The next great image creators

In the wake of the social justice movement and the pandemic, a new generation of image makers are reinventing the look and feel of fashion media. Among these archaic ideas of beauty, fame, and style are 22-year-old Kennedi Carter; Quil Lemons, 23 years old; and Ahmad Barber, 30, and Donté Maurice, 26, who work together as AB + DM. They photographed Beyoncé for British Vogue (Ms. Carter), Billie Eilish for Vanity Fair and Telfar Clemens for Time (Mr. Lemons); Zendaya for Essence and InStyle, Regina King and Viola Davis for Entertainment Weekly and Stacey Abrams for Marie Claire (AB + DM), among other covers.

Here, they talk about the complicated balance of being both agents of change and artists.

The great “racial calculation” of June 2020 paved the way for historic firsts, including the use of young black photographers for glossy magazine covers. How has this affected your work experience?

Ahmad Barber We use these opportunities to defy expectations – working from the south, like we do and Kennedi does, or even being so young and working from New York and Los Angeles like Quil. It is no longer a question of “taking a chance”. It’s just “they’re qualified, they’re excellent.” We have all created undeniable work. It is top-notch work. It’s not about my darkness or my identity. The work speaks for itself.

Donté Maurice We pray a lot. Our faith weighs a lot. If it has to happen, it will. We help open the doors. Longevity is the key. We do everything with a spirit of excellence. As Cardi B said, “If it’s in place, then it’s stuck.”

Quil Lemons It’s also about finding community. These are our individual lived experiences. For example, Kennedi understands femininity in a way that I never could. When I say no to jobs, I always say, “No, but hit that person.” I don’t want to be “the only”, the only black man at this fashion table.

If the industry says it no longer uses black photographers, we will create our own industry. We have enough infrastructure and enough relevance, culturally, and we understand that on a global level, the industry has no hold when Blackness ends. We have realized our own power, which goes far beyond anything anyone can say “yes” or “no” to.

But there is still a long way to go. Where are the red flags and the sticking points?

Hairdresser We must overcome these additional obstacles. Our work is not seen as just an art. It is considered to be: “Are you skillful? Are you technical? Do you know fashion? Do you know a reference? Do you know how to lighten a complexion? If I underexpose an image on purpose, it isn’t just seen as my perspective or my personal aesthetic. It sounded like, “We told you black artists are not capable. We will move on to the next one. We are under a microscope. Many people are watching our generation, waiting for us to fail. They’re waiting to say, “Look, they got a job too fast.”

Lemons Our artistic practices are still forming. There are a lot of things we don’t want to share because it’s always so close to us. White artists have a whole canon behind them, just like us, but it hasn’t been documented in the same way. We have so much more responsibility as artists, and a lot of times I just want to be an artist and do the work for myself.

But it’s so much weight that we carry as black people on a daily basis … but, as the fuck, can we just exist and be free to be minimal, just make art in our practice and not have the weight of the world placed on the camera? But I still have to fight for our people. It’s such a dance, but I’m done.

Mauritius There is definitely that pressure. You feel like if you take a photo and mess it up, you don’t want to mess it up for other black photographers coming up behind you.

Kennedi carter There is no room for error when you are a black photographer. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have room to be as honest as I want on set. If I say, “Hey, that doesn’t look good” or “Hey, I don’t want to do this or that”, then everything will be removed. There are photographers who, without a shadow, can be the biggest, meanest people on the planet. And will do whatever it takes to make sure they have and keep their power and go about it in such a disgusting and terrible way. It’s quite frustrating to feel like I have to walk on eggshells to express my opinion, when so many photographers do whatever they want.

What do you know now that you would like to know when you started your career?

Carter I would have liked to know how much I could have charged during the day. I was lowball myself! If I knew how much money was put into this industry, believe it, I would have loaded an arm and a leg. But I didn’t know it until maybe five or six months ago! I think back to all the money I lost and I am very angry. But to move forward, I don’t play any games.

Lemons Kennedi said exactly what I was going to say. This damn budget… what are we working with?

