brian shumway – black girl

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Brian Shumway

Black Girl

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“Modeling is an addiction.” Johanie, 24, aspiring model

Black Girl is a portrait series on young black women in the New York City area who aspire to be models.

Even as little girls, many women dream of becoming a model. The glamour of strutting along the runway with cameras flashing, being a spokesmodel for the latest line of make-up, or being plastered on billboards in Times Square can be too enticing to ignore. Shows like America’s Next Top Model, which can shoot a model to stardom almost instantly, and easy accessibility to professional photographers through numerous modeling websites make this dream seem more realistic and attainable than ever before. Indeed, everyday countless girls around the United States and the world are actively pursuing this dream.

There is, however, a huge segment of aspiring models who will find attaining their dream disproportionately difficult. They are black women. We all realize, at least in some way, that the mainstream modeling world is white-washed, especially at the high-fashion end. At the February 2010 New York Fashion Week, a whopping 85% of all models used on the runway were white, just 8% black (see This is in no way representative of New York City’s, the United States’, or the world’s population. On the ground level, where women are just starting to put a portfolio together, the reality is quite different than Fashion Week’s. In doing this project, I used a modeling website to contact models. I found that, despite so few black professionals, nearly three-thousand young black women (just within 50 miles of my NYC zip code) are striving to attain their dream, or at least their interpretation of it.

Despite the odds and a stark downturn in the fashion, advertising, and magazine industries, these aspiring models have high hopes and remain steadfast. They work hard, often juggling school, work, relationships, and family (some are even mothers) to find a few hours a week to squeeze in a shoot, or perhaps two if they’re lucky. Using an approach that is part anthropology and part fantasy, the women photographed are a cross-section of real people who want to do every kind of modeling, from runway, high-end fashion, print or commercial work to eye-candy and artistic nudes. Their interests are varied, as are their looks and beauty, but this one dream ties them all together. Behind that dream are fundamental human issues that touch upon identity, body, beauty, sexuality, race, and the drive to be recognized in a culture obsessed with fame and celebrity. I hope that these portraits can in some way contribute to their pursuit.

Post Script:

The portraits here I feel represent how the models wanted to look. For each shoot, we would talk about possible ideas and outfits before or during the shoot. Many of the models were open to shooting everything from high-fashion to lingerie, and some even nude. She would bring different things to wear, try them on, see how it looked, and we (or I, or she) would say yea or nay. None of the models are wearing something they didn’t want to wear (or any outfit they felt to be demeaning) or suggest wearing themselves. The pictures give us a glimpse into how the models understand fashion, modeling and themselves as a model-in-the-making.



Brian Shumway is a New York City based photographer. He has worked for publications like Time, Newsweek, Smart Money, Reader’s Digest, and XXL. His work has been awarded and exhibited throughout the United States. Please visit his website to learn more.


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Brian Shumway


359 Responses to “brian shumway – black girl”

  • I like the essay and the idea for it and the photographs themselves are really well done, bravo…..but……I would like to know if the photographer asked the girls to wear the clothing in the portraits? and if so why he chose what he chose or if the models were themselves chose what to wear. Most of the photographs bother me a bit because they make the girls look exploited or cheap even. That said, I really like the opening photograph and the one where she is wearing a shiny pink dress and standing on a car, #11.

  • Interesting series,Brian but makes me wonder exactly what these women
    perceive the fashion industry to be and what modelling is in their eyes.

    The way most are presented, or the way they choose to present themselves, suggests
    to me that, perhaps, they are targeting the porn industry.

  • @valery: with each model it was a bit different, but generally, we would talk about possible ideas and outfits before or during the shoot. she’d bring different things to wear, try them on, see how it looked, and we (or I, or she) would say yea or nay. none of them are wearing something they didn’t want to wear or suggest wearing themselves. hope that answers your question.

    @mtomalty: porn? really? but seeing how they see fashion, modeling and themselves in that world is part of the point.

  • I see lots of hope for a common dream. My own personal issues with the message sent by these types of photos of women in everyday media is brought up when I view these photos.

    The photos really capture that hope of a dream and also shows what these women cannot see. I like this essay Brian. Thanks for sharing.

  • There’d be lots to say.. but.. LOVE nr. 12, strong!

