Behind The Lens Plus is an ongoing online exhibition of photographic-based work by women. It is the companion exhibition to Behind The Lens 2020: Women in Photography at the Rhode Island Center for Photographic Arts.
Behind The Lens Plus: A message from the juror, Grace Marie DeWitt
This year has underlined so many areas of needed growth. In seeking methods for shaping the world we want to see, it seems like photography only gains gravity over time. Photographs can wield us to stretch the limits of what we know well, redefine standards of beauty, begin to heal personal conflicts and generational wounds, and critically recalibrate our knowledge of what a just and fair system looks like (or doesn’t look like). Photographs can constitute empathy, education, and spirit. They can help us to learn, and also unlearn.
This project began just a short time ago with a focus on situations that bring pause to women, and a goal of collecting visual records of those situations. The Rhode Island Center for Photographic Arts and I wanted to bring a little more attention to what women in 2020 might hold, consider, celebrate, challenge, and seek to change. Though a labor of love, such a project is by no means exhaustive or flawless.
I want to take a moment to explicitly communicate an underlying fact of this exhibition. I am a white, cis-gender, American woman, and I am curating this project. I was invited to take up a space where someone else may have stood. Though this exhibition was conceived with diversity as the primary guiding principle for its selection process, that process and the writing that follows it is inevitably affected by my identity, which includes my whiteness. I am engaged in my own antiracism work like countless other white folks, but no amount of antiracism work could equip me to evaluate one photograph over another in a way that is fully divergent from my whiteness. Understandably, no amount of antiracism work would ever qualify me to put any words into the mouths of Black or Brown photographers either. These are not the goals of Behind The Lens Plus.
As the artist and arts advocate who now occupies this curatorial space, it is my intention that this project focuses more closely on the visual storytellers who we feature here, and serves as an access point that helps our audience reflect a little more deeply with these women’s work. Of equal importance, I hope that this project also attests to the infinite volume of photographs by women which merit slow-looking and deep-thinking––those included and those not included in this online exhibition.
If you like the work you see in any installment of Behind The Lens Plus, please support the women behind it both virtually and tangibly. Use the links provided on their names to follow their social media accounts or look through their websites. If they are a practicing artist, email them directly to ask how you can best keep in touch with their work. Purchase prints from them, or ask them how you can send a donation to show your support. Then, remember them, when you come across artist opportunities, or if you work in an art space yourself.
Lastly, feel free to reach out to me with any feedback on my role in this project. Creative work, community work, and antiracist work are all lifelong pursuits, made better and more beautiful through dialogue with, and accountability from, the people who they serve.
–– Grace Marie DeWitt, juror/curator of Behind The Lens Plus and exhibiting artist in the companion exhibition, Behind The Lens 2020: Women in Photography, in the RICPA Gallery
Behind The Lens Plus Collection 3: Angelina Ruiz, Mayomi Basnayaka, Işık Kaya, BLACKKSWANN, and Adriana G. Torres
The Otros Espacios project by Angelina Ruiz –– An investigation of collective memory that uses found and taken portraits to navigate the connections yearned and even shared among those who have never met.
“Otros Espacios strives to illustrate the bonds within family life. The images display a narrative that bridges the gaps between the past and the present. I use family photos, as well as found imagery to draw parallels between the lives of people who do not know each other. There are emotions and memories that are carried in each of these spaces, which change constantly. Each memory captured perfectly and never able to be exactly recreated again. I include ephemera and my own photography to emphasize my personal connection with these spaces. There are many ways in which my own photos have accidentally mimicked found photos, showing ways in which these moments repeat in different environments, unbeknownst to themselves.”
–– Angelina Ruiz
Both comical and tender, Angelina Ruiz’ Otros Espacios is an exercise in intergenerational memory. In this sampling from her project, we first see two women in formal attire. One dons a crown and mink, the other, a white bridal gown. Step right in a gallery, or scroll down on this page, and here the photographer sits: regally composed in a terrycloth towel, touching on the biggest threads of life from the interior of her bathroom. She’s reaching towards family, history, and heritage by thinking sensitively about the distant minutiae that stitch those things together across time: the fabric, texture, poise, and presence that trickle down through generations and across peoples.
