(Photo credit: Mike Von via Unsplash)

Black Like Me: Finding Allies Behind and Through the Lens

A local visual artist and curator of a new exhibition of Black women photographers discusses why representation is essential in creative spaces and how she herself found community.

Published Nov. 25, 2022
Side profile of a gray-haired Black woman walking past a wall of framed photography.

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

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.

A dark-skinned Black woman poses nude, clutching her legs to her chest, sitting on a folding chair.

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?

* * *

Promotional poster for the Our Black Experience photography exhibit featuring a Black woman sitting in a chair off to the right side, only her pink pants and blue sandals showing in the frame.

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.

Jessica Bethel is a Los Angeles-based fine art and portrait photographer. Her love for art and community radiates through her work. Jessica's work has been published in various outlets that share her love for photography and art.   

Like what you're reading?

Explore the archive of AfroLA's pre-launch stories.

AfroLA is fiscally sponsored by Independent Arts & Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, while we work to become an independent legal nonprofit entity. Support our work with a tax-deductible donation made through Flipcause.

Flipcause supports donations made through debit and major credit cards. Please click here if you'd like to give via Venmo, Google Pay, ApplePay or PayPal.

Checks can be mailed to:

5777 W. Century Blvd.
#1110 Unit #423
Los Angeles, CA 90045

Please note: At this time, only donations made through Flipcause are tax-deductible.