This series of photographs was initially intended to celebrate the beautiful diversity of black women in honor of Black History Month, but by the end of the shoot, it had become so much more than that. I’m going to attempt to explain the powerful effect this shoot had on me, though I have to admit I may not have the words to properly elucidate why.
Danielle Bridges is one of the only black makeup artists working in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We had collaborated on a few photo shoots by the time she approached me with her concept, one she’d held near to her heart for a long time. Her goal was to show the diversity of beauty within the black community, from different skin tones and hair textures, to unique features and cultural heritages. She wanted to remind people that there is no one right or better way to be black, that blackness is nuanced and individualistic, and that no single black experience is a monolith. This, understandably, is a complex issue that encompasses things like colorism, the stigma still attached to natural hair texture and styles, appropriation, prejudice, and a host of social issues and their resulting psychological effects. Complex may be an understatement.
I was hesitant to accept her offer, not because I had any reservations about partnering with these incredible women to create the work, but because I realize that I’m an outsider to their experiences. I can do my best to empathize by listening and using my personal experiences as surrogates, but I’ve never lived with the social ramifications of issues like the ones these ladies deal with on a daily basis. As a storyteller, my job is to empathize, but I thought maybe my voice wasn’t the right voice to help her tell this story. Maybe these were shoes I had no right stepping into.
When I brought this up, Ms. Bridges reassured me that my reservations were part of the reason she wanted me for the job. Aside from the fact that my visual style suited her vision, she felt that working with an outside perspective could create an open doorway for the kind of conversations and learning experiences we desperately need. And that was the beginning. We approached photographer and retoucher Susan Rockstraw, who was also excited to be part of the project. We were united on the goal, and now we just had to tell the story.
I knew I wanted to keep the lighting and style as simple and natural as possible. We didn’t want to glamorize or hide these ladies behind clever light tricks or excessive makeup, turning them into objects more than people, but to photograph them cleanly and let their features, expressions, hairstyles, and personalities tell the story. Paired with Susan's very clean, minimal retouching, we were able to celebrate the beauty and diversity while removing distractions. For light, I used two Elinchrom monolights in what I think of as a "stacked light" setup: the key light was directly in front of and above the model's eye line, modified with a 72 cm white beauty dish to create some spectral highlights and let their skin texture show. On the second light, I used the 39" Rotalux Deep Octa for fill, placed directly behind the first light. There were two white -flats from V-flat World on either side to give me some light in the shadows and help make the skin glow. So, a two-light setup with some fill. Easy peasy, right? Photographically speaking, yes. Emotionally speaking, it was a different story.
From the very start, it was clear this was not going to be a run of the mill shoot. I was surrounded by women chatting, laughing, helping one another put the finishing touches on their hair, and generally elevating the atmosphere with camaraderie. My house was alive with energy. One by one, we cycled ladies into my studio to capture individual headshots, then we began with groups of two or three. The group photos of women with different skin tones, hair types, and features were meant to showcase the support these ladies want to foster in their communities. During the entire shoot, the women and girls who were not being photographed stood behind me, cheering my subjects on, shouting encouragement, praising their sisters, and making one another feel beautiful.
When the shoot was over and the final group photo taken, no one left the studio. We stood in a loose circle and talked. This is where the weight of what we were making came crashing down. They talked about their experiences as black women. Not just as women, because all women share in that sisterhood, but as black women in America. They talked honestly about what it feels like to be treated as if their skin is too dark, their lips too big, their hair too textured to be traditionally beautiful. Followed by that, the strange dichotomy of what it feels like if their mannerisms or attitudes are considered “too white” by members of their own community. They talked about strangers touching their hair, about weaves, about who can wear what hairstyle, and how wearing their hair in a traditional or protective style was likely to get them scolded at work or before walking in a fashion show. They talked about makeup artists who didn't have the proper foundation colors for their skin tones or asked them to bring their own and photographers who actively changed the color of their skin. They talked about strained relationships with blended families, about feeling forced to hide or embrace their blackness depending on who they were with, or feeling like they had to choose a side. And even the youngest of the girls opened up about experiences at school where the n-word is regularly used by kids who claim to have a “pass,” but are never disciplined by the staff. We even talked about the delicacies of having non-black friends who aren’t always sure of what to say or how to act to show their support and appreciation for their black friend’s culture without saying the wrong thing.
In a cluttered garage studio, this group of ladies created a space to speak freely and without judgment, which opened a dam of thoughts and emotions. Was there resentment and frustration? Yes. Was there also forgiveness and the hope that conversations like this one could be healing? Yes. And while I participated, I felt my part was to listen and get washed away in the tide, to understand as much as I could and to appreciate these ladies for their resilience and vulnerability in sharing painful experiences that are too often swept under the rug by a society that would rather not confront them.
Despite their shared struggles, there was a well of pride, a sense of community, and a strength of character that defies the difficulties these ladies have faced. They don’t encounter hardship and wilt away. They raise their chins and make their lives beautiful, and they do it while making sure their sisters’ crowns are on straight. Every woman and girl among them is an inspiration, and to see them in action being vulnerable, sharing their experiences, and encouraging one another was a thing of beauty. Hardship may be part of their lives, just as it is part of every life, but while they acknowledge it, they refuse to be defined by it. They revel in the beauty of their skin, the unique qualities of their hair types, the sense of community and of the beauty of a culture whose creativity was borne of struggle. Each woman has a shared experience, but also an individuality that makes their experiences unique. As someone whose skin tone is basically considered a default in western society, this is something so outside my experience that, while I have always intellectually understood the injustice, I've rarely felt the emotional impact in such a personal, visceral way. They gave me the gift of an honest look into their worlds, and that vulnerability is something that carries weight and demands an appropriate response from the one invited inside. In part, that's what this article and these photographs are: my attempt to do them and their gift justice.
In the end, I think Ms. Bridges was right, because this photo story and the resulting article isn’t just a celebration of the beautiful diversity of black women, which is a worthy subject on its own, but about how we can learn to see other people for the complex, unique, valuable individuals they are. That skin color, hair type, and cultural heritage are important parts of who we are, that they do shape and often define us, but that they are not the sum of what we are, and our value is not defined by them, only heightened because of them. That if we learn to listen without judgment, to practice understanding, to take responsibility, and do our best to support and celebrate each other, we can learn to see one another clearly. And maybe that’s a story we all need to tell, over and over, together.