Ruiz, at least in this image, is not a queen or a bride. But, she is them in parts of her experience. She is a queen in some moments, a bride in others, and a twenty-something artist searching for connection, in others still. She navigates whatever power, joy, and self-actualization comes with any of those roles. Her shower curtain is the velvet drape, her combed hair is the organza veil––if only in texture, or shape.
In the same way that the viewer can’t know whether Ruiz took this photograph before or after discovering the paired images, there is no way to ever know the realistic bounds of the connection she may have shared with their subjects. She can only viscerally call back on those women, perhaps long-gone, by examining her own form as a relational gesture. The quantifiable truth of their likeness isn’t actually important. Rather, the sense of being less alone in one’s being, of being inexplicably part of something greater, is paramount.
If we have family members who hold stories or memories of our ancestors, then we might hear that our smile hits our eyes like it did in our grandfather, or that our hair fights back just like our great aunt’s did. Or, we might not have those accounts of our history. The scientific fact of the connection is lesser than the spiritual comfort of sharing this existence. The common DNA of those creases and curls––corporeal or not––help us learn the long-form version of who we are.
Angelina Ruiz, born and raised in the Bronx, is an artist who has been photographing for almost ten years. Ruiz received her BFA in Photography from SUNY Purchase in May 2015. She currently resides in Puerto Rico, working as a freelance photographer, writer, and activist. To follow her new project, “The Radical Database,” a collection of resources to support the Black Lives Matter movement, click here.
Postcard #2 from the series Nudes by Mayomi Basnayaka ––– Serving as both an act of opposition and an affirmation of beauty, these elegant details of Brown and Black women wearing “nude” garments help to expose the normalization of white bodies and champion the universal right to self-empowerment.
“Nudes is a series of prints highlighting the racism and colorism behind the use of the term nude in women’s undergarments. The color nude is much more than ‘a pale pinkish-beige colour.'”
–– Mayomi Basnayaka
We should all get the option of disguising a scratch or a blemish with a bandage. We should all get the option of wearing white button down shirts without the worry that our bra might show through them. We should all get the option of directing attention to what we want noticed about ourselves, so that when we catch up with a friend, or give our presentation, or close that deal, we do so with complete awareness centered on the professionalism and presence that we came to share.
Mayomi Basnayaka worked with a group of female models of color to celebrate the beautiful range of skin tones that clothing is meant to accentuate, and to point to a place where the industry fails. “Nude”-colored garments really only dissolve into very light skin tones. They really only work, as intended, for very white bodies.
This detail matters because it communicates a hurtful and hierarchical operational system to the world. The sock, the underwear, the stocking, the bra, is a matter of bodily integrity and dignity, not just aesthetics. These are things tied to confidence, empowerment, and professionalism. In a wrongfully exclusive modeling system, who gets to walk into a store and purchase items that make them feel more confident? More empowered? More professional?
The Nudes series is an ingenious tool for both advocacy and affirmation in a contactless era. Basnayaka prints the series on postcards, and sends them to those who donate 10 EUR (11.25 USD) to any of the Black Lives Matter organizations listed on her site. In turn, donors are meant to distribute them to family or friends as a way of further advocating for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Delivering the topics of privilege, language, and power directly to new doorsteps, these postcards serve as introductory sentences to complex conversations. In demanding accountability both strongly, and softly, they spread the very beliefs which made them–––respect, permission, admiration, and gentleness.
Mayomi Basnayaka is a Sri Lankan contemporary artist. She was born in Saudi Arabia, raised in Japan, and was art and design educated in France. Being a citizen of everywhere and nowhere, her art reflects the complexities of multiculturalism.
The Second Nature series by Işık Kaya ––– Like a mass-produced painting, or a GMO-drenched rosebush, Second Nature investigates the twisted tendency for humans to trade their imperfect reality in favor of a prettier, simpler, and emptier, world.
“With the uprise of mobile devices, the infrastructural needs of the telecommunication industry have exploded, and since the 1980s, cell towers have started to fill the cityscapes. The scenