During the recent unveiling of the official portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, conversations about the intersection of art and race took center stage.
“I’m also thinking about all the young people—particularly girls and girls of color—who in years ahead will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution,” Michelle Obama said at the ceremony. “I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls.”
Similar conversations about diversity and depictions of race have been infiltrating the photography industry, which has long excluded the contributions of black women photographers from its mainstream history.
In 1986, photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe challenged this narrative with the publication of Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers—a collection of images and biographies spanning the mid-1800s to the 1980s. Though singular, the volume ensured their accomplishments would not be lost to time.
Three decades later, inspired by the work of pioneers like Dr. Deborah Willis and Moutoussamy-Ashe, Laylah Amatullah Barrayn and Delphine Fawundu sought to create a new historical document that spotlighted a younger generation of black women photographers.
“There is really powerful storytelling happening and we need to make sure that these narratives are getting the platform that they deserve,” Barrayn says.
MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora is providing that platform. The first edition of the biannual journal features 118 intergenerational photographers, and is dedicated to to establishing and representing a collective voice of women photographers of African descent.
What was your inspiration for the book and how did it come to fruition?
We were inspired by the dedicated work of Dr. Deborah Willis, who chronicled the works of black photographers for the last century. We are avid collectors of photography books and we own all of Dr. Willis’s books—some of which feature our own works.
In 2006, we had the idea to create an artistic response to Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe published in 1986. We created a prototype of the book and shopped it around. It was difficult to land a book deal, so we took a break from the project and focused on our own individual work, which included research and extensive travel throughout Africa and Europe while producing photographic stories and art reflective of the African diaspora.
Ten years went by and we grew tremendously as artists and photographers. The experience that we had during that decade left us so much more enlightened about the women throughout the diaspora who were also creating powerful works.
In 2016, we reconvened and decided to revisit the project that we took a break from 10 years earlier. First, we created a list of all women photographers who are of African descent that we knew, including the photographers we reached out to in 2006. We asked for recommendations, we scoured the internet, Facebook, and Instagram. We had many conversations, we didn’t want to overlook anyone. We cast a wide net. While selecting artists for the book we thought about quality, women who were committed to their craft, as well as a diversity in experience, location, genre, and subject matter. We began the process in January and completed the book in September 2017.
The book was named and dedicated to Mmekutmfon “Mfon” Essien—why her?
Laylah: As I was writing a grant to get this project off the ground, I couldn’t think of a name that really encompasses the gravity of what we were looking to present with this collection of photographs. One day, Mfon’s just came to mind and I called Delphine to tell her that I found the perfect name. Mfon Essien was an emerging photographer who was a central part of the photo community in New York City. She was an extremely talented photographer and was also muse for many of her contemporaries. Unfortunately, she lost her life at such an early age to breast cancer.
Delphine: Mmekutmfon Essien was a visionary photographer who received many accolades in her young career, including exhibiting in the Senegalese Biennale and an honorable mention in American Photo. She passed away just a day before her series, “The Amazon’s New Clothes,” was to be shown as part of the exhibition “Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers.”
When you met her, you sensed her magic. She was petite in stature, but had giant presence. In her work, she reflects our collective flawed and sacred beauty on our own terms as an undeniable source of strength and an ultimate defiance of others’ standards of beauty. Mfon stands tall and grounded in her dignity and grace as all our talented photographers featured in MFON do—effortlessly. MFON is a vehicle to give voice to our images through our particular and unique lens as black women, which reflect the spirit of and nods to the genius of Mmekutmfon ‘Mfon’ Essien.
You’ve talked about the Western gaze and history of photography. Why do you think it’s important for people to tell their own stories?
Unfortunately, the Western gaze is quite limiting, oppressive, and even violent. We are all humans experiencing the world from different perspectives. To move forward in a humane way, it’s important for us to respect the need to include a multitude of voices, eliminating the idea of a hierarchy as we share stories of human experiences.
What are some of the most significant institutional barriers you see facing black female photographers?
The main institutional barrier facing black women photographers is the unwillingness of “gatekeepers” to understand that world perspective is not limited to one view.
Social and political disruptions such as colonialism and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade have produced racial, cultural, and social hierarchies with a preference to Western values and whiteness—even in countries where whites are the minority. This world history leads to horrific problems, such as historical erasure, lack of representation, and the idea of the “other.” It is quite problematic to be perceived as the “other” or to see yourself reflected within the mainstream media through the white gaze. This comes in the form of media outlets, organizations, museums, and art spaces that represent broad subjects—like photography, documentary, women, American, art—but ignore or display a very limited perspective of black women photographers.
Do you have a favorite image?
All of the images selected for the book are our favorites. I appreciate Manyatsa Monyamane portrait that celebrates body positivity because it was the last in the book before we sent it to the printer, and it represented a moment that this book is finally coming to fruition.
There are 118 photographers in the book who are creating an array of amazing photographic series. They are intergenerational, the youngest photographer is Fanta Diop, she is certainly a rising star and we are excited to see her path unfold. We have photographers like Tonika Johnson who have received quite a few accolades, including being named one of Chicago Magazine’s People of the Year for her ongoing series documenting Chicago’s South Side; and Johanne Rahaman whose works looks at the many diasporic communities in South Florida. I’m really glad to have included Mouna Jemal Siala and Hélène Amouzou, from Tunisia and Togo, respectively, whose photographs looks at the migrant crisis utilizing self-portraiture and centering the experiences of women.
When is the next issue slated to publish?
The next volume will be out in fall 2018. It will have a slightly different format with less photography and more features that flesh out the works. There will be an exhibition opening in about a month that features excerpts of the book and the photographers’ stories behind their works. We are also finally launching our first grant and planning for a major exhibition in 2019 alongside a symposium.
There have been some initiatives popping up to address the lack of diversity in the photo industry, like databases. What are some of the more sustainable and scalable ways you think we can achieve this?
I think the conversations on diversity and inclusion are helpful, as are the databases because it is a record of photographers that many claim to not know of their existences. I think the initiatives move editors and other decision makers in a direction towards accountability, however, I do believe that overall structure that we work within needs to be revamped.
What would you say to young black girls who want to become artists?
Do it. You don’t need permission to break barriers.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.