Photographer Interview: Laylah Amatullah Barrayn
This is the first of the Dodge & Burn Photographer Interview series which I hope to be able to post at least once a month.
Kicking it off is photographer Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, a woman I’ve come to know only through email but whose unique photographic eye I’ve admired for a long time.
Laylah’s work is personal, intimate and though we’ve never met in person, from her photos I get the feeling that she is warm and compassionate individual.
Her own photography history is inspiring and I hope you too are inspired by the words of this self-taught photographer.
Her most recent work, Kindred Cool, “uses the friendship of Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison and Romare Bearden as inspiration to document the diversity of the contemporary jazz society.”
D&B: How did you get started in photography – any “formal” training?
LAB: I take my inspiration from my mother who loved to photograph the family. She always had film in the camera, back then she had a Polaroid and a point and shoot that used 110mm film. I began shooting in 1988 when my father brought a camera for me, I was about 8 years old.
But, it was when I documented the Million Woman March in 1997 I began to think about shooting in a different way, a more serious way. I wanted to create projects around documenting places and events. I don’t have any formal training.
As a matter of fact I broke my first SLR. I was too anxious to study the manual. I’m self taught, by experience, trial and error, conversations with photographers.
D&B: What cameras or techniques do you use?
LAB: Right now I’m using a Nikon B80 and a Pentax K1000. I used Ricoh camera’s for years until they broke beyond repair. Then I switched over to Nikon and Canon. I’m a film girl all the way. I love playing with exposures with B&W film. I’m still exploring, so there are no techniques that I use frequently. I’m always exploring!
D&B: Who are your mentors in photography?
LAB: I would definitely say Jamel Shabazz, Delphine Fawundu-Buford, Deborah Willis. My mentors also include people like Spike Lee and Ernest Dickerson. The film work of those gentlemen are amazing. I find myself wanting to tap into films like Mo Better Blues and Juice and use that inspiration to compose beautiful images and situations on my camera.
I’m all for beauty. I do feel that it is my job as a photographer to record all moments of life, regardless of the anything. And, I believe in capturing the authentic. But, I love beauty. I want to constantly create it or capture it, reflect on it. I like to feel good and if I can make others feel good with beautiful images, then great!
D&B: Have you experienced any set backs in your photography career that you would attribute to being a female and/or photographer of color?
LAB: I haven’t experienced any setbacks as of late. I decided a long time ago that I would be the only one to validate myself or my work. I create what I want. I create opportunities to share and exhibit my work. I realize that if I rely solely on others to help me get ahead and grow, there is a chance I would be waiting for a long time.
Don’t get me wrong, there are established photographers, curators, like Deborah Willis and Jamel Shabazz who are beyond generous. They see the importance in reaching out to the emerging generation and guide us so that we can become proficient and sucessful photographers. I’ve been lucky to have been in positive company, so the setbacks are little to none. I know this is a very competitive field.
D&B: What do you hope to achieve with your photography?
LAB: I hope to achieve many things with my photography. Some of them I have identified and some things I discover along my journey. I want to inspire others. I want to expand perceptions and ideas. I want to incite thought and conversation.
One of the most important things I want to do is to create communities, or help people find each other. I hope to somehow breakdown mental hierarchies and barriers. I want people to see similarities in others.
D&B: What’s your dream photography project?
LAB: My dream photography project I think would involve shooting a series that would involve global travel. When I worked as a journalist I’ve traveled to many of the countries I’ve dreamed of. But during those travels my focus was reporting on whatever my assignment was at the time. But I’d like to travel to South Africa again and shoot some more of the young women. I don’t have a theme yet. Still thinking!
D&B: What are you shooting now?
LAB: Right now, I am adding some portraits to my series Kindred Cool, which opened this summer at MoCADA and will travel to New Orleans this March 2009. Also, I am shooting some new work for the SHOOTOUT, a Tribute to Jamel Shabazz, which will open December 13 at the McKenna Museum in New Orleans. I’m also working on a new project, I don’t want to reveal too much about it, but it’s going to be a somethin’ else!
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