Mauritius Not all jobs are worth taking. It’s okay to say no, no matter how much money. Our sanity is better than money. It’s something we’ve learned, from a business perspective. People will stress you out, tell you about any kind of path.

Hairdresser Dealing with communication with some clients, especially in the celebrity world: insane deadlines, or sometimes it’s just “showing up with your camera”, ignoring your point of view.

Mauritius Forming good relationships is where the joy comes in and the money comes in too. We can be brought back by customers and the process becomes more comfortable every time. Some new customers watch every image on the monitor. Next time, second or third time, they don’t look at the screen.

Lemons Usage is really important – working on the details of the back end, how your image will be delivered and used. People try to use your images for long periods of time. Then you walk down the street and see a photo you took. The budget wasn’t huge at all, and it’s now a billboard.

Is there a job that you would pass or wait in the hopes of getting another?

Mauritius Testino, Lindbergh, Weber… They do it all. We have the ability to do it all. We can shoot XXL and InStyle covers. There are no limits. We can photograph black people, but we can also photograph Asians, Latinx and Caucasians. It’s all about the opportunity.

Hairdresser There is always a sense of hierarchy when it comes to jobs and getting the next job. There is diversity in what we do, even between them – different ways in how Kennedi or Quil capture black people. We have personal projects that we want to develop. It is also about diversifying into other worlds to increase our longevity.

Social media has played an important role in many of your careers. How do you use it effectively?

Lemons The hype, the metrics don’t bother me like they once did. I am very attached to fatherhood. Kennedi tweeted that Rafael Pavarotti is not sharing any of his images. He takes a photo of the photo and shares it on social media. I like this. Once the image is printed where it was ordered, that is all it needs. Sharing on social media is the icing on the cake.

For my practice, social media doesn’t influence me like it once did. There was a time when I was nervous about sharing, “Will this work out well?” Now it’s more about the process and the vulnerability in creating the image, but beyond that I don’t care.

Carter At one point Instagram was fun, but now it’s high pressure with more eyes peering to see what you’re doing. I don’t post as much now – even with my personal work since I want to do a book someday. I want to keep the book on things that haven’t been seen so that I can sit with it a little longer. A lot of jobs also come from writers who follow you, so there’s that. But if a publisher tries to find you, they’ll find you.

Mauritius We share a lot of our work on social media. We want benchmark work for young photographers. Images that look like them! Seeing black women in Iris van Herpen dresses – there aren’t many pictures like that out there.

How has the pandemic affected your work?

Hairdresser We didn’t have these kinds of jobs, at this level, before Covid. There are limits when and how we can shoot, the number of people on the set, the tests, etc.

Lemons I did nothing for the first three months of the pandemic. I drove across the country. I lived in Seattle, New York, Los Angeles. I spoke to Mickalene Thomas about the importance of having fun. I feel more anchored as a creator of images. I got rid of my ego completely. My images got a little more bizarre, and I freed my mind to let photography be a sense of the game rather than making a “perfect” image. And I found an agent.

Carter My process before Covid was to shoot my personal work, to photograph what I wanted to shoot. Now it’s mostly missions – what was brought to me, memories and commissions. The Covid protocol is now fairly standard. I’m afraid to see what it looks like in “normal” times. “

Do you feel responsible to those who come next?

Mauritius We love having kids on set. Our producer, tailor, manicurist – they’re all younger. We manage the lighting ourselves, so we take that extra time to help the lighting assistants. We don’t give them the secret sauce, but help them familiarize themselves with the behind-the-scenes process and look into our world and what it takes to get some of the footage we take.

Lemons On set, I fight tooth and nail to get what I want and to ensure that everyone who looks like me, no matter their age, is not questioned. Make sure that if I can’t do a job, that I always recommend someone else for it. Harness that before it becomes something you can’t access. I used to feel so lonely, like “the one”. I am so happy that this conversation is and is happening beyond New York.

Carter Like Quil, when I’m not available I recommend someone else for the job every time. I’m trying to lay the groundwork now to have influence later.

About Julius Southworth

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