Photographs That Show the “Fire and Thunder” of Contemporary Life
Meet the artists of the Image Equity Fellowship, a collaboration between Google, Aperture, For Freedoms, and FREE THE WORK.
The Image Equity Fellowship, in partnership with Google, Aperture, For Freedoms, and FREE THE WORK, aims to support the next generation of image makers of color in the US. Throughout a six-month fellowship, a group of twenty artists made new bodies of work with the dedicated mentorship of Lebanese filmmaker and photographer Ahmed Klink; American artist and 2016 Guggenheim Fellow Lyle Ashton Harris; photographer and documentarian Bee Walker; multi-hyphenate creative Mahaneela; and Rujeko Hockley, assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. An exhibition of their work Through Fire and Thunder opens at Pioneer Works on May 12, 2023.
“The role of the artist is to dream up a world where we collectively transcend the limits of inequitable systems,” notes the exhibition’s curator Adama Kamara of Creative Theory Agency. “We rely on them to cast light on our experiences through the fire and thunder, but also to imagine a world on the other side.” The Image Equity Fellowship and subsequent exhibition grow from Real Tone, Google’s efforts to more accurately and beautifully represent people of color on camera and in image products, and has since developed into a collective of imagemakers capturing their communities through the lens of identity, belonging, movement, coming of age, home, and beyond.
“This is my ode to the lives of Jabari Benton, Jonathan Sandoval-Aleman, Millard Frazier Jr., and Olivia Lee,” says Jamil Baldwin of his series Tenacity. Baldwin’s poignant black-and-white images begin as photographs of family members from his group of friends, who are seen at sites of importance for loved ones who have passed away, holding images that Baldwin has printed and framed. Each image reappears within the image being held, creating a recessive effect where each family photographed is therein holding the next. This gesture, Baldwin notes, reflects “what it is to be held by your community of friends and family; a reminder that grief isn’t held by any one individual.” Baldwin then soaks the silver-gelatin prints in water, to a point where the image begins to dissolve and abstract. These abstractions, for Baldwin, reflect the process of losing a loved one. “In some ways I don’t want Black bodies to be the anchor for conversations about death and grief and adversity. This series is really about love, but to know love as deeply as I know it, you need to know the depths of loss.”
When Miranda Barnes graduated from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2018 with a degree in Humanities and Justice, she was unsure how photography would fit into her career plans. That year, she was commissioned for a New York Times story about Memphis for the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. “It gave me the confidence to pursue photography as something I could use my background for in a more visual sense,” says Barnes, a self-taught Caribbean American artist who grew up in Brooklyn. In the years since, she’s taken on a range of commercial and editorial work across the country, including for Nike, Apple, Vanity Fair, and TIME, developing an approach that draws from the visual language of street portraiture and environmental and vernacular photography. The intimate and vibrant work in her sub-series Labor Day Parade—which focuses on the West Indian Day carnival that takes place in Brooklyn every September—forms one part of a much longer-term project exploring celebration, community, coming-of-age, and Black subcultures across the country, including Cotillion and Debutante Balls. For Barnes, who has been photographing the parade since she was a teenager, style is as much about individual expression as it is about community relations and history, which is why people, in celebration and communion, are always at the center of her work.
Growing up in Minneapolis, McKayla Chandler’s mother would often braid her and her three sisters’ hair, and then photograph the styles as references for her circle of local clientele. However, it wasn’t until 2020, when Chandler moved back home due to the pandemic, that she rediscovered her mother’s braid book, the photographic ledger of all the different styles she had braided, and realized the artistic potential behind it. Chandler’s series, MOBETTA, uses her mother’s braid book as a launch point into a documentation of contemporary braiding styles and culture. Chandler’s work captures the innate beauty and expressiveness of braiding as an art form and a means of self-expression, but also the symbolic potential of braiding styles as vessels for personal and communal history. Just as the braid book preserved a moment in her own family’s story, Chandler sees her project as a work of “archiving in real time.” As she notes, “There’s so much erasure that happens, especially in the Black community, especially being in America. One way to preserve this history is to just make sure you’re taking those photos, and understanding the importance of being able to pass these things down.”
