In 2009, right before I graduated college, I remember sitting in my photography class, annoyed. I was bored. The class seemed to be similar to my music classes where I saw myself and my people very little in the material we covered. I had began to trick myself in thinking we would come next in the syllabus. But, if that time came, it came quick.
My only solace was the library where I educated myself. One day I came across Black: A Celebration of Culture by Deborah Willis. I was sitting in Rose Hill’s library on the floor in a criss crossed position with a couple of books with images by black photographers. As someone who is always concerned about how I carry myself in public, I knew no one was going to walk into the aisle, so I stretched out my body and opened the book.
After flipping the pages back and forth, I looked for more work by Willis and checked the books out. I brought the books to my professor with the intention of simply talking about the images. However, I never imagined how I was going to start the conversation. I did not know how to ask him straight forward if we could jut talk about African American photographers and their work. So, what I said, came out childish and sounded like I just happened to find anything.
Look what I found in the library.
He smiled at me. I did not know if he understood what I was trying to say but his response surprised me.
Lystria, this is work by Deborah Willis. She’s coming to campus today.
I stuck around for the event and when I arrived the room was packed. It was hard to find a seat. I stood by the door.
As she spoke about her work and the power of images, I imagined what it would be like to take up this important job of photographing my community. I hung on to her words of inspirations.
After the discussion, I introduced myself. I spoke to her about some of my wildest goals (of traveling America and taking pictures of Black people) and simple dreams (of taking pictures of people in the Bronx). I remember her soft response. Just do it. Just do it. She kept telling me. Start small. Keep practicing. Then she told me her testimonies and how she started projects.
When we were about to part, she said, this is my last copy but I want to give it to you. And she took out her new book (at the time) Obama: The Historic Campaign in Photographs and signed it for me.
I was extremely shocked. I thanked and hugged her tightly.
Now, as I look back over my experiences at Fordham. Those four hard years of coming to terms with myself as a black woman in the world and still grieving the loss of my mother. I am so grateful for all the people God allowed to be kind to me. The small gestures of kindness was what made me feel invincible. That feeling of I can live in this world and be happy.
That feeling was what I felt when I went to Kamoinge’s event, Celebrating the Grace of Black Women, three months ago. Only this time, I did not engage in much conversation but mingled and watched.
I knew a few faces in the crowed space. Okay, only four faces! Friend and Photographer, Terrence Jennings, Deborah Willis and of course my two sisters (who don’t count…) However, I was excited to place faces with names like Jamel Shabazz whose books I also came to enjoy. He asked me if I was a Hebrew Israelite….I think it was because of the hat I wore. I also placed a face with Jules Allen, the photographer whose work I studied after I graduated. His Hats series was what inspired me to start the Hats or Hats Not chapter of my blog.
Later I looked up the meaning of Kamoinge on their website.
“Kamoinge exists as a forum of African-American photographers, to view and critique each other’s work in an honest and understanding atmosphere, to nurture and challenge each other to attain the highest creative level. The name comes from the Kituyu language of Kenya, and means a group of people acting together… The intention [of Kamoinge] was to help make up for the absence of works by African American artists, so history could not say we did not exist.”
Something about reading their history and intentions mixed with knowing my own personal history of why I enjoy taking pictures and being at their event titled, The Black Women: Power and Grace, made the significance of my attendance even more vital for myself.
I always seek self representation. When Black women are represented as leaders (whether on a small or large scale) this reinforces, for me, the lessons I’ve learned as a child. Those lessons of positivity and determination. The same sense of self-fulfillment and happiness I felt when I was in college I felt at the event (but on a difference scale) And, now as I sit and write about it three months later, I realize that it was needful for me to attend The Black Women: Grace and Power.
I was super excited to meet Photographer Louis Mendes in person. I was so excited that I didn’t really know what to say. Thank God my sister was there to do most of the talking.
He showed us his multi-durable (is that even a word?) camera that could take color, black and white and Polaroid photographs! He made the camera in his hands to do everything!
His word of wisdom to us: make your photography work for you. Get paid for your work.
While in Jacksonville, Florida, I met Mother Darain Brown. She was in Publix Supermarket, a shop the Floridians compare to New York’s Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods.
She was standing behind me and when I backed up, I bumped into her.
Oh, sorry! I mumbled my apology.
I could not stop looking at this stunning lady.
She smiled and turned down the aisle.
When Mother Burks finished looking for her items, I told her I wanted to find the pretty lady we had ran into a few minutes earlier. Mother Burks knew just who I was talking about.
When I approached her, I asked her if I could photograph her and she automatically stroke a pose.
I’m 96 years old and my name is Mother Darain Brown. I am a mother at church.
You look so beautiful!
And guess what? I still wear stilettos!
Mother Burks and I were astonished…and I think I’m still astonished.