A year ago this week, Mississippi changed its state flag.
The Legislature’s vote was immediately preceded by backroom political wheeling and dealing. Really, though, it was the culmination of a century-long fight by sharecroppers, teachers and students, church folks and regular folks, who can at long last rejoice in knowing their state’s banner no longer snarls at their humanity.
Among them is Aunjaune Ellis, a native of McComb, Miss., and an Emmy-nominated actress. For the past five years or so, Ellis used her platform to call for the removal of Mississippi’s flag, the nation’s last to feature a Confederate emblem.
Last fall, The Bitter Southerner featured Ellis in an article about celebrating the Southern Black women who shaped her and informed her life, work and activism. Imani Khayyam, a 31-year-old Jackson, Miss., native photographed Ellis for the magazine.
At the time of the shoot, in summer 2020, Khayyam recalls connecting with Ellis almost immediately — through their mutual Mississippinesss and Blackness.
“Aunjaunee could be an auntie or mother to me — a figure of a strong black woman that I knew,” Khayyam told Reckon.
For him, that’s why it’s important for Black photographers to capture Black subjects, to document Black history. We know our angles, how to make our melanin pop in the soft glow of magic hour.
Besides the flag anniversary, those images sprung to mind because even as folks are still out here in the streets demanding justice and change, it’s been delightful to ride around town seeing us doing whole photoshoots.
This week we’re talking photography and photographers.
Starr is back next week.
The power of being Black behind the lens
In case you missed it, Glamour’s June cover of Olympian Simone Biles had Sha’Carri’s Richardson’s internet doing somersaults recently.
This comes a year after another major fashion magazine was panned for unflattering photos of Biles taken by a famous white photographer.
Glamour’s patriotically themed cover was shot in Houston by Kennedi Carter, a Black woman and a Durham, N.C., native. Carter describes her work specializing in Black subjects as highlighting “the aesthetics & sociopolitical aspects of Black life as well as the overlooked beauties of the Black experience: skin, texture, trauma, peace, love and community.”
It seems that the fashion and publishing industries are starting to get the hint. Kennedi Carter, along with people like Tyler Mitchell, an Atlantan who in 2018 was the first African American to shoot a Vogue cover, represent a rising generation of Black photographers increasingly in demand to shoot Black subjects.
Khayyam, who has also photographed acclaimed Mississippi-born author Angie Thomas, explained the importance of having Black photographers behind the lens and why the result can be so beautiful and powerful.
“It’s relationships,” he said. “It’s almost like we know each other but never met each other. We have similar cultural experiences. The first day we talk, we can talk like we’ve known each other for forever.”
The Black List: Photogs + More
- Check out Imani Khayyam‘s work on his personal website and Instagram page. Also, keep scrolling to see examples of his art.
- Khayyam also recommends checking out fellow Mississippi photographer Justin Hardiman, whose images of a Black model standing in a field of kudzu went viral a few years back.
- Kennedi Carter, who shot Beyoncé for British Vogue can also be found on Instagram.
- A great resource is the Black Women Photographers database, created by multimedia journalist Polly Irungu to “to disrupt the notion that it is difficult to discover and commission Black creatives.”
- A few coffee-table books worth owning and displaying that feature gorgeous Black photos and art include: Black: A Celebration of Black Culture by Deborah Willis; I Can Make You Feel Good by Tyler Mitchell; Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style by Shantrelle P. Lewis; and Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful
Flashing … Lights
I don’t know if you noticed, but folks are outside: grilling, day partying, flirting and showing off their pandemic bods — whether they’ve been on the Peloton or the sofa for the past year.
So what’s the recipe for the perfect shot? Khayyam offered a few pointers:
- Lighting. Specifically, his preference is natural lighting. “I’m always thinking about the light I’m gonna have, and what that’s going to lend me,” he says.
- Subjects. “I look for the model first, but once I find them I’m thinking about a scene.”Khayyam mostly scours social media for models. Although he only communicates through Instagram — where you can see his impressive professional portfolio — interestingly, people who haven’t modeled professionally before often ghost him and fail to DM back.If you’re a model looking to get found by a photographer like Khayyam, he offers this advice: “What I’m looking for is a lot of self confidence. You don’t need a ‘model look.’ I’m looking for anyone with their own self confidence. I’m willing to take a chance on you.”
- Think scene. Khayyam loves nature, but sometimes, especially when he’s been hired for a gig, he doesn’t always know what kind of environment he’ll have to work with. In those cases, he says: “It’s nervous and exciting. It challenges me to think on my toes.”