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Black in America, Through a Camera


It would look like an improvised family gathering, children in the foreground, elders stalwart at the rear, were it not for the masks and kaleidoscopically colorful costumes. Those are central to a group portrait by Joshua Kissi, the image captured last winter at Mardi Gras, its subjects draped in a raucous mélange of Native and Afro-American ceremonial garb.

Described by Mr. Kissi, a 31-year-old Ghanaian-American, as a celebration of lineage, it is meant to shine a light on the heterogeneity of Black culture and community, a richness of styles, aspirations and backgrounds that tend to go unrecognized or under-acknowledged by many Americans.

“We are as diverse and different as members of any other culture,” Mr. Kissi said. “We are not just trying to fit into the funnel of what most people would call a ‘white gaze.’”

Mr. Kissi’s portrait is just one expression of the diversity being showcased this week in an online benefit auction (July 3 to 6) of some 80 works by Black photographers. Organized by See in Black, a photography collective founded by Mr. Kissi and Micaiah Carter, the works vary in style.

Highlights include Ibra Ake’s portrait of a boy who sits, stoically submissive, to have his hair razor-trimmed; Joshua Woods’s study of a rakish young man in a leopard coat; Adrian Octavius Walker’s close-up of a youth, his somber features contrasting startlingly with the bright pink du-rag on his head; and Dana Scruggs’s supple dancer, back arched in a balletic pose.

The show was conceived to support organizations including the Youth Empowerment Project, the Know Your Rights Camp, and the Black Futures Lab. But in a period of social upheaval and continuing racial protests, its deeper objective is to highlight photography as a tool for sociopolitical engagement.

“From the time I first picked up a camera, I felt the need to be proactive,” said Jamel Shabazz, the photographer who has lent his name and support to the event. “I wasn’t always out there protesting, but I believe in art as activism.”

Mr. Shabazz is displaying a work of his own, a portrait of a young man and his dog on a Brooklyn stoop, two American flags behind him, one in the conventional red white and blue, the other in the red, black and green of the Pan-African flag.

“That image is very provocative,” Mr. Shabazz said. “It shows a sense of patriotism that’s not always seen in the Black community.”

The need for social distancing has somewhat hampered his ability to catch his subjects’ humor and candor, and interfered as well with the personal interactions that have animated his portraits, documents of Black culture and community since the 1980s.

He has taken to the streets in recent weeks. “But photographing protests now feels very awkward for me,” Mr. Shabazz said. “People wear masks — I’m only seeing half their faces.”

Masked, draped or turbaned, the photographers’ subjects nonetheless speak volumes through their style, their look deliberate and often frankly showy.

“If people are dressed well, they are more open to being approached,” Mr. Shabazz suggested. “They want to be seen.”

Their costumes may memorialize a moment in time, or they may express a penchant for peacocking or a vibrant identification with a cultural heritage. Micaiah Carter said that his photograph of a woman in a white bandeau and fringed denim skirt was strongly influenced by his mother’s style in the 1990s, an amalgam of minimalist and urban influences with an Afrocentric overlay.

Yes, he shoots fashion, but Mr. Carter strives to imbue his pictures with a sense of permanence, a goal in line with the collective’s overarching mission.

“We hope to capture people not just during peak trauma moments but in their everyday lives,” Mr. Kissi said. “We’re so hyper-visible, but we’re almost never fully seen.”


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