Beauty and photos are reflections of who we are. Together, they affirm our existence and our identity. We use beauty products to enhance our features but may forget the importance of documenting what makes us feel beautiful.
For many people, photos are a projection of who we are and what we choose to show to others. Similarly, photographs influence how we see culture, history, and the identities of others. Photos have been used as tools for social change: During the 19th century, abolitionists and intellectuals like Frederick Douglass (known to be the most photographed American man in the 19th century) harnessed the power of what was, at the time, a gatekept luxury. They showed it to be an accessible medium for all.
This piece is not a history lesson on the power of photographs in the 19th century. Still, I mention it to draw your attention to photography's influence throughout the centuries. There has often been a hyper-focus on capturing traumas within the Black community instead of the joy. However, many independent Black visual artists like myself are changing this narrative.
As a 22-year-old Sudanese-American Muslim model, creative, and filmmaker, I focus on producing visual work that makes me feel confident in my skin. I see photographs as a way to affirm every curve and scar through a timeless depiction. Over recent years, beauty brands have taken note, focusing on casting diverse talent in front of (and behind) the frame. This has not only changed the consumer experience but also created a new world of inspiration and opportunities for creatives.
To further illustrate the importance of showcasing Black beauty, I spoke to Black female photographers about the significance of their work and why visual representation is vital in our communities.
Candace Dane Chambers
Model Yeabsara Yimer Wolle and I teamed up with Washington, D.C.-based photographer Candace Dane Chambers for my latest project. She began her photography practice in Los Angeles with the mission of finding beauty in seemingly mundane things.
A key element of Chambers' process is making her subjects feel seen—a crucial component for both parties. "It can be initially uncomfortable for my subjects [to model], but I strive to create a safe, serene, collaborative space for folks just to be—to push past the discomfort and open themselves up," she says. "Doing this through photography activates a dexterity that balances softness and control, the sweet spot where I'm most confident as an artist and woman."
Jameela Elfaki is a London-based photographer who pulls from her own identity to empower other Black women. "My Sudanese identity is something I have wanted to be closer to, and photography helped me achieve this through meeting other women and hearing their stories. I was able to build community by making images," she says. "Photographing Black women is much more than taking photos—it's about building friendships and connections that show who we are authentically."
For Elfaki, photography can empower both the photographer and the subject. "When I shoot, I feel strong, comfortable, and confident in my abilities and eye," she says. "I have security in my power and direction, which makes me feel beautiful inside. I remember taking photos of a friend, it was her first proper shoot as a model, and when she saw the images afterward, she almost cried tears of joy. It makes me happy when a shoot is a happy and empowering memory for someone, where they feel seen and can embrace their inner and outer beauty."
Deun Ivory is a photographer who curates visual experiences centered on celebrating Black women. She is also the founder and creative director of The body: a home for love.
"My work is dedicated to making the world a better place for Black women, and joy is an integral part of that process," she says. "I focus on joy and happiness because I want Black people to feel at home when they see my work. I want my images to remind us that we deserve to dwell in bliss and happiness, no matter what."
She renders these intentions through images for beauty brands such as Hanahana Beauty. "Black women need to know that authenticity is their superpower," she says. "Often, we must be reminded that we deserve to be here and that our joy and dreams matter. It's easy to shrink ourselves and allow others to convince us that we're asking for too much when we're not."
Ally Green is a Los Angeles-based artist specializing in digital and medium format photography. She also teaches other Black women photographers essential skills. "In many jobs [over the] years, I was the odd one, outnumbered by corporate non-POC who didn't understand my vision or ideas," she says. "When companies finally reached out to me for photography opportunities, I would be happy because many of them encouraged me to build my team and bring in people who deserved opportunities."
Green's focus behind the camera is to showcase personality versus solely focusing on looks. "In the industry, I feel like many Black women are muses for bigger brands, and they're directed to smile, but you never really see who they are," she says. "I wanted to get to know my muses first." This allows Green to connect with everyone she shoots so they feel comfortable and empowered with her and their shared space. "We cannot get far if we don't help each other—we must be a team," she says. "You have to help and uplift your fellow creatives—especially other Black women."