12 Photographers Using Their Work to Amplify the Black Voice
By Chioma Nwana
In this digital age, we are flooded with visual stimuli all day long. From Twitter to Instagram, from text messages to direct messages, from phone screens to laptop screens, we digest thousands of images on a daily basis. To avoid sensory overload, in a matter of milliseconds, our brains determine which ones are worth attention—they flush out irrelevant or uninspiring images and free up cognitive space to consume and process images that are interesting and meaningful to us.
As a Black woman, artist, and lover of photography, my brain has been fine-tuned to pay special attention to the Black photography that graces my screen. Most images that I see on any given day are ephemeral, but there is a remarkable air of permanence that surrounds Black art. Black photographers are creating images that tell stories of the past and present, of the general and specific, of the Self and Other. Black photographers are producing images that start conversations, contribute to conversations, and put an end to conversations. Most importantly to me, Black photographers are sharing images that amplify the voices of the communities from which they grew.
Below is a list of a few of my favorite photographers who actively use their platforms to amplify the Black voice and their personal opinions on the responsibility of the Black photographer:
The responsibility of the Black photographer is to first be yourself, authentically. There are many forms of Blackness—be your version, showcase it, share it, and tell your narrative. Also, show representation not only in your images, but also in your sets and through collaboration. My two main assistants are Black women specifically because I want the change to start with me.
My responsibility as a photographer, as it relates to my race (Black), is to proudly and artistically express myself with as much fluidity and freedom as that which has been unequally afforded to generations of non-Black storytellers; and, more importantly, to continue in the tradition of my ancestors and contemporaries—a legacy of imagination, documentation, fantasy, innovation, collective individuality, and selflessness.
So many of our stories have been told through and for non-Black people, so I feel like the ultimate responsibility for Black photographers is to just tell your story without any limitations, and be true to yourself with the work you put out. I mostly work in documentary/visual storytelling, and sometimes the personal aspect of the project can be a lot. So you also have a responsibility to yourself and your health—checking in with yourself, the people who support you, friends, therapists, whoever. For me, checking in with myself has been learning that things aren’t always linear and learning to be okay with that.
The media will only show one side of our people that’s all negative. My job is to show the progressive Blackness and the truth of our Blackness! Nobody tells a story better than Black folks because we don’t leave out nothing! We love details! We have accepted negative images and stories of our people for too long. My photography will add to the progressive narrative of our Blackness by incorporating images, audio, and documentaries that help push our narrative forward. I’m here to use photography as my weapon of choice to help shape the world.
The ultimate responsibility of the Black photographer is to share their identity and what it means to them and to continue pushing the Black Narrative by creating powerful visuals that represent all aspects of the Black Experience. Photography has long been used as a means of documentation, but more importantly self-expression, and now it is a tool for storytelling—we have the power to tell stories that are important to us and resonate with others. We also have the responsibility to push our work and claim spaces where representation and diversity are lacking. Now, more than ever, there is a lack of authenticity in imagery that claims to represent us, and our culture is used as a trend. We should aspire to push our work to reach a grander audience and allow the authenticity of our work and our stories to speak for itself and continue to create for ourselves.
I think the responsibility of the Black photographer, or artist, or person in general is to create freely. It’s important to be aware and understanding of the context of our Blackness, the politics of it, etc., but with that knowledge, create work that expresses whatever you need to express freely.
The ultimate responsibility of the Black photographer is to create to inspire while removing the negative stereotypes society often places on our culture and people.
My biggest responsibility as a WOC visual artist is to not make a spectacle of our pain but make light of our existence. I use my artwork as a platform that leaves my viewers with a sense of identity. Having my viewers see themselves in my work and being able to relate to the stories I tell is the only thing I find to be important.
My ultimate responsibility as a Black photographer is to showcase Black people—my people—in the best light possible. After working with me, they should feel proud, empowered, and beautiful to be themselves. They should feel like superheroes. My ultimate responsibility as a Black photographer is to make sure anyone who views my work can see a positive representation of Black people. I also want to make sure that Black girls & Black boys aspiring to be models can go to my social media and/or website and see models who look like them and share their skin color. Black is fashion. Black is editorial. Black is Beauty.
I feel that the ultimate responsibility of a Black photographer is just showing the world that you’re not what they label you as. You’re not the stereotype that was casted on you generations before. You are a light in someone’s eyes when you put up your work—you are someone’s hero.
The role of the Black photographer is to educate and celebrate. My role celebrates the often ridiculed aspects of Black culture, such as hair, Ebonics and style and simultaneously educates the ignorant. Black photographers create a certain enigma that is unmatched. We have the right to showcase our art to provide the younger generations with examples of what they are capable of. We have led the trends for society since the beginning of time, so our role now is to capture them.
My responsibility as a Black photographer is to teach. Remind the old, and make the young learn how great we are when it comes to beauty, fashion, and our history. We as black people are responsible for a lot of things going on in all industries, and people barely even know that, but it’s my job to simply bring them back to life.