Neesh Chaudhary’s series Diluted explores the physiological and emotional impact of colorism in Indian culture. “The color of your skin is still something that defines your place in society,” Chaudhary says. “But what’s so complex is that it’s something that’s also perpetrated by the victims themselves—it’s ingrained in society in a way that’s just become natural.” In several staged scenes shot on film and then digitally stitched together, Chaudhary envisions the tensions within the interior landscape of her heroine, who has been split between her natural self and an idealized, European beauty-standard alternative. Throughout her photographs, the power dynamics of these two “selves” is constantly shifting—in some moments, the heroine blissfully ignores her alternate, in others, she sits vulnerable while her other takes on a dominant role—pointing to the fluidity of these anxieties and self-perception, and that the ways one sees themselves is always changing. In the concluding photograph of the series, Pranama, Chaudhary plays on the traditional act of bowing at the feet as a form of respect and reverence. Her heroine’s alternate bows at her feet, reversing the roles of reverence in a moment of reclamation for her true self. As Chaudhary states, “It’s taking a strong cultural tradition and turning it on its head, asking: How can we have this tradition about respect for one another, while simultaneously having this cultural view that judges someone based on their skin tone, something they can’t control?”
Tha Crossroads is one part of DeVivo’s ongoing series that explores the different ways Black people throughout the diaspora connect to the spirit. The source of DeVivo’s inspiration comes from the Kongo cosmogram—a core symbol in Bakongo spirituality that depicts the cyclical nature of the physical and spiritual worlds. In this iteration, DeVivo narrows in on the point at which the spirit rises, whereas they describe, “birth and potentiality reach their ultimate point.” Working with a mix of photographic techniques including Polaroids and burning and layering images, DeVivo is less driven by the representative nature of photography, instead stating, “I’m more interested in the ephemeral or emotional space we connect to through image-making.” Throughout the photographs, a purple moon births into the world; two bodies intertwined call to sexuality and pleasure as a space of connection; and the recurring motif of sparks offer a visual representation of the spirit’s birth into the physical world. For DeVivo, who has family connections to Southern vodou, Creole heritage, and Hinduism, the creation of these photographs feels tied directly to their lineage. “I call my art practice my spiritual practice,” says DeVivo. “It’s a place where I can commune with my ancestors.”
In America Fever, Emanuel Hahn intersects Korean cultural and historical elements with mythologies of the American West in an exploration of Korean American immigrant experiences in the 1970s. The title refers to citizens in postwar Korea who, inspired by the image of American culture, desired to immigrate to the US for a better life. Hahn’s staged scenes reflect the luster and romance of an American West coming out of the Hollywood age. Inspired by artists such as Alex Prager and Gregory Crewdson, who created their own worlds through cinematic techniques, Hahn’s work reflects upon the duality America has to offer: a hopeful, yet potentially dangerous, future. “I wanted to do that for the Korean American community, depicting this specific time and place in our history that hasn’t really been seen or celebrated,” Hahn says. One image from the series, Jultagi,references a historical Korean performance in which an entertainer tells witty stories while walking a tightrope. Hahn depicts a man dressed in Western clothes walking towards the camera, and his future, while a woman, dressed in traditional Korean attire, has her back turned, reflecting longingly on her past. “The tightrope acts as a metaphor for the immigrant experience,” says Hahn. “There’s no room for mistakes, but it’s also a performance.”
Eric Hart Jr.
Eric Hart Jr.’s sitters are aware of your gaze, their own performance, and the inequalities that have long haunted photography. “I’m interested in dissecting what it means to perform as a man, as a queer man, as a Black queer man,” says the Brooklyn-based artist and NYU Tisch School of the Arts graduate. Using a highly stylized approach, Hart’s portraits reimagine Black men against a range of historical circumstances, racist visual tropes, and critical and cultural references, including Du Bois’s “double-consciousness,” Fanon’s anti-colonialism, New York City’s Ballroom scene, and the photographer’s own upbringing in Georgia. In addition to a growing body of commercial work for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and the Washington Post, his debut monograph, When I Think About Power (2023), explores power and its relationship to the Black queer experience––using theatricality, overtly produced elements, and dramatized black-and-white imagery. Hart’s more recent series, Mister, Mister (2022–23), builds on this idea while widening its scope, using constructed scenes and postures to comment on artifice, photographic representation, and its historical associations. “So much of power is performance, and I think performance is so broad,” Hart says, explaining his proclivity toward artists that produce work that feels made, including Zanele Muholi, Kerry James Marshall, and Dana Scruggs. “I have so much more to say.”
