Photographer Interview: Nona Faustine

Photographer Interview: Nona Faustine

“Like A Pregnant Corpse The Ship Expelled Her Into The Patriarchy”
(Atlantic Ocean Coast of Brooklyn, NY),
from the White Shoes series, Copyright Nona Faustine

D&B: Where are you from and where do you/live work now?
NF: I was born in Brooklyn, New York and I work and reside there.

You’ve been photographing since age 4. How important was that early exposure to the camera?
Yes, my uncle actually put the camera in my hand and my father was the family photographer. This early exposure made me very comfortable with the camera as an instrument. I learned early on that there was power in an image. This experience solidified much of my world and associations through the photograph. I didn’t know it at the time, but it set the trajectory for much of my life.

“They Tagged The Land With Institutions And Trophies From Their Conquests And Rapes!”
(New York’s City Hall Built On Top of the African Burial Ground),
from the White Shoes series, Copyright Nona Faustine

Your series White Shoes exposes the “hidden” history of slavery in NYC. What are you trying to uncover and why use photography?
As a time traveler I’m very invested in the past and our future. I see myself, the people who built this city and country as one. They deserve so much recognition for their sacrifice and contributions, something that is still being denied them. There was a force deep inside of me that needed to pay homage to those who played a pivotal role in the early history of this city, and the spaces in which they existed. I wanted to uncover those places where a tangible link to the past exists. Being a documentarian at heart I wanted you to feel and see those spaces, let your mind wonder. What does a Black body look like today in the place where they sold human beings 250 years ago? No other medium but photography and film could do that.

What do the white shoes represent?
They are symbolic of the white patriarchy that we cannot escape.

Your face in the White Shoes series is represented in 3 different ways: masked, unmasked and with a hole through it/cut out. What’s the significance in these varying representations?
Unmasked of course it is me in the present. The cutout figures with part or whole pieces of my face missing reference the unnamed and forgotten in the history of slavery and the horrific violence that went with it. The masked figure is symbolic of my Great-grandmother who as a little girl was brought here on the slave ships with her sister. They both survived that remarkable journey. The one picture of her in my family album is damaged where her face would be. I don’t know what she looks like, however my mother who grew up with her tells me, “if you ever want to see her just look in the mirror”. As I get older she says that I look more and more like her.

“Of My Body I Will Make Monuments In Your Honor”
(Brooklyn Dutch Colonial Cemetery Where 3 Slaves Are Buried),
from the White Shoes series, Copyright Nona Faustine

Tell us about the experience of photographing yourself in the nude in NYC.
It is an amazing, terrifying and exhilarating sensation! I always get a little sick before with my stomach doing back flips and somersaults. Being nude in public is one of the most emotional, vulnerable states of being you will ever experience. At some point you give in to it and it becomes so natural, but there’s a process to getting there first. Once you do, you almost forget the absence of your clothes. There were mornings when the temperature dipped to 18 degrees, but I didn’t feel the cold because my adrenaline was pumping so hard. The threat of arrest and police dropping out of nowhere is constant, therefore I have to work quickly.

New York is remarkable in that very little phases us. In that span of time people are walking by, sometimes cars are passing me, like at Wall Street. I was stuck in the middle of the intersection standing on a block of wood as the stoplight changed. Cars and taxis passed me by while I completely naked. I just gave myself over to the moment. You have to give up a certain amount of control. The city is constantly in flow… you absorb its energy in that space and time, your senses are heightened. Somehow you have to find a way to tune all of that out, but still be aware of what is going on to focus and get the shot. On occasion when people notice it gives me a little pleasure to add that vision to their memory. I become one of the New York stories they won’t soon forget.

What (if anything) about your work would you consider “controversial”?
Slavery is controversial. It’s a topic in America we really try hard not to discuss. It makes people uncomfortable. You see the change that comes over their faces when you mention it, and the role it plays in our damaged psyche. Just the fact that I’ve been told not to talk about the inspiration regarding the project tells me all I need to know. There are scars that have not fully healed, and the fallout from that history is still with us. The other controversy I would say is my fat, Black, naked, female body on display. People often don’t like seeing that because it conjures up a lot of emotional baggage for some. The two topics together omit the work in certain circles.

“She Gave Them All She Could And Still They Ask For More”
(Flatbush, Brooklyn Named By Dutch Settlers)
from the White Shoes series, Copyright Nona Faustine

Your work is currently featured in an exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of Ntozake Shange’s seminal “choreopoem”, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. What has Shange’s work meant to you?
For me Ntozake Shange’s work has been a powerful story within humanity. It is a work about the spirit and the power within oneself. Without Shange and many others I would not be here. She gave our lives and work merit. She charted a path by creating a space to talk honestly about the most difficult, painful topics, societal problems that were/are really taboo within our culture. And in doing so she tapped into the universality of our story.

Are there any photographers whose work you can’t live without?
Oh that’s so hard… you know there are so many! I love the photographers whose work I first discovered in my early years like Carrie Mae Weems, Roy DeCarava, Lorna Simpson, Gordon Parks, Richard Avedon, Marilyn Nance. They saved me so many times, giving me affirmation, such joy and a true sense of awe and amazement.

What are three things that sustain your art practice?
Learning about other artist’s practices has helped me during my journey, in the image making process and cultivating ideas. Reading sustains me. It could be about history or current events, it all trigger ideas. Going to exhibitions, which I’m trying to do more of. I went to see Nick Cave’s last show [at Jack Shainman gallery] and I was so happy that I did. I kept reminding myself how much richer the experience was seeing these pieces up close instead of online. It’s really a privilege to have those moments.

See more of Nona Faustine’s photography.

Dodge & Burn is a blog dedicated to documenting a more inclusive history of photography and supporting the work of photographers of color with photographer interviews.

This blog is published by visual artist and writer, Qiana Mestrich. For regular updates on diversity in photography history, follow Qiana on Twitter @mestrich, Like the Dodge & Burn Blog page on Facebook or subscribe to Dodge & Burn by email.

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