Negative Space: Three women of colour share their experiences of working in photography
For creatives from marginalised communities, it’s harder to navigate an industry that wasn’t built with you in mind. This truth is what inspired Bella Okuya to produce photobook, Negative Space. Showcasing the perspectives and experiences of women of colour in photography, the self-led project is currently looking to secure funding through a Kickstarter campaign. Here, we give you a peek inside the book, as creatives Heather Agyepong, Virgilia Facey and Chantel King share their own experiences of working in the industry.
In her work at the London-based charity, The Photography Foundation, photographer Bella Okuya helps to guide young creatives from less advantaged backgrounds who are looking to forge a career in commercial photography. It was during a period of development as a charity, that she became increasingly aware of the acute disadvantages faced by women of colour. Negative Space came about as a way to open up the conversation: “Experiencing a reductive micro-aggression on set, and only speaking about it to family won’t change anything,“ she tells us, “we have to talk openly about it, to increase understanding and facilitate change.”
“Experiencing a reductive micro-aggression on set, and only speaking about it to family won’t change anything.”
Designed by WIRED and Times Magazine designer, Claire Cheung, Negative Space brings together interviews and imagery, to shine a light on the struggles of a variety of London-based women of colour – from emerging photographers to studio founders.
With the project currently fundraising through Kickstarter, Bella ultimately hopes that it will “lighten the load for [other women of colour] and give them the confidence to keep pushing for positive spaces.” Below, we are sharing three extracts from the book.
Heather Agyepong, multidisciplinary artist
Heather Agyepong is a Ghanaian-British multidisciplinary artist, working in photographic and performance arts. With three main themes: mental health, invisibility and archive, her work has been showcased by Autograph ABP, New Orleans Museum of Art, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery and more.
“My first project, Too Many Blackamoors was about race, because I had been experiencing racism. When I was traveling Europe, I experienced major racist attacks; people threw urine at me and ran after me. Unexpectedly, the project did really well, but afterwards I found that people wanted me to keep talking about race only.
“I remember doing a talk and being asked about the meaning of using a rose in a racial context. And I had to be like, ‘No, it’s just a rose.’ Everybody was laughing and it was awkward; it’s just really not that deep all the time. Sometimes it’s just a rose, sometimes you just want to look cute.
“The financial hurdles of photography impact marginalised communities the most. You want to get paid, but you also want your integrity – it’s an exhausting balancing act.”
“The financial hurdles of photography also often impact marginalised communities the most. There’s always that question niggling in my head: When’s the next job? But being boxed in by only talking about being Black makes it hard to set boundaries. You want to get paid, but also you want to keep your integrity – it’s an exhausting balancing act. However, after years of hard work I feel lucky because I’ve never worked on anything I really didn’t want to due to needing money.
“I find having a community imperative to making work; so I’d like to see more spaces dedicated to that, with money carved out for them, not just some small, outreach project on the side. Money set aside to aid support networks would be great.
“Maybe this is controversial to say, but I feel like there’s a policing of Black people and what they can talk about. They can talk about race, they can talk about trauma, but they can also talk about whatever they want to. I just want there to be a multiplicity of narratives which are all being given the same kudos. That is the dream for me: loads of people talking about loads of different things.”
Virgilia Facey, co-founder, The Colour Balance
Virgilia Facey is the founder of diversity initiative, The Colour Balance which aims to foster Black and POC inclusion in photography. She is also the co-founder of creative production company, Gather, which connects brands with diverse shoot teams.
“After I graduated into the recession of 2008, I went for lots of job interviews before falling into agenting. I went on to spend over 12 years working with photographers, eventually heading up a photo division for an agency.
“When I first entered the industry, I definitely felt different. A lot of the things I dealt with were rooted in internalised racism, such as not feeling smart at work unless my hair was straightened. For so much of my early career, I was so busy trying to fit in, that I didn’t often question the fact that all the photographers I represented were white, and most of them were men.
“When you look around and don’t see anyone from an underprivileged background, let alone a person of colour, to aspire to, it’s hard.”
“It took me a long time before I said, ‘Hold on a minute. This is crazy.’ At the time, I’d been in the industry for eight years and met hundreds of photographers – but I’d only sat down with one Black photographer in a professional capacity. In all of those years! That’s not to say I didn’t know them socially or outside of work – but in my job, only one.
“Since then, I have gained so much understanding of my identity, of my own Blackness. Now, my personal fear and challenge around maintaining a career in the industry is linked to progression. I’ve always been very ambitious, and I like to feel that I can rise. So when you look around – even from a photo agent perspective – and don’t see anyone from an underprivileged background, let alone a person of colour, to aspire to, it’s hard.
“I would like to see more women of colour in senior management positions in photography – whether that’s more heads of photography, or women of colour being supported as they start up their own agencies. I hope I can be a part of supporting the process of change, which unfortunately will take time. But it has to start somewhere.”
Chantel King, photographer
Having originally studied graphic design, Chantel King discovered a love of photography during her last few months of her degree. Today, she has shot for magazines including Revolution Beauty, Stylist, Grazia, Boots Magazine, Hunger, Tush and Schon!
“I knew nothing when I started out. I literally had no idea about lighting or cameras, so in the beginning I was like a sponge, trying to soak everything up. And after a very insightful work experience placement at a studio, I declined the offer of full-time work, as I knew I would gain more valuable experience assisting.
“During my years as an assistant, I felt more backlash as a woman, than a woman of colour. I worked as the first assistant to a photographer, where I was in charge of hiring assistants for shoots and maintaining the studio space. There was a regular male assistant, who was slightly older than me and – as I later discovered – had a real problem with me telling him what to do.
“He sent an email to the photographer saying how badly I treated him. It was ridiculous, I was just doing my job! The photographer showed me the email and said the assistant had underestimated our relationship, and we stopped getting him in for shoots. It was not a great experience. I worked so hard to get to where I was, but this guy felt threatened by me and wanted to take my position.
“Make note of your successes, even if on a Post-It. Every time you feel down, you can look at these and think, ‘I did that. I can do this next part.’”
“Being a woman photographer – particularly a woman of colour – your work ethic is slightly different. The industry is extremely competitive, and you have to work harder to prove yourself to others and avoid prejudice. I made many sacrifices; I worked in bars to subsidise my living, and to make time for assisting during the working week. The hours were long, but worth it; it’s what I had to do.
“My main concern in this career is: Can I keep up? I’m always questioning if what I have done is good enough. Meeting and maintaining the expectations of others, as well as myself, can create anxiety. However, I have seen a real change in me; I recognise that this is a journey and that I have to keep going.
“It’s important to make note of your successes. I recently made a list of my achievements from the previous year; reading it out loud made me realise how many massive steps I had taken. Even if you just write these on a Post-It note, every time you’re feeling a bit down, you can look at your achievements and think, ‘I did that. I can do this next part.’”
The Kickstarter campaign for Negative Space is still live. If successful, the funds raised will cover the production costs for the book, including the final design. Click the button below to support the campaign, and see more about Bella on her website.
Written by N'Tanya Clarke
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