Art

FEATURE: Black Life Through A Black Lens – Young Photographers Taking Control Of Their Images And Their Careers

June 22, 2015

We will take one trillion photos this year. DSLRs will hang from the necks of professionals and novices alike, a gateway drug to more lenses, more accessories. Our camera phones will continue to convince us a masterpiece is a filter away. Image making has become a part of our daily lives.

By Cortney Cleveland, AFROPUNK Contributor

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“Envy Of The World,” TunnelVision Artist Dexter R. Jones

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Everybody has an eye, but some people think that it’s as simple as clicking and taking a picture. It takes more,” says Danielle Ramsay, a commercial photographer running her own business in New York. Across the country, young Black photographers are serving their time, finger glued to the shutter button, waiting for something to click. “A photographer needs to believe: I’m dope and I’m going to make sure when I say I’m dope, my work reflects that. That’s the first step. A total spiritual shift,” says contemporary artist JD Malone.

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Danielle Ramsay, daniramsayphotography.com

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There’s a misconception that good work sells itself. That’s not how photography works. The playing field is crowded, and success requires one to be a consummate salesman with a healthy dose of relentlessness. Competition aside, Black image-makers face specific challenges.


There are hierarchies. “When I’m in a room and there are five photographers, they are going to go to the white male first, then go to the Black male next. I’m somewhere at the bottom of the list,” says Danielle. “I always have my camera on me and I’ll still shoot. Just to show them my skills.” There’s loaded language. In the art world, JD says, “For some reason when agencies look at [Black artists’] portfolios the main thing they say is, ‘you need to diversify your portfolio.’ Diversify for what? I can produce the same quality of work with any subject.”

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TunnelVision Artist & Founder JD Malone

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JD started TunnelVision, a gallery and artist agency based in Brooklyn, as a way to provide Black contemporary artists with the kind of back-end machine that propels mainstream careers. “Systems that are alive and running in other art markets are not open to our world,” he says. “You need to create your own. You have to be actively a part of the world that sustains your kind of art and your perspective.”

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Kenneth D. Wiggins, blackstockimages.co

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In Washington, DC, Kenneth Wiggins, a web developer and photography hobbyist, saw a different deficit. Searching for stock images for his projects he found that “a lot of what is available lacks culture and authenticity and isn’t able to tell our stories correctly.” His response is Black Stock Images, currently in beta with an eye to launch later this year. “I’m just trying to provide a resource people can go to, to have really stylish photos that tell a story. Right now, we are not seen in the way we should be seen.”

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Kenneth D. Wiggins, blackstockimages.co

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Historically, Black photographers have always told a different story.


Deborah Willis, respected curator and producer of the documentary Through A Lens Darkly, describes her early study of African-American images: “the books already out…showed people underemployed and hurting…which only showed one side of the story. I became more aware, thinking about ways to complicate images of Black people by showing a range of photographs.” The need to complicate the issue hasn’t gone away.

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Danielle Ramsay, daniramsayphotography.com

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Instigated by technology, their hustle, and a bit of youthful assuredness, young photographers aren’t waiting for someone else to create platforms for them. JD likens the impulse to a need for a kind of justice. “It’s the biggest crime against a population of people, to literally wipe their perspective out by not preserving their art. We’re at a time period that needs to be documented…If we don’t have the proper structures to preserve the artists who capture this time, we lose our entire voice in history.”

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“The Patriotism Project,” TunnelVision Artist Stephen Smallwarner

Cortney Cleveland uses design, tech and storytelling strategy to weave tales championing creativity and entrepreneurship. See how she puts in work at redwork.co. Follow her @CleveOutLoud.

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