University of Southern California, Sponsored by Black Student Assembly
Mission: To highlight intersecting identities of Black people as a means of transcending the monolithic perception of blackness
4/12: Read About Us in AFROPUNK!
In the Fall, peers Quincy Nkwonta and Saphia Jackson invited me onboard to create portraits of members of our community (the Black student community at the University of Southern California). You may recognize some of these folks as frequent subjects, muses, etc. But I had never had the opportunity to photograph the majority of the 16+ members of the project in such an intimate way. It required a lot of focus, vulnerability and versatility as many of them had never been asked to pose like this before, and I had to build and light for a wide range of skin tones during and after the production.
I borrowed a white backdrop + stand and set it up in an old theatre/P.E. classroom on campus (likely built in the 60’s or earlier). I used natural lighting only, taking advantage of what streamed in from the window. The results are electrifying. This is the kind of work I had aspired to create.
As the artist, I only captured. Sure: I motivated, cheered, advised, consoled, warned, etc. as any skilled portraitist would. But the power of I AM, Period. is the meaning given to each photo by the subjects. Everyone chose a word to describe their individuality, inside the umbrella of blackness. I am Iris. They are:
I was so moved by their words and background stories:
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To be visionary is to “think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom.” The only time I used to think about my own blackness was when kids would point out how black I wasn’t. Growing up around so few biracial kids made me constantly question who I was, particularly during that middle school age that is universally recognized as a not-so-great time. My peers’ notion of blackness, a narrow and underdeveloped one that didn’t include me, came to shape my own. I was smart, so I wasn’t Black. I talked eloquently for my age, so I wasn’t Black. I wasn’t into basketball, so I wasn’t Black. I didn’t know how to dance, so I wasn’t Black. So many rigid preconceived ideas of what blackness is had permeated my own self-image to the point where I genuinely had no clue how Black I was considered to be, socially at least. I still don’t. I don’t even know what that means, “how Black I am,” as if it’s a quantifiable attribute judged on a few behaviors and traits someone has. Because of this internal confusion, I have often struggled to voice my personal opinion and experience during conversations about varying aspects of being Black in America. Do I have the authority to speak on this since I’m only half Black? Are my opinions and my experiences valid? Is my input even wanted? When @qnkwonta asked me to be a part of this project I found myself both grateful that I was trusted to bring value to it but also terrified that I wouldn’t know what to say because I’ve silenced myself from speaking on my own blackness for so many years. Quick shoutout if you’re still reading, I’m about to wrap up. The point of this long background is just to say this; defining my own blackness has been a lifelong journey that’s still going on, as it is for many, and my ability to fully and imaginatively envision the future was severely hindered until I started to learn to embrace, examine, and accept every aspect of who I am. TLDR; I am Black, and I am visionary. #IAmPeriod
And, because the limitations of B/W photography can be draining, I got to publish a few color shots, too:
To celebrate the honesty and much-needed truth of this moment, we’re working on getting our story out into the world, similarly to how Joy Okon and I were able to share our project. If you know anyone who could be a good press ally for IAM, Period, please hit my line!
What matters even more is that you tell me (in person, online or otherwise) how the work makes you feel. Did you connect with it? Does it inspire you? Does it make you sad? As a creative, I’ve started to realize that this personal feedback is paramount, and means much more to me than a slew of likes or views. I want to change the status quo with more work like this. I promise that you’ll see some before May.
Thank you, Iris xx