest that’s only received cursory coverage, I research the topic to see whether it’s accessible or (vaguely) safe to dig into.

What compelled you to go into photojournalism?

I actually shifted into journalism later in life. My dad is a musician, so I witnessed a lot of his struggles growing up, which translated to me having some nervousness following my real passions after university. Instead, I spent a bunch of years in art direction and photo production until my dissatisfaction with the commercial world, which felt too [facile] for me, ultimately forced my hand. Eventually, I worked through the fear around financial discomfort and of “putting myself out there” to follow my deeper need to be involved in work that means something.

You have traveled to many places to shoot these stories. How are you able to embed yourself in the communities you cover?

I was raised as a third-culture kid with Black/Chinese parents who were often on tour, so I moved around a lot—always the new girl. That awkward tension was my normal, so I became sort of adept at registering different cultural norms and cues. I think those early experiences helped translate to a level of fluidity when attempting to understand some of the impetus around perception and elemental realities that inform other cultures’ world views. And the type of work that I prefer demands a level of compassion and intimacy with strangers so they feel comfortable opening up to me, during sometimes the worst moments of their lives. I try to wrap them with my whole heart, to become a source of calm, which goes a long way as folks need to be seen by someone/anyone, which I think is the job.

I guess the hard part for me isn’t the embedding, which feels natural, but rather how to emotionally disentangle when the stories are done and I’m back in the States.

Maya Iman

Visual artist, Los Angeles

WIRED: Can you talk about your process of image-making and what makes it extremely special?

Maya Iman: My work is an intimate view of my community. I work with my subjects in safe and intimate spaces, where the beauty of trust and bonds are created and nurtured through image-making.

The portraits you take contain such a variety of emotions, and it feels authentic. Would you say this about your own work? And if so, how do you accomplish this?

I would. I’m intentional about my work and how it comes across to the viewers. I work with my subjects in safe and intimate spaces, where the beauty of trust and lifelong bonds are created and nurtured through image-making.

How do you hope your eye, or your view of taking photographs, will impact future generations?

My work is not only an intimate view of my community but also a means to unlock the general essence of humanity. I hope my work impacts future generations to continue creating work of us.

How do you want your photography to evolve, if you do?

I’m ready to get into filmmaking!

What kind of films do you want to dive into?

Documentary films, short films, and music videos.

Why are you drawn to these types of films?

I grew up watching MTV and BET. I was brought up seeing music videos as a child. I would love to create nostalgia and euphoric storytelling through the medium with a modern perspective.

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