How did you become a photographer? Would you define yourself as a one?
I have always loved photography. My mother who was a painter was passionate about it and she owned some Nikon handheld cameras. I thought she was very talented. Later on, when I studied visual communication at the École Charpentier in Paris, I discovered what a darkroom was and took photography classes. I was fascinated by the process: taking a photo, developing it, using chemicals and seeing the image appear. I then became a graphic designer and art director. I was lucky enough to meet the man who became my mentor, Peter Beard, thanks to whom I began to believe in my photography and in my potential.
I initially wanted to be a producer and to work on the creative side of things but I realised that there were limits to this field. Photography became the obvious way forward. I didn’t need anyone else to create. Photography allowed me to be independent and to project my future as an independent woman.
Today, I define myself as both a photographer and a visual artist.
What drives you as a photographer?
In my work, I focus on the lack of representation of black women in Western society. I want to highlight a different kind of beauty in black women that’s dignified, elegant, spiritual and genuine. It’s also important for me to take apart and deconstruct the patriarchal world of photography and its obsession with objectifying black women and portraying them as exotic. Lastly, I want to start a dialogue about different representations which respect the ethical and moral values of a black woman’s body.
Do you think there is such a thing as a ‘woman’s gaze’ in photography? Is this something you can relate to?
It should be noted that the notion of a ‘woman’s gaze’ or a ‘man’s gaze’ didn’t used to be brought up in this field. Even now, people still resist this notion and don’t want to try and understand what these terms mean. I’m convinced this different way of looking at the world should be taught to photography students. Women photographers don’t talk about it because, if they don’t question their work, they don’t realise the impact it has. It’s possible for example to be a female photographer and to use a ‘man’s gaze’ to create.
It’s a difficult notion to explain because you have to take into account the fact that men have grown up in a patriarchal, macho society and that a man’s energy and world view isn’t as universal as one might think. Men have created a model and moulded our society and subconsciously or not, they have enriched themselves through this male way of looking at things – by photographing women as objects.
When I pose naked in my photographs, I always have a good reason for doing so, there’s always a spiritual or traditional dimension to my work. My body has a primary function. It’s essential for the new generation of female photographers to understand that it can create this ‘woman’s gaze’. I am one of the prototypes, but many others who are very different to me, will follow. I am delighted that contemporary photography is finally transcending this issue of a ‘genderised’ way of looking at things, and that it understands that the past is the past and there is nothing to take from it.
Has being a woman influenced your work as an artist in any way?
Yes, completely. The art world has been transformed and has opened its doors to more women artists in order to create new stories, project new ideas and visualise the women of the future.
As a woman – and a black woman – I am very conscious of the socio-cultural conditioning that will determine my ‘status’ in society. We all, as women, need to ask ourselves questions and talk about these issues together.
Do you live off your art?
Yes, I have done for nine years now. When I came to New York I didn’t want to work for production companies any longer. So I had to give up my jobs in France, and I became a waitress in a restaurant. I ‘bought my time’ as it were, because this job allowed me to have 3 to 4 days off a week to create. I paid my rent with my tips and worked on my personal creations the rest of the time. I kept this up for a year and a half. It took real determination, but this experience taught me, among other things, how to read and analyse people.
When I came to New York, I got an assignment with Nike to photograph street basketball – it was my first corporate job, nine years ago. Nike is possibly the only company in the industry to support black photographers. I would never had been given this opportunity in France! Today, I combine commissions and personal work. I have never won a grant or a prize, so my corporate work pays for my art.
Which authors have inspired you? Are there any women photographers among them?
I own an entire library of work that inspires me! I can name a few authors though that I really love and who inspire me every day:
Joseph Campbell, and his excellent comparative mythology. His work has helped me to see beyond the way we are conditioned by society and alienated by ethnocentric visions of the world, even if it’s subconscious.
Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom I also adore. He is one of the rare few who possesses the ability to help observers change their point of view when he discusses culture with other intellectuals. He is a true master.
I also enjoy reading books about the universe. Stephen Hawkins is a reference. And of course, Frantz Fanon for black authors in the diaspora is exceptional.
Regarding women photographers, I am inspired by the documentary work of Malin Fezehai, whose ‘woman’s gaze’ is a model to follow. There is a lot of softness, love, spirituality and references to the divine in her work. The Spanish photographer Camilla Falquez belongs to the younger generation. She is a warrior who is obsessed with the aesthetics and beauty of women whom she praises in her work. She is just starting out in her career, but you can already feel the love she has for her peers.