kay rufai’s work celebrates the black boy smile

March 18, 2020
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Black teenagers — they smile a lot. This is never visible in media but photographer Kay Rufai is changing that. Rufai’s images of Black teenagers question misconceptions and unfair prejudices put upon Black kids. 

His 16 large-scale color portraits of different Black boys smiling were displayed this past autumn at City Hall in London and again this month at Brixton Village Market. The images are striking, emotional upon first glance, and for good reason. Rufai’s work is part of a larger initiative called the Smile-ing Boys Project. As proven successful by this project, its purpose is to address the metal health needs of Black teenaged boys, a topic often shoved to the side. He explains how the boys photographed had to combat pressures of masculinity in agreeing to this project. “For them, to allow me to capture this of them took a lot of work, to peel back these layers of stoicism that they need for protection and self-preservation, but which fuel a self-fulfilling prophecy of what people perceive them to be,” he says.

This is not new territory for Rufai, who has experience exploring issues around masculinity in his work. His passion for the deconstruction of masculinity comes as a direct response to the surge in knife crimes in England, which results in unfair portrayals of Black boys and men in media often depicted as criminals. Rafai set off to discover the problems that are leading these young people to crimes instead of citing them as the problem, as many have done. 

The Wellcome Trust donated £32,000 for Rufai to develop a series of workshops around the eight “pillars” of happiness. He was able to travel as far as Bhutan and Scandinavia with his work. All the research resulted in this moment. Rafai eventually chose 30 boys from three different schools in London for this photography project. After taking the photos, the group discussed them and discussed which parts of their lives they have control of and which they don’t. Rufai’s wish is that this project can be implemented into different schools to help children grow instead of using punitive action to teach lessons. He is well on his way to impacting more people as the project has already reached four more schools!