What happens when I decide to look? To not be looked at. What happens? Lately, I’ve considered putting my camera down. Leaving it in the drawer of things one leaves behind. The things that one outgrows. But I haven’t outgrown photography. Photography has outgrown me.
If I am to call myself a photographer, I am to call myself a documentary photographer. I get the most joy in photographing people I don’t know, or even the ones I do know in the most emotionally telling situations. Evaluating the light half cast on their face and eyes is like a dream. I am most comfortable with my 35mm film camera. No studio, models, and light kits can ever match the feeling I get when I frame and execute photography outside in natural light; when I document people and situations that tell stories words cannot. I am in love with this way of photographing. So why would I want to be put my camera away?
Lately, it has been extremely hard to be a black female documentary photographer. As if it wasn’t hard enough to be a black woman in the world, a black woman who takes pictures of the world and frames images of the world adds a larger dimension of difficulty that impedes my ability to create art. Recently, a male photographer colleague advised me to “take off my ‘lady’ hat and just shoot.” I nodded, because it sounded so simple coming off his lips. I wish it were simple to take off my “lady hat,” but it’s not. My gender and race mark me in any space I venture. In my neighborhood, I am whispered to, catcalled at, grunted at, and expected to respond to every male expression of attraction around me. I am uncomfortable almost 95% of the time I’m on the sidewalk. The times I do bring my camera, it ends of being suffocated in my purse for the whole day because instead of me wanting to spend time on the street documenting my people, I really just want to get away from them. I want to get away from men feeling like I’m obligated to speak to them, rub their egos, and respond to sexually charged comments and aggression. To stay that this doesn’t affect my ability to document, would be to lie to you.
I find my very presence as black female to impede my ability to “just shoot,” to just appreciate the beauty of my people. Because of the attention I am given on the street and in my community, a largely West Indian and black community, I am unable to document in the way that I want to. In the way that I was trained to do. In this sense, photography has outgrown me. I am unable to grow with my practice because that very practice is limited to discomfort and quick, rushed shots that take the enjoyment and excitement out of what I’m aiming to do.
I’ve begun to ponder taking alternative methods to my practice- asking certain people if I could photograph and follow them, or devoting time to a specific project or group of people. But I am always pulled back to that one image on the street that I miss out on capturing because I’m fearful that my photographing may draw dreaded, distinct attention to me. It has happened before, and I didn’t even have my camera.
I just want to shoot.