Vikesh Kapoor is a singer-songwriter and a photographer. “My medium changes depending on the kind of story I want to tell,” he says. The story Kapoor is telling in his latest photographic series is a story about his family, specifically the lives of his parents, Sarla and Shailendra, who were married in 1969 and immigrated from India to London and New York before settling in Pennsylvania. They were doctors. “We’re a Team,” a promotion from the Lockhaven Hospital declared in an announcement about the couple. Beginning in 2018, Kapoor decided to make a record of his parents, photographing them at home and drawing upon family albums and documents, in an effort “to explore their life aging, as immigrants.” He discovered letters his mother wrote to his father after their engagement and portraits from their wedding day. All of these details suddenly held new meanings when Sarla died on January 11, 2023. Grief can be distorting and illuminating. A woman’s hands as she steams milk or a man’s blazer worn to a funeral: the fragility of the body and the resilience of memory. One photograph shows an altar before which Kapoor’s family told stories of Sarla. At the center is a portrait Kapoor made of Sarla posed against a plain white backdrop, poised and self-possessed—a final collaboration between mother and son.
“When you visit a Dominican household, you’re welcomed with open arms, and treated like family,” says Adeline Lulo. “Visitors are welcomed with a kiss on the cheek, and conversations flow over freshly brewed cafécito.” This particular sense of warmth and hospitality is the focus of Lulo’s project A La Orden (At Your Service), in which she photographs intimate scenes of the interior life of immigrant families who have migrated from the Dominican Republic to New York. Images of walls and shelves adorned with family photos, flowers, and reliquaries tell a rich story of past and present, while portraits of family and friends are captured with care and reverence. Lulo, who herself has roots in Washington Heights, the Bronx, and the Dominican Republic, sees this work as a love letter to the Dominican community. “This is my way of giving them their flowers,” Lulo says. “By sharing these stories and images, I hope to create a space for reflection, conversation, and healing for the Dominican community, while preserving a piece of Dominican history for future generations.”
Tiffany Luong stages imagined moments in her family history in order to expose the personal weight and lingering effects of immigration. Her series Reclamation is a restorative work; having been never told the details of her grandparent’s journey from Taishan (Toisan in Cantonese), China to the United States, Luong was motivated to fill in the gaps herself. Through intensive research through resources like the National Archive Record Administration, Luong surfaced her grandparents’ immigration documents and entry interviews, and began to piece together an idea of their history. “Reclamation is me trying to figure out what made my grandparents who they were, what made my parents who they are, what made me who I am, and finally what I’m passing down to my own children,” Luong says. The images, made between Hong Kong, Guangdong, and California, while informed by her historical research, seek to inhabit the emotional space of her grandparents during their immigration rather than adhere to an idea of historical fact. Luong notes, “I realized that I didn’t have to do an accurate documentation, because I don’t actually know what happened exactly. Instead, I could have artistic license and freedom. That was an important revelation—although I wanted to tell a true story. I don’t know the truth, because no one ever told me.”
Maya June Mansour
In her ongoing series Light Brown Butterfly,Maya June Mansour investigates the lasting physical and emotional impact of an act of sexual assault she experienced in her youth. Mansour was prompted to begin the projects after being diagnosed with an ovarian cyst that formed as a result of internalized stress and anger from the event. Working between a variety of mediums, from 35mm film to Polaroids to multi-frame cameras, Mansour’s series of self-portraits depict the non-linear process of healing, describing each of the photographs as “pages from a journal.” Beauty is an integral part of the work and her creative process, acting both as a tool of self-care as well as an exploration of the spiritual attributes beauty can offer. “I want victims or survivors of sexual assault to feel seen in a way that they haven’t before,” she says. “I’ve never really resonated with the stories or the phrase #MeToo before, so this is my version of that.” The mirror, a recurring motif, integrates Mansour’s emotional journey of reflection to create this work, while also asking viewers to consider their own life and position as it pertains to sexual violence and patriarchy. In I’m Still Here (2022), a small mirror featuring Mansour’s reflection is almost invisible against the larger interior space, hinting at the ways in which trauma can often be invisible on the outside. “When you have that kind of trauma it becomes a part of you, it informs everything,” Mansour says. “This photograph shows how it’s almost easy to look at a person and not see it—but once you see my face in the mirror, it’s impossible to miss.”
Da’Shaunae Marisa’s mother was the family photographer. When Marisa was in kindergarten, her mother gave her a disposable camera to document her friends. That was the beginning. Marisa grew up in Cleveland and although she has extended family in Ohio, Georgia, and Virginia, they weren’t close until Marisa’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, which would become “the reason for an overdue reunion.” Marisa’s work is about connectivity, about “finding all the similarities between different cultures and generations.” But it’s also about how emotions can be stored in the body and the face, protected most of the time, released only in spaces of trust and intimacy. After her mother passed away in May 2020, Marisa made a series of sensitive portraits with the muted color palette of Ohio’s early-spring light, probing questions about grief and survival. For her newest project, she invited her own family, a friend’s family, and twin brothers she met in South Africa into the studio, working with a large format camera and a Lomography Instant Back, often taking upwards of two hours to make detailed composite portraits. The long studio process allowed for deep discussions about grief “and how each family member processes that differently.” Sometimes you only see a fraction of what a person is thinking or feeling, if that’s all they can give. Sometimes, as in Marisa’s patient, collaborative portraiture, you can catch glimpses of their true self.