  • Text (again!): many people, even those who try, can’t be models and feel it’s because of what they look like…

    Simple subject, done aptly, with some environmental props, but largely bereft of social context/approach that the text might have us wanting for.

    This is more like pictures they could use in a portfolio of their own (which you might have given permission for).

    Last but not least: Women are beautiful! (you can quote me on that)

  • #13 is my favorite, with great “geometry” and psychology working together.
    Because of the (blahblah…) “blackness” projected ? Maybe, I am not sure, but whatever, superb!

  • Brian,

    My ‘porn’ comment wasn’t intended as a critique of the images nor the women.

    I guess, as you say, the way they are presenting themselves is a reflection on
    their perception of the modeling business.

    Unfortunately, they are very unlikely to find work within the mainstream ‘fashion’
    business simply by the virtue of the way they present themselves.

    Not unlike a photographers portfolio- If you present images of zebras, there’s very little
    chance you’re going to be hired to shoot cars.

  • This is really sad.

  • Very interesting! I am currently working on a fashion photography project in Milan, and this essay brings up interesting questions. Thanks for sharing! congrats for showing on burn!

  • brian – very cool. #14 maybe if I were to choose a single. For me, it really works (hah! whatever ‘works’ is) Essentially imho it is something that you would come back to again and again. This is one of the reasons I prefer burn essays… diversity and something a little more [closer] on the edge. The essay works (again) without text – that is what makes it special. Well done, congrats, best.

  • Read the text first hoped for something beyond “the pose”……….. the model/ photographer/intent relationship comes across as……there is none

  • Well, once again my travels have prevented me from logging onto Burn since the Cheyenne River essay, but right now I am facing a one-and-a-half delay at Fairbanks International Airport, where wireless is free, so I opened up Burn and – Whoa! – I had to scroll down the page fast and get that beautiful, sexy, girl off the screen fast because the lady sitting next to me gave me a look like I was a dirty old man. So I will have to wait until later to go through the slideshow, because who knows what will come up next?

    I was surprised to read that the percentage of black models is so low. I don’t watch a whole lot of TV, but when I do, it would seem that black models play a prominent role in fashion, makeup and jewelry ads. I trust that New York Fashion weeks is representative, but on the surface it would appear otherwise.

  • Very interesting essay. I have done a small amount of fashion shooting. I developed a relationship with one model and we will do shoots together from time to time. It is very collaborative and that’s what I like about it. My next challenge is to try some nudes, although I hesitate (I can see David jumping up and down as he reads this saying just f’ing shoot it :))) I like the take on the essay with respect to under-representation . If you ever scan craigslist under gigs and creative there are tons of models looking to do shoots, and lots of photographers looking for models. I usually look at this every couple of days just out of curiosity. I personally like # 20 the best.

    All the best,


  • Fascinating. Easy to write off at first glance but I think use of the “pose” is actually what makes these strong and subtle and complex vs yet another day in the life pj piece. Glad you included their quotes.

  • Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    burn posts another superb essay. Brian, I am increasingly interested in a social-realist photography which offers the opportunity for subjects to participate in the creation of the image and more and more I feel like this is a far more honest concept and approach to what happens between cameras and people. I like what you have done here very much and I appreciate the blurring of boundaries. It is rich material on many levels: pick one and I feel it’s operating there.

    Under it all, though, I feel a deep sadness. It is one of those profoundly human feelings when presented with this kind of hope.

  • Okay. I am finally home, in my office, alone with two of my cats who will not judge me nor jump to conclusions.

    So I took a good look at your essay. It is one of those pieces of work that truly tells me what a tough world this is and how hard it is to turn dreams into reality, yet how necessary it is to dream.

    I agree with Frank that #20 is particularly compelling, yet there is something about #7 that is at once so honest and contradictory that it may be my favorite – but I am not certain.

  • j’ai adoré cette série sur ces femmes black. l’idée est très séduisante. tout est parfaitement maitrisé, chaque photo raconte une histoire, on imagine leur vie, on essaie de se mettre à leur place et de vivre.
    bravo, je suis admiratif.

