feature: the importance of a sitting – portraits, myths, and politics of black america today
By Eye Candy
May 22, 2015
I currently live in New York, but the idea of ‘The Importance’ project finds its roots in my hometown of Baltimore. The idea had been floating around my head for some time, growing legs after the murder of Eric Garner. In New York there was a mural created for him in front of Spike Lee’s studio. The mural featured an outdated prom photo of Eric. Many people were confused as to why they used such an old photo, but in the Black community this is far too common. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the older Black people in my neighborhoods and in my family saying that they don’t have a decent picture of themselves or their loved ones. They always shy away from being photographed, and they don’t take it very seriously. I’ve also heard young Black men saying that they don’t want pictures of themselves floating around, under the impression that it will lead to some kind of trouble. I think if we spend time unpacking the origins of these traditions, we’ll find things like self hatred, insecurity, and on the deepest levels, a sense of unworthiness. Sitting for serious portraits is something that affluent white people have been doing for centuries. It comes off as something decadent and as something unattainable to the poor and working class Black communities. In reality it’s something as simple as me putting up a backdrop, and taking photos.
By Gioncarlo Valentine, AFROPUNK Contributor
I talked to the owners of my favorite Black owned restaurant in Baltimore, The Terra Café, about using their space. They were such an amazing support system and they really stood by the project. After about two weeks I felt that the series was complete. I was truly content with the images and the message of the project and the people whom I photographed loved their portraits. Soon after this Freddie Gray was murdered. One of the first things I noticed was the photo of him that circulated. It was a reminder of the importance of this series and it’s message. I went back home and changed the color of the backdrop. The change seems small but it served as a symbol of peace. As I shot the final half of the project helicopters circled overhead and tanks drove down the street. I knew that my city would never be the same and I was just honored to be there to help out.
With this series, at its surface, I hope to explore the importance of portraits. I want people to examine the ideas and myths surrounding sitting for portraits in general and within the Black community. I want to dissect the effects that portraits have on one’s self esteem and to understand why so many Black people don’t have them done. Beneath the surface, I hope to engage in a very serious and necessary dialogue about the current climate in Black America. Exploring things like representation, police brutality, systemic oppression, institutional racism, and how they would like to be remembered, ultimately seeking to identify the relationship between the current climate in Black America and the importance of sitting for a portrait. My hope for this project is that I can get it published into a photo book, as well as show some of the images at Black owned or Black supporting galleries.
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