Giancarlo Montes Santangelo
When Giancarlo Montes Santangelo searched the Library of Congress for photographs of Puerto Rico, he discovered an excess of images that appeared to frame the island’s history through a nationalist perspective. He began to wonder about the impact of these images, many from the early twentieth century, on larger cultural stories, “and how these stories settle into the present.” Montes Santangelo’s mother was born in Argentina and his father was born in Puerto Rico; they met in Washington, DC. The artist’s dual heritage has, in part, prompted an ongoing inquiry into archives, both public and personal, that might fill in missing chapters of history about the Caribbean and Latin America. But he’s also drawn to photographs that resist interpretation. In his work, multiple, often competing narratives are drawn together in layers. For some pieces, he collects and collages photographs, enlarges the collages to create studio backdrops, then sets up his studio to make yet one more image. For others, he poses himself or friends in performative actions that recall the strategies of artists Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Whitney Hubbs. There’s a “spectrum of experience” Montes Santangelo notes about his intricate collages, which consider ritual, pain, masculinity, and spirituality. “My own body is affected by those images and can affect those images,” he says. “I’m trying to create a space where I can open up those histories but also contribute to them.”
Xavier Scott Marshall
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Cotton Club in Harlem hosted a dizzying array of iconic Black musicians and performers, but Black patrons were not permitted entry. Xavier Scott Marshall was questioning that double standard—a space where a Black man in a suit could only be seen as the entertainment or “the help”—when he encountered a Harlem community program called We Do It Too, which teaches boys to wear suits, invites guest speakers and mentors, and generally invites boys to “come into their manhood in a confident way.” As Marshall began photographing the boys in their suiting, he thought about James Van Der Zee’s classic Harlem portraiture and Ming Smith’s experimental approach to portraying musicians. He also thought about W. E. B. Du Bois’s concept of “double-consciousness,” the sense, as Du Bois wrote in 1897, “of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” For these young boys from economically challenged backgrounds, would suiting be a form of “class armor”? Would a suit equalize the playing field? Marshall used a 4×5 camera to make double exposures and processed the film by hand, allowing for subtle imperfections to remain part of the final images. “I wanted to glorify them while also paying homage to the past,” Marshall said of the Harlem boys. Instead of dancing for patrons, in these photographs, the boys are dancing for themselves.
Growing up in Asunción, Paraguay, as the grandson of postwar Japanese immigrants, photographer Ricardo Nagaoka found himself surrounded by narrow and patriarchal models of masculinity. “As I tried to perform that very form of masculinity,” Nagaoka says, “my body felt what it meant to be seen as less than because of my race.” Through constructed images featuring close friends, chosen family, and collaborators, Nagaoka attempts to pry open masculinity’s historical and cultural baggage, as well as its performance, to push for a broader understanding of gender and queerness. His quiet and intimate imagery draws from personal experiences: “Whether it’s a memory of touch, a glimpse of a gesture, or a translation of my emotional state,” he explains, “my work relies on intuition during its making process.” Nagaoka brings in a range of visual references and ideas when constructing his photographs—from the work of Catherine Opie, Masahisa Fukase, Sam Contis, and the twentieth-century Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu, to the broader legacies of New Topographics and the Pictures Generation. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2015 and then spending nearly a decade outside art education institutions—working with the New Yorker, TIME, and FT Magazine—Nagaoka will start his MFA at the University of California Los Angeles this year. “I want my work to continue these conversations, and to be contextualized within academic, institutional, and cultural understandings of how we define masculine performance,” he says.
Nasrah Omar is drawn to the limits and possibilities of world-building, both online and in real life. In her series Proteus Effect (2021–ongoing), iridescent slime oozes in from a French window, amethyst runic stones scatter over a game board, a head appears just above the surface of a bioluminescent body of water. “I’ve always thought of photography as an apparatus to manipulate reality,” says Omar, who was born in India, graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 2012, and now lives in Queens. “The imagery explores how virtual spaces become deeply affective and integral to the composition of layered identities, agendas, and ideologies.” Through photographic tableaus, references ranging from spiritualism to Tumblr, and collaborative portraits with queer Muslim Bangladeshi activist and model Nova A, Omar explores how constructed ecosystems are able to challenge power structures encoded within technologies, often expressed through surveillance systems, algorithmic biases, and censorship. Among her influences are thinkers who’ve drawn potent links between digital systems and real-world imbalances, including Legacy Russell, James Bridle, and Zainab Aliyu, who co-taught a class Omar took at the School for Poetic Computation in New York. At its heart, the world built by the series is an experiment in imagining—as Omar says—“how the digital world can be an avenue to create agency for marginalized persons.”