  • Brian,
    This series had me so torn. On the one hand the images are so beautiful and masterful. Vivid yet real. But the content of the essay does disturb me slightly, only because most of these women will not be models regardless of there race. They do not look like models. So watching the essay and reading the text makes me feel kind of sad about the dreams some of these women seem to have. It actually gives me flashbacks to Diane Arbus’ park avenue portraits. Was that something you expected or were aiming for?
    It is not any of these women are unattractive but even the very beautiful ones don’t have those elusive qualities that transforms beauty into something superhuman, that is an ordinary girl into a model. I think what is upsetting is the thought that they might have their confidence shattered by such a cruel and heartless industry. I suppose in that way you have frozen an innocent dream in it’s purest place. The dream most girls harbor to be beautiful.
    Once again, gorgeous photos and very thought provoking work.

  • I find the presentation of figures somewhat confusing regarding the relationship of high fashion to the black community.

    85% of models were white, 8% were black: Is there a problem with these figures? is it representational? Do they correlate with the buyers market of “high fashion”? Is it important that it should be representational? If it was representational would an increase in black models (or models of other elasticities for that matter) cause a similar change in the buyers market?

    I’m asking these questions because I’m generally interested, and the project looks like it has great potential.

    Also, prefacing the images with references to the high fashion modelling industry seems a little out of context to the images and the models quotes.

    To me it didn’t come across as if their possible rejections or difficulties were just down to their skin colour. Age, height, and size amongst other issues played their parts according to their quotes.
    And obviously these are issues faced by all models.

    So would specifically concentrating on models who were/are trying to break in high fashion have helped with the direction? Is this what these girls initially attempted and failed and then ventured into their other modeling worlds (such as glamor)?

  • Excellent essay! I like the point of view and the message. Bravo.

    Only one weakness I see. The color or rather the line of color. For me it could looks better.
    but anyway, great job!

  • i’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s comments. thanks so much.

    @mnm no i wasn’t going for the diane arbus thing. not sure i’ve even seen those pictures. well maybe they don’t have that elusive quality because i’m a horrible fashion photographer. maybe if they got in front of a real fashion photog, they could be magically transformed.

    @jamesdodd the point of the figures is that the system is biased against not only black models, but all non-white models. of course there are other factors in being a model but it seems, thought, that the most important factor is skin color. as i say in the essay, i shot models who had interests in all types of modeling, not just high fashion. hope that answers your questions!

  • “…how they see fashion, modeling and themselves in that world is part of the point.”

    Brian, a most interesting view of self-perception and handled skillfully.

  • When I read the artist statement, I really wanted to like this story, as I totally agree with your assesment of the fashion industry.

    But as I scrolled through the images, I got really sad, and angry.

    These images, though well-crafted, are no different from the way black women are usually shown…I was anticipating insight into who these women are, not played-out stereotypes of “blackness”. The poses, the clothes, make them look cheap and exploited/exploitable. Come on…can’t we move on from objectifying people for “art”? That’s the easy way out.

    Wasn’t it possible to look at them as women? To that end: who are they? Why do they aspire to be models? Is it about being seen – really seen, by a society that might often dismisses and stereotypes them? Is it about wanting to escape their lives? There are real questions here that could have been answered in this essay, and that would have elevated this work into something really great.

  • I will second Marcin but i will disagree with Marcin color regarding…i think colors are fine, no problem at all…Dope :)

  • Scratch what I said about portfolios pix yesterday. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Much psychology in more than one portrait, I am getting more into it, that is, in what is informed by, but not physically in, the frame.

    I don’t even know that it is about dreams of modeling, or at least I find, thru that subject, it’s about some young women… Young black women.

  • Fascinating stuff Brian, congratulatinos.

    My general view of the fashion industry is not a positive one, I’m kinda with Leonard Cohen “I don’t like your fashion business mister”. On the other hand I do recognise that it is a passion and an art to some.

    There is an entire industry based on aspiring models. Photographers who specialise in doing portfolios, modeling agencies, hair, make-up, clothing, etc etc. The aspiring models spend huge sums of money and devote enormous energy towards the goal of making it big. The male parallel is the sports industry, where thousands of kids, and their parents dream of making it in the big leaques. In either case, most will be dissapointed.

    I do see the Arbus comparison. There is a vacant sadness in the expressions. These are surely not fashion pictures. These are very provocative and revealing portraits of aspiring models.

