Marie Thomas walks past artwork on display at the Our Black Experience photography exhibition. (Credit: Jessica Bethel)

Black Like Me: Finding allies behind and through the lens

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Life as a Black woman photographer is often lonely. Sometimes our experiences as Black women are diminished, and they’re often overlooked. I started off as a photographer in high school and continued my studies in university which was challenging, and at times depressing. I didn’t see anyone that looked like me. Oftentimes, I was the only Black person in the class. I was trying to visually share personal experiences that most could not understand.

I also didn’t learn about Black photographers—especially Black women photographers—in academic settings. It hurt to know that my existence in this space was disregarded. The most frustrating part of being in these spaces was over-explaining my art. Oftentimes, our vision isn’t understood, or is even fetishized. I remember a professor talking me out of a vision I had in mind. He told me he didn’t understand the purpose of the idea and that it wasn’t “relevant.” This subject matter was important to me, as it explored my heritage. He couldn’t appreciate the significance or meaning through his white male gaze. Unfortunately, these experiences are shared across the community.

Cradle. (Photo credit: Jessica Bethel)

The goal behind Our Black Experience exhibition is celebration and giving each artist their flowers. Curating work from 21 Black women photographers was surreal and an honor. The work in this exhibition speaks to their collective experiences and worldviews—a world that doesn’t value them. Through the curation process, we reviewed many styles and experiences. We learned more about each photographer with each photo. Our intent was also to level the playing field. We know the fine art industry can be elitist and whitewashed. Here, we have people from different genres and skill levels gathered together. Regardless how long you’ve been a visual artist, your work still matters and is valuable in this space. Creating an inclusive, equitable space was challenging, but we did it with care and intentionality.

Discovering Black Women Photographers opened up a new community. It also allowed me to see myself in others and understand that I’m not alone, that the path I’m on is possible. I now have a tribe of women that are supportive. I feel seen and my experiences are heard. I can seek advice from photographers that not only look like me but share the same doubts or I can share my advice on starting off as a shooter to help a beginner who feels discouraged. These shared experiences allow the community to grow and build friendships.

Community is needed as photographers grow in this space. I often think about how it would’ve changed how I viewed my photography and my evolution as a photographer if I saw more Black women in this space sooner. I would’ve felt more comfortable in the space, and felt less lonely as I learned to navigate it. Creative spaces grounded in representation are needed for the upcoming generation of visual artists. Without adequate representation, how will our stories, our history be told?

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Our Black Experience: Stories from Black Femme, Queer, Non-binary, and Transgender photographers is on display through Dec. 3 at the Perfect Exposure Gallery. (Photo credit: Valley in Film)

About the Exhibition: The Black experience is one of a kind. Our voices have been silenced for centuries, but now we are taking control of our narrative and how we are viewed. “Our Black Experience” showcases 21 Black femme, queer, nonbinary-identifying photographers in the Los Angeles area, each with a story that represents their experience and how they view their femininity. These artists and their work are a culmination of beauty, triumph, the everyday and ultimately how they view the world through their lens. Our Black Experience is curated by Black Women Photographers in partnership with The Perfect Exposure Gallery.

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