In his essay The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media, Stuart Hall posits that through the production and propagation of images, the media creates representations of our social worlds and functions as a significant means of ideological proliferation. These ideologies serve to inform us ‘how the world is and why it works as it is said and shown to work.’ Hall suggests that we construct our understanding of ourselves within these ideologies, and that they enable us to make sense of our societies and our positions within them, noting that ideologies become naturalized and ideological representations masquerade as common sense so that constructed representations are understood to be natural. Within the larger ideological struggle of representation, Hall states that said ideological imagery is resisted through social and political struggle and practice. Visual representations of Blackness in its entirety remain a site of ideological struggle, as persistent ideologically-motivated images of Blackness construct and frame our understandings of what it means to be Black the world over. However, just as media is a site for the construction of racial ideologies, it is also one for the reconstruction, transformation and articulation of imagery that challenges these ideas. We spoke to photographer Naima Green, whose photography series Jewels from the Hinterland does just that. We discussed her intentional approach to representing young Black people in her series as she explores imagery of her subjects engaging with nature, and her interest in challenging perceptions about Blackness and identity through this series. - interviewed by Fatima
Why did you choose to feature young Black creatives specifically as your subjects for this series? And how did you select your subjects?
When I first began this project I tried to remove myself from the images; but Jewels from the Hinterland is about me. I have a subjective view and this is my lens. The series materialized because I felt visually omitted from dialogues and representations within contemporary media and art. Therefore, I began to construct my reality through these images. 20-something creatives are who I am surrounded and inspired by. It is who I am. Participant selection started with my best friends. Slowly, I reached out to people in my life who are spectacular artists, theorists, poets, and people. I sometimes approached strangers who I found to be intriguing but those connections have not been fruitful yet.
The images you create stand in direct contrast to ideas of city life- particularly as they apply to Black people –in that there is often a perceived disconnect between black urbanites and nature (for numerous reasons); what were you trying to achieve by placing your subjects in these settings?
I wrote my master’s thesis on this series and visual representations of blackness so I have 100 pages of thoughts and ideas on black and brown people in nature. I will try and be brief here.
When I reflect on how black people have been represented through photographs, a recurring idea comes to mind. I recall Gordon Park’s “A Harlem Family” and Bruce Davidson’s “East 100th Street.” Audiences are comfortable seeing brown faces this way. Parks and Davidson captured images of their time, beautiful and haunting images of what it meant to be in Harlem in the late 1960s. But these images of black people in desolate, concrete spaces can suggest decay.
In my ongoing project, Jewels from the Hinterland, I create portraits of friends outdoors in and around New York City, where figures anchor fields clear-cut with geometric lines and vibrant colors. Nature grows around the individuals, as does the city landscape, like a continuous grid. The goal of the work is to depict a sense of belonging and ownership within fertile green environments. I grew up surrounded by verdant areas. I feel equally comfortable in Brooklyn and in Bronxville, a New York suburb where I grew up, and I am not alone in this longing for lushness and concrete.
Visual representations of young people engaging with nature are so often reserved for white people, which is one of the reasons the notion of the #carefreeblackgirl has been so popular (although engaging with nature is not necessarily always a part of CBG life - there are no rules, which is kind of the point), were you consciously trying to subvert this?
Yes. In American culture race is often reduced to five terms perpetuated by the U.S. Census Bureau. These umbrella categories often suggest a “single story,” to use a term coined by Chimamanda Adichie, because they reduce people to one single aspect of their identity. This singular view does not showcase the intricacies of race and ethnicity or depict the many delicate stories they encompass. The construction of race in America is primarily through a white Western framework. There is a dominant and pervasive narrative around America’s slave past that situates black bodies as less than, or as having to constantly battle to be seen as equal to our white counterparts.
Historically, this framework depicts black communities as singular, often poor, and reliant on others. This narrow portrayal relegates people of the African Diaspora to specific social roles such as manual laborers or blue-collar workers because of the close connection between race and perceived social status. One can observe the affects of this relationship in the media, in neighborhood and educational segregation, quality of schools, food options in poor neighborhoods, and more. This dominant narrative of poor powerless black individuals and families does not reflect my immediate understanding of black life so I set out to challenge it.
You’ve given it the title of Jewels from the Hinterland, what do you mean by this?
These photographs are collaborative. The people in my images are the jewels; they are people I admire, people who are radiant. They are city dwellers who identify with natural green environments. My work considers pastoral spaces in and around cities; I explore remote natural regions where black urbanites are not expected to inhabit—our hinterlands.
The project is currently ongoing, how do you envision it expanding?
I plan to keep shooting until there is a collection of 50 portraits or until I feel like the work can no longer evolve. Jewels from the Hinterland is also seasonal. I am confined to about four months of shooting time a year – it sounds like a lot until you throw life and work into the mix. Most importantly, I want the work to resonate with people. I want to continue creating and constructing art that reflects my experience, if only to challenge traditional representations of blackness and complicate the story even more.
I love talking to people about the work, if you have thoughts or are interested the series progression find me on my website, tumblr, and instagram. I am open to collaborations. Don’t be afraid to say hi.
BIO: Naima Green is a Brooklyn-based artist who also teaches drawing, painting and digital arts. Her artwork explores issues of urban design, class, contemporary culture and place. She received a master’s in Art and Art Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and an undergraduate degree in Urban Studies and Sociology.