    I’m very glad you have included the quotes from the models. They surprised me, and made me re-think my assumptions about these women. Art, self expression, self exploration,..not the motivations I had expected.

    thanks for this

  • Train wreck photography.
    so its fairly obvious that most of these women have no chance of being models (certainly not the type of modelling they might be aspiring to)…..and you HAD to know that right??
    Yet you made really lame faux fashion shots with them. Motive??
    Is this about them, or you?
    Dont get me wrong a few of these ‘portraits’ are strong, but NOT, i would argue, in the way these people imagined.

  • john g

    I have to dis-agree with you.
    While some of these women are not typical model material, a competent portrait/fashion shooter could make any of them look glamerous. Stop by the “Americas next top model” tv show next time you are flipping channels. By and large they are all pretty ordinary looking women. Coached by proffesionals, glamed up by stylists, shot by a skilled photographer and enhanced by great post-production they all look amazing in their photographs.

  • I fully trust you portrayed these young women like they wanted to be portrayed, but I get no sense that you saw them as they’d like to be seen. I may be wrong about that, it wouldn’t be surprising, but I’m absolutely certain that much — likely an overwhelming majority — of your audience isn’t going to see them that way. As the comments above demonstrate, sad is the most the common reaction. And I’m sure a lot of people, and by that I mean those other people, think something more along the lines of “ridiculous”. In fact, a lot of these proverbial people would probably consider this essay to be “ghetto porn.” The term “ghetto porn”, btw, has nothing whatsoever to do with showing a little skin, or even sexuality. It’s more about getting off on the pain and suffering of others. At least the cultural manifestations of that pain and suffering. And if not actually getting off, something akin to rubbernecking at the scene of an horrific accident. I don’t see it that way, but all my experience here in New York tells me a lot of people would.

    As a taste, bfphotographer makes good points above. I’m a bit too close to these issues right now to expound on them publicly, but I’ll just say that I don’t think this has much to do with the fashion industry. What we’re seeing goes far deeper than that. Both for the viewers and the viewed.

    I’m sure you must be aware that this essay is morally questionable? These photographs would hurt a lot of people if they saw them. Not just the subjects. A lot of people. You can’t possibly live in New York and be unaware of that. I trust you’ve asked those moral questions and found answers you are comfortable with. I trust you’re coming from the right place. I understand that if it’s not morally questionable, it’s probably not very good. It’s not like I’ve never made a morally questionable editorial decision, much less a photographic one. I make them all the time. So I’m not going to judge. I would if I knew the answers, including how you ask and answer those questions, and the answers were wrong, but I don’t, so I won’t. And I’m serious about that. In many ways, I’m inclined to like this work. The subject is important. The women are beautiful. The essay tells us things we probably didn’t know. Photographically, I have no questions. I think it’s very well done.

    And I should mention that they were quite lucky to have you take their pictures, to get that quality of work. If you look at Craig’s list, there’s a mini industry dedicated to exploiting these women. I’m sure most of them end up paying a lot for crappy photos.

  • Gordon. A soft enough filter and some good potatoshop can make a turd look like marilyn monroe from the right angle…but that aint what we are looking at here is it? We are looking at people being used to make a statement.

  • interesting discussion. i should probably chime in.

    @john: what women really has a chance at being a model, whatever her race? my point with this is that black women specifically have an even harder time at it. and how are they being used? is not anyone who shoots a project with a specific idea in mind technically ‘using’ the subjects? the statement i am making happens to correspond with reality. your point is pedestrian and moot. no need for the hostility. so you don’t like it. that’s fine.

    @michael: ALL of the women i shot have seen the pictures i took of them. and ALL of them saw my work before we shot, so they had an idea of what the results would be. and believe it or not they all shot with my BECAUSE they liked my work. whether or no they liked the pictures i took of them specifically is a different matter. in fact, some did not. but many did. so that’s just the nature of photography and people. i’m not sure how this is ‘morally questionable’ (or at least anymore questionable than shooting people in slums and little children getting their bodies blown apart by war)?

  • “Yet you made really lame faux fashion shots with them. Motive??
    Is this about them, or you?”

    Yea I am of the mind that this is about the photographer and the text is a an attempt to justify the images that never communicated beyond “look at me”

  • Brian. Really? You never conducted the least bit of self-questioning about the ethics of this project? Nothing even along the lines of bfphotographers’s complaints about played-out stereotypes of blackness or exploitation? I can imagine you being able to answer those questions satisfactorily, but to not even ask them?


  • I enjoyed seeing labia majora while reading about high fashion, but was highly offended by the second paragraph of the text which attempts to artificially create the illusion that these images have anything to do with race. the only racist thing this essay touches upon is the fact that the photographer chose only black girls and chose to show most of the girls looking like the stereotypical ghetto black girl we are already bombarded with in the media. this essay helps solidify the biases you pretend you are trying to chip away.

    I find these photographs much more interesting , valid, and honest when I look at them as a satire about the hunger for a chance to be recognized as ‘beautiful’. Great idea for an essay but I don’t think these images push that concept far enough and fall apart when they are propped up on the race card.

    I am not against exploitation
    but I am against bullshit

  • It isn’t that this work is very creative or well done, but women portrayed are attractive and interesting, though look vulgar… and it seems a very good medium format camera was used for this job :)) … OK, the story written is relevant, and as a whole these pictures have a power of spirit…

  • well that’s where we simply disagree. i don’t feel like the pictures are stereotypes or exploitative.

    @bfphotographer: the clothes are theirs! the poses are theirs! and that’s what makes it/them beautiful, not cheap. we get to catch a glimpse of how they see themselves as models. that’s the entire point! please read the model’s quotes on each image and my statement/other responses. that will hopefully give you the insight you want.

    i do agree that there is a melancholy to some of the project, but that is perhaps due to my own perception of the world. this ‘melancholy’ actually permeates throughout much of my other work, not just this particular project.

  • I just feel very very sad when I see this essay. The photos are very well done in an advertising/fashion sense; it’s just that I would want more out of life for these young women than to be valued only for their looks. I know this is my issue, not theirs, and definitely not our culture’s. In the world of fashion and advertising, beauty is everything.

    Speaking of which, have you seen Lauren Greenfield’s latest meltimedia work, Fashion Show? I saw it at the NY Photo Festival and was amazed by the presentation and chilled by the content.


  • Brian audience trumps the individual photographer after all that is your intent …..To present to an audience? They are photos without a connecting story visually

  • “I think right about now we have to beware of marketed Malcolms and Martins. Real people do real things.”–Chuck D.

    “Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.”—-Cornel West

    Forgive the cheap use of quotes (but again) to buttress a comment, but i dont have alot of time at the moment to write a bob black-length essay, so this will be short…

    The essay is powerful, strong and important in a number of ways. Forget the look of the work. Brian knows how to make photographs and knows how to richly and beautifully people and how to provide insight through portraiture. Anyone at all familiar with his work knows this. Just to remind folk, Brian had an earlier essay published at Burn a year ago (La chureca) which received glowing reviews: a powerful and strong series on Managua, Nicaragua: classically beautiful med format pictures of the live of the townspeople coping with poverty. What I loved about that essay, and what I love about Brian’s work in general, is the AMBIGUITY of his stories and the rich intelligence and empathy/compassion he brings to his subject matters. La Chureca (search the archives) was nearly universally applauded for his ‘beauty’ and ‘classicism”. What I loved about the story was that it was much more complex, much more ambiguous than what immediately meets the eye…a stranger and more dream like interpretation on the typical response to poverty….the same ambiguity and questioning resides in all Brian’s work…

    this is absolutely TRUE here as well! I think there is a much more subtle and honest questioning that is at play here and this begins with Brian’s relationship with these models and his engagement. I think the questions of streotypic portrayals of black women/black sexuality (whatever the hell that means) has to do with a question of what the audience perceives, in the same way that Melvin Van Peebles brilliant film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” dealt directly with both African American experience AND the exploitation/sterotypes often portrayed……the uneasiness that many are feeling, i believe, is part of the intent and in many ways is another manifestation of the way and reality that these young women face in their struggle as aspirant models and as ‘black girls/models/beauties’….the fact that nearly every model and every outfit and every pose seems is connected to this, suggests to me that part of the essay’s strength lies in it’s challenge of us, the viewer and also the power of these women to make the choices (for this shoot) they have, even if those choices make us feel uncomfortable: their pose, their clothing, their choices here….