David López Osuna
The sterile environment of a chain restaurant is nothing like the places where California-based photographer David López Osuna grew up eating. As an undergraduate at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, he began noticing that much of the work he was seeing didn’t relate to his own experiences, or was overly influenced by commercial media. That’s when he began photographing the fast-food industry—particularly the people behind the counter, their relationship to their communities, and their attempts for fair working conditions. “I come from a family of working-class people,” Osuna says. “I’m the first person in my family to actually pursue a career as an artist.” What began as a project documenting corporate chains like McDonalds soon evolved into a more community-centered approach, focused on two family-owned restaurants in the greater Los Angeles area. Osuna spent months documenting their owners, patrons, and staff, using an intimate and interpersonal approach that contrasted with the sanitized worlds envisioned by corporate advertising. Having worked as a lighting assistant for similar commercial projects, Osuna is familiar with how these consumer fictions are manufactured; his work remains focused on real people and the lives they attempt to conceal or embellish. “As an artist, I’m very concerned with the role that corporations have in the lives of working-class people,” he says.
When COVID-19 began to hit statewide, Walé Oyéjidé, like many other artists at the time, found himself turning to his domestic space and those he shared it with to create new work. The resulting series, Joy and Daughter at the end of the world, is an intimate yet joyous reflection of life with his ten-year-old daughter in these precarious years. Weaving together a mix of stated scenes and naturalistic images, Oyéjidé depicts the sense of imagination of a child at this age, bringing a sense of play and fantasy to each of his photographs. For Oyéjidé, who has a background in film and fashion, the beauty in his photographs is a deliberate attempt to challenge narratives around fatherhood that are often negative—particularly for people of color. The role of collaboration between himself and his daughter further bolsters this idea, allowing her to have a direct hand in her own representation, as well as transforming photography into an act of father-daughter bonding. “We all connect in whatever ways we can,” says Oyéjidé. “But as an artist, the tools that I have are storytelling or photography.”
Oluwatosin “Tosin” Popoola
Tosin Popoola moved from Nigeria to the US in 2014 and bought his first camera on eBay the following year. During college, he discovered the work of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. His photography, he says, which encompasses fashion and portraiture, is about “feelings, everyday life, little moments.” Several years ago, he decided to begin making pictures of his family, many of whom had emigrated to the US and settled in Ohio. “I wanted to honor them and introduce them to the world,” he says, but also to document “the changes in my parents’ faces.” Not everyone in his new portraits is a family member in the strictest sense, but all are like family in their bonds to the photographer. Here, we see regal postures and gazes, gleaming skin and perfect manicures, brown swag fabric flowing against a white studio backdrop, and the kinds of clothes Nigerians are known to wear on Sundays or special occasions. In one image, Popoola’s mother wears a vivid pink gown originally made by an aunt. Popoola’s youngest brother, zigging and zagging in the background, makes a cameo in a few pictures, adding a dash of kinetic energy to the formal studio scenes, which Popoola created with a large-format camera. “It just happened,” Popoola says of his brother’s sudden appearance. So, everyone said, “You know what, just jump in.”
C. T. Robert
C. T. Robert’s images of the West side of Chicago reflect the resilience and grace of a community dealing with crisis. Having spent time in Chicago after creative directing musical artist Saba’s album Few Good Things, Robert wanted to return to the community in order to create photographs that counteracted the negative stereotypes of the city that he saw pervading popular media. With the resulting project, Cycles, Robert hopes to celebrate the quiet beauty of the neighborhood and its residents. “At one time, during the great migration, Chicago was seen as a place of hope for the Black community,” says Robert. “Now there’s a vacant home crisis, among other things. So, it’s like, okay, how do we go from there to there? What are the stories within that?” Robert spent time integrating himself into the local community, getting to know the people he was photographing on a deeper level before even making their portrait. In his collaborative approach, his subjects’ own reflections often accompany their image. “I wanted to slow down and be super intentional. To make a project that doesn’t lean on stereotypes of Black death and Black trauma, but instead, flip those ideas, and tell a story about the cycles of life that exist in a place.”
Interviews by Brendan Embser, Noa Lin, Varun Nayar, and Cassidy Paul.
Through Fire and Thunder is on view at Pioneer Works, New York, May 13 and 14, 2023.