At a moment when people around the world are demanding action against systemic racism, a new online initiative highlights the work of Black photographers who have captured their own complicated experiences of being Black in America.
Launching Friday, See In Black features 70 images by Black photographers from across the United States. The photos will be available for sale on the See In Black website for $100 each and the prints will be created by photography brand Artifact Uprising. All of the profits will go to five organizations, including The Bail Project, which works on criminal justice reform, and Know Your Rights Camp, which focuses on civil rights. Notably, the exhibit opens on Juneteeth, which commemorates the day that the last slaves were freed, and will run through July 3.
“We’re storytellers, but we’re also people,” says Joshua Kissi, who cofounded See In Black with fellow New York-based photographer Michaiah Carter. “We’re photographers who are also living through the Black experience in America, and those two things cannot be separated.” In the current world of photography, Kissi says Black photographers don’t often get a chance to tell their own stories. When they gain recognition and are hired by magazines or creative agencies, they often don’t have the creative autonomy to convey a Black point of view.
The founders first met when Carter photographed Kissi for Fast Company in 2018, when Kissi was named one of the magazine’s 100 Most Creative People. They stayed in touch and often talked about how Black people have largely been on the receiving end of the camera lens. They came up with the idea of See In Black just two weeks ago, as protests sprang up around the country after the killing of George Floyd by the police. Their goal was to highlight the work of Black photographers while also raising money for nonprofits working to empower Black communities.
Kissi points out that photography itself is interwoven with colonialism and power. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, colonizers used cameras to document life in the colonies, but in doing so, they imposed their own narratives on colonized people. “The basic language of photography is problematic,” Kissi says. “Words like ‘shooting,’ ‘subject,’ and ‘owning an image’ are loaded with meaning. Photography has historically created a gaze, but it has also justified the subjugation of other people, and we’re trying to undo some of that with our own work.”
Both Carter and Kissi have explored issues of identity through their work, creating portraits of people of color in bold saturated colors. They’ve both done creative work for brands like Nike and Apple, and Kissi is also the cofounder of TONL, a startup that creates multicultural stock photography to combat stereotypes.
With See In Black, Kissi and Carter wanted to highlight the perspectives of a range of Black photographers from a variety of backgrounds, ages, and sexual orientations. The slate of photographers includes people like Jon Henry, who is well-known for his series that features women cradling Black men and boys in a style reminiscent of Michaelangelo’s Pietà. But the exhibit is also intended to draw attention to lesser-known photographers.
Kissi says the images are meant to reflect the intersectionality of the Black experience. He says too often the media uses images of Black people that portray a narrow, monolithic, and stereotypical view of their lives. With this exhibit, Kissi and Carter are interested in portraying tragedy and pain, but they also want to go beyond those experiences. For instance, consider Kissi’s own contribution to the exhibit. It features Black people dressed in Native American costumes, participating in Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Kissi spent a week observing the city’s celebrations while he was on assignment for Teen Vogue earlier this year. “These are people whose lineage includes Black people brought over from Africa and enslaved, along with Native American people,” he says. “They combined their cultures and traditions. We want to give people a glimpse into Black life they haven’t seen before.”