    we as photographers exploit/use/throw away most of the people we choose to photograph and we rarely (almost never) involve the subjects into the discussion/dialogue/work… mentioned above by Jaimie, one of the most important aspects (for me) of this specific work is the involvement and the discussion that these women have made and this, in truth, is both a counter to the industry (both the fashion industry AND the exploitive portraits/sex/sleep industry that’s out there (i’ll make portfolio pics, i’ll make u pretty/i’ll make u famous/I’ll etc etc) and thriving on Craig’s List, Art schools, backrooms, etc….

    if we are saddened by this series, part of that truth must come somehow from our empathy for these young, beautiful women…i hope and trust that sorrow isn’t because we think their dreams are silly becasue of their skin or body shape/size or posturing or fashion sense or over-all appearance but because we sense that, to begin with, people are sold a bill of goods that exploits their willing to be convinced that they are something (future models) they won’t become over what they are (powerful, real, beautiful people!) and that the latter, often, is not good enough…..

    by involving these ladies in making these choices in truth in making them co-authors of this essay (which is how i feel Brian did this, and i hope to goodness i’m not wrong about this) and collaborators instead of participants, these women SUCCEED HERE where they may not succeed in modeling, which is to to this:

    to show you one part of themselves whether or not it makes you comfortable or uncomfortable…


    and that to me is power, period.

    All I would love to have, now, is for these young women to comment here as well and to share their experiences with us…in this specific essay, i think it is part of the design…..

    i do not read this as all as a straight portrait shoot but one that gives the decisions to these women to make the specific choices and we must have that as a reassurance….

    again, for me, it is all about how the relationship and the work (the appearance and choices made here) came about….if this was simply about a photographer making all the decisions, i’d be with Michael Webster, but I suspect that it is more complex and I suspect that women will comment, at least some of the participants….

    i say this because I believe that when we look at a body of work we need to be familiar with the history of that photographers work….it’s part of our homework…and part of our homework to question and question ourselves…

    and one last addition….i suggest people have a look at Jodi Bieber’s project Real Beauty…maybe that will help provide context…

    thanks for sharing Brian…strong, work…and thanks to the women in the shoot…please invite them to chime in ! :


  • brian thanks for the reply. Please don’t take me saying they don’t look like models as an insult to either your photography or any of these women. Any models I have met or seen in real life are always strikingly different to look at than other people. Something about there faces and long, lean bodies. They always look kind of alien? But anyone can grab a shot of them on there Iphone and you can suddenly see why they are so sucessful as models- any camera loves them!
    I don’t think you went into this with any plan to exploit anyone- especially in the context of race that you have presented.Had you not included any text I think I would have seen this series as a modern study in portraits that are a more akin to the master painters ( number 11, well she could be coming out of a shell with cherubs surrounding her). And I do love these photos- they have a beauty all of there own. But I think my unease comes from both being a young woman and knowing what the industry is like. Most of these women are so young and still in that stage where you are starting to find ease with your sexuality and looks. A bit like an overenthusiastic puppy,it can be very hard to know how to present your body in a way that will serve you best. Hence the overtly sexual costumes that these women chose to wear. I honestly just worry that some of these girls would be laughed out of a modeling agency, which is nothing to do with you or them just a reflection of a stupid industry that has somehow become aspirational.

  • Bob..

    thanks, good perspective as usual… i was just about to write a comment on this and also mention Brian’s La Chuerca from early on in Burn…i have more to say on this essay, but let me wait just a bit now that you have made your comment…i too would love it if some of these young women, who surely have seen this by now, would make their own evaluations and comment here….

    and there is one more important aspect of this imo that nobody has mentioned yet…i want to see if someone will…one of the women just might

  • Excellent photographs. Very compelling and addictive. I do feel there is a bit of a gap between the statement and the photographs though. To me this work is more about aspects of modeling which are probably more or less equally applicable to aspiring models of all races. The percentage figure given about black model representation strikes me as a tad out of context. To me, one side of the work is about women wanting to be fashion models although they do not have the typically necessary features for this. Another side of the work is perhaps about just want to be a model and not necessary a typical fashion model. I find that side especially interesting…

  • Bob, clearly you are with me on this because you are considering those kinds of questions. Note that I never wrote that the pictures were stereotypical or exploitative. I merely noted that many people would find them so and referenced bfphotographer’s comments as an example. And I was curious how Brian answered those questions, and others like them, for himself. It honestly never occurred to me that he would never have considered them.

