Photographer Polly Irungu wanted to find a way to spotlight and support Black women photographers — so she created a community and database to do just that.
Her site, Black Women Photographers, is a forum where members can celebrate each other's work. It's also a platform both to elevate the work of Black women in the photo and documentary industry as well as to help financially support photographers whose livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic. And it's a database, so editors and curators can reach out to new talent and expand inclusive hiring practices.
"What I want people to know about our community is that it has a depth of talent and untapped brilliance," she tells NPR.
Irungu, a 26-year-old self-taught photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y., recognizes that her site builds on the work of others before her.
"Before you explore the site, it should go without saying that I am not the first person to create a platform for Black women and non-binary photographers," she writes. "I'm launching this platform as a way to contribute to their efforts and as a small token of appreciation to all Black women and non-binary photographers worldwide."
Though Irungu, who was born in Nairobi and raised in Kansas and Oregon, is just starting her career as a professional photographer, she is already spearheading an organization that is pushing for change in the industry. She talked to NPR's Laura Beltrán Villamizar about that, discovering photography and what she loves about Black Women Photographers.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
I grew up in a traditional African family that was very close-knit. I have an older, brilliant sister and a younger, charismatic brother; I'm the classic middle child. Sometimes growing up I felt unsure of myself, and I credit photography as one of the instruments that helped me find my voice and confidence.
How did you get into photography?
My sophomore year in Portland, Ore., ... I spent the year in a deep depression, although I didn't know it at the time. Similar to Black American households, there is a lack of communication about mental health issues and recognizing the signs and getting help when needed in African households. There were moments of joy though, I found some peace in a robotics program. I gave my parents false hope that I would be pursuing something in the computer science and engineering fields.
After my sophomore year [we moved to] Eugene, Ore. It is there where I found my love of photography. I got my first "real world" experience with it in [my high school] yearbook class.
I never realized that people actually pursued photography as a career. Or at least, it never felt like an attainable dream to me. One of my high school counselors in Eugene mentioned to me about the world of photojournalism when I was seeking some advice about where to go for college and what to do. There was so much weight and pressure from my parents to go the doctor or academia route, but I knew that I would never be happy. I didn't know it at that time but the advice I received to check out famous photographers and photojournalists changed the course and direction of my life.
While finishing up my high school, I purchased a Canon 60D DSLR kit and a MacBook Pro with earnings from my time as McDonald's cashier. I picked up the camera and just learned trial-and-error style. I used Google and YouTube University to discover photographers and genres and some aspects of the business side of things. I started photographing friends, family and literally everything and everyone. At the time, CNN had an iReport section for people to submit photo stories and reports of things happening around them. I often submitted my work as another form of practicing in this field.
Tell me about Black Women Photographers. I understand it as a community. How did it start? What do you love about it? What else do we need to know about it?
I started Black Women Photographers because I wanted to create a welcoming space for other Black women photographers. Spoiler alert: Photography is still a white-male dominated industry. I also wanted to create a community that would serve as a resource to women to enhance their skills and career, to elevate them so they can be seen and promote their work so they can be hired.
I love how genuine and authentic this community is. I love how supportive everyone is with each other. I think many of us grew up being told that there's only room for so many at the top. Or even if we weren't told that, even if it was unspoken, we saw it with our own eyes. If you're a minority, you're used to seeing the one "token" hire. As a photographer, I'm used to seeing one minority or one Black model on a project. What I love about our community is that we affirm that more than one of us can eat at the table and be successful. We realize that we can be happy for other women and minorities when they achieve success. Someone else's light shining does not diminish our own.
What I'm most proud of is how the community is positively impacting the women who are a part of it, economically and professionally. #HireBlackWomenPhotographers is now more than just a hashtag, it's a reality. I started that hashtag because I wanted to see more Black women get an opportunity. It's so rewarding to see an artist come back to me and tell me that they got a job offer because someone found them on the database. Or when someone sends me an email and tells me that most of their website traffic is coming from the site/database.
What I want people to know about our community is that it has a depth of talent and untapped brilliance. I want the whole world to see it. Although being a Black woman is part of our identity, it's not all of who we are. We are unique individuals and when you hire a Black female photographer, you're not just getting a different perspective because she is a woman or a minority, you're getting a unique artist who can communicate and add value to the world in a different way.
What is your creative process like? How do you come up with work?
My creative process starts off with music. I turn on Spotify or one of my favorite records. I need to be relaxed and remove distractions when I work on a project. Music changes my environment. Music changes me. Music takes me to a different space creatively and spiritually. I have to be connected to every part of who I am when I work. Art is not just an outlet it's an outpouring of my soul.
The world is my canvas. Most of the time I don't have a defined idea that I'm trying to create. I observe and capture. I focus on being present in my everyday routine and circumstances. My work comes from that. The world and the people around me are so interesting that I'm never lacking for ideas or inspiration. I'm always creating something. I don't have a defined routine where, OK, it's Tuesday and Thursday morning, I have to go work on something. I have friends who are writers and most of them have a routine where they make it a point to write something consistently, on a scheduled routine. However, I don't produce like that. Yes, as an artist and creative I've done commissioned work on a deadline, but I'm guided by what sparks my interest in my day-to-day life.
I love that you use music as inspiration. What are you listening to right now?
The song "Talkin' Bout a Revolution" by Tracy Chapman sharpens my perspective, it brings about clarity and focus for me. I'm more priority-focused and purpose-driven than I've ever been. I don't feel like I have to take on every project or accept every opportunity. I produce less, but my creative output is more meaningful. The song also makes me feel a deeper sense of self-awareness, without the heightened self-centeredness that sometimes accompanies increased introspection. We are always in an era of change, in some aspect of culture or society, somewhere there is a revolution taking place. This song challenges me to think about what my contributions are to the world around me. When I listen to the song "Closer" by Goapele, it makes me feel joyful. It reminds me of what I have to look forward to. It reminds me that my dreams are attainable. It makes me feel happy, not only for myself, but other women in the industry who are actualizing their dreams and potential.
What tips do you give to young, aspiring Black female-identifying girls who want to become photographers?
Know who you are. This is simple and applicable to everyone, but it's true. Anyone who wants to be successful needs to be self-aware and have strong identity that is authentic. Secondly, success is not an accident. You have to be committed to putting in the time and doing the work required to make your dreams a reality. No shortcuts. No excuses.