    I think, however, that I did somewhat misread the artist’s statement the first time through. The parts about so many hopefuls, so few openings, and variations of looks and beauty led me to believe that Brian was telling a story of a gulf between dreams and reality, one in which the great majority of the models had unrealistic expectations. That’s hardly a novel insight about the modeling industry, and I think it is fundamentally true, whether that’s what he’s actually saying or not. But when he writes “behind that dream are fundamental human issues that touch upon identity, body, beauty, sexuality, race…,” I am led to expect some awareness of issues beyond the aspirational woman pursuing her dream in a merciless industry angle. Some questioning of what lies beneath. Fundamental human issues, you know. About identity, body, beauty, sexuality, race. And particularly race since a good deal of the statement is about that.

    Anyway, I have my own ideas, and this essay does an excellent job of illustrating the end result of one in particular. So I like it. But between the artist’s statement and Brian’s subsequent comments, I suspect there’s quite a bit there he’s not seeing. And were this to become widely disseminated in African-American circles, I think he’d find many of the responses eye opening.

  • I don’t get the “being sad”, Patricia and others. But, yes, it would be great for some of these young women (who are not vulgar, just so much patronizing or at least, assumptions in many comments above. Let people be WHO they are, warts and all, and celebrate that which is not like you, without boxing it in some neat social stereotypes) to barge in, and “tell it like it is”.

    Brian, can you get some of them to do that for us?

  • There seems to be a certain alienation of audience in these essays, expectations of the audiences to be in the “know” about subject/intent/style etc. Sure there many of the burn audience are photographers and they can understand the language of visual representation but the wider audience is not part of that group. If you are catering for photographers only, fair enough but you will not sell your story to a audience relient and fed on mass circulation. By sell I do not mean the monetary kind of sell, I mean as a source of information.
    Many would look at the best 12 photos here and say kit would make a nice calander and leave it at that…………… that sort takes everything out of a so called intended context. This means that there is a communication problem with what is oprwese3nted.
    Tha last thing that one wants to happen here is that burn becomes a site for a niche audience which may happen unless photographers learn to engage the wider audiece and stop being so self orientated.
    Stringing a bunch of pictures together witha sketchy concept in the hope that others will understand is no longer enough for the audiences out there

  • Michael :)

    I completely understand your insight and perspective and fully understand it indeed and I didn’t mean to imply that you were referencing the ‘stereotypes’…for in truth, ‘stereotypes’ are external perceptions, judgements made by outsiders on a person/community/place…the truth is that the African Community, like all communities, is as varied and resistant to ‘stereotypes’ as all others…in fact, I don’t know at all what an african american woman (let alone a community) is supposed to look like/act like/think like/live like/study-work-live-love like, etc…that’s still the frustrating thing about stereotypes…they’re perpetuated by both outsiders and insiders and they uphold ideas that are simply superficial aspects….a “black” woman (like any other person) is both a part and apart of a place/time/community…and it is very true that the superficial aspects of this work (appearance/subject/aesthetic) borders (and I would argue purposefully) on ideas that MUST make us question both our ideas and our relationship to women, women of color, exploitation of women, women of color and all the attendant historical relationship of what that entails…and I also think that Brian (contrary to earlier comments) has indeed thought about this, must have thought of this, because the women here were empowered and collaborators in the pictures….chose the clothes they wore, the pose, the environment….in fact, for me, THE ENVIRONMENT is one of the most important aspects of this essay: it wasn’t shot in a studio, or the artist’s loft or all that other shit, but was chosen environmentally in a place the women chose (their homes, neighborhoods, etc), in other words, they’re staring back at US, challenging us and our ideas and challenging the fact (since this is about ‘modeling’, and models of color) that the women are in the drivers seat here….again, this comes (my reading) from understanding or being familiar with brian’s work in it’s entirety (or what i know of it) as well as the intelligence and sensitivity that he has shown previously…and he does play with this level of discomfort, veiwer discomfort as a way to challenge us and by doing that challenging our own norms…that why i thought of both Public Enemy and West….

    I see these women as strong, because they are showing us what they want, not one of them looks sad or looks defeated or looks weak or looks out of control…in fact, i think brian has given them the opportunity to show us what the fashion world and what most of us don’t see: a picture of women who are unapologetically THEMSELVES…not models/mannequins…that’s the irony….for sure, for sure, i understand the trecherous ground with playing with depicting this group of women as one identity: bodies, sex, lounging around, without reference to other aspects of women (artistic, educated, professional, hard working, parents/siblings/community members-builders/politicians, artists/socialworkers/doctors/writers/scientists/policeofficers etc etc etc) but this essay for me, mines that very uncomfortable ground which forces us to confront our own expectations of what a portrait, of what a portrait of an african american is supposed to look and ACT like….like i said, the worst thing (historically) about that idea is that to tell the african american community (or individuals) how to act, what to say/do etc….and i also hear you on the reaction who would be infuriated too, but i think that is the complexity that lay in this essay….again, i think much of this will be offset by the women speaking here too…

    and lastly :)) (promise), there IS humor here too, not immediately apparent…but i gotta say (without sounding like another white guy making a fucking sterotypic comment) that a great number of the women in my life from the community (friends, partners, colleagues, my childhood through adulthood in and away from nyc) have some of the best senses of humour about themselves and their bodies and their life and their sexuality and their relationship to the outside world i’ve ever known….and i see that here too….but all my feelings are zip compared with what these women felt and the reason they were a part of this project….

    again, although very different, that’s why i hoped Jodi’s essay would add another level of context :))

    cant wait Michael until we share a drink when i’m down to the city :))

    DAVID :))))….well, one of the best things about the essay to me is not only how different these ‘models’ are from the industry but that they were shot in their own environments and that we HEAR them in those quotes…and aren’t models usually mute ;))))))))))))


  • Topic for discussion: basic human dignity and the photographer’s role in safeguarding it.

  • This means that there is a communication problem with what is presented …… just like me using 8 inch laptops to write with not the ideal vehicle of communication due to the smaller keyboard

  • Windup:

    true, though i think that’s more a glib remark in it’s criticism of the work. Each of us, essentially, needs to be our brothers keeper in all walks of life, in safeguarding human dignity and rarely rarely do, regardless of walk of life. Photo world is no less immune from the basic selfishness of most behavior and as i mentioned in my first comment MOST photographers simply exploit. no, we all willing exploit, we all use others as a means for something: a story, an idea, promotion of ourselves/careers, aspirations, etc. The truth is that most photographers never involve the subject nor really worry that much about them: from journalists to artists, from commercial photographers to street shooters: just shoot shoot shoot, make the pictures. period.

    as i have written before many times and try to make it a truth in both my own practice (i no longer photograph people that i dont have some personal relationship with or shoot people who don’t have a knowledge or relationship to the work i do) and my life to care and to act well, but like everyone else, we fail, we’re human.

    the question of whether or not these women’s dignity was both exploited and scoured is a matter of your perspective. Same was sad about Jodi’s work as well, by many including in S.Africa. The truth is that, to me, dignity comes from a simple place: honesty, openness, awareness and the intent that a relationship is built upon truthfulness and intent. I trust Brian, because i know his work (i dont know him personally) and i trust his words: i must, for human dignity’s sake. I also expect (and if you’ve do some digging and find that he’s also photographed women who are friends and women who are artists and tatoo artists and musicians etc and who have spoken about their relationship to the series or another b/w series similar and their empowerment from it, it shifts the perspective of what does dignity mean) that the women will support that they were comfortable with and feel this is what they wanted to reveal to the viewers about one aspect of themselves, one aspiration and their own physical and emotional presence.

    It gets very close to patronizing when you suggest that someone else is exploiting or are removing a subject’s dignity because of a photograph… about the next time you think ill of a person…but don’t tell them directly?…..same….

    the truth is that dignity must rest, above all, on the attempt to love and support and do no harm…to connect…dignity is not based on another’s perception of what is right or wrong, but is what that person needs, so that they are done no harm, that they are not exploited and hurt, that they are used….

    dignity is about self-empowerment and also the realization that we are all connected to one another and that we all suffer and that we must abide one another….abide one another and care…

    to me, brian has done and does all this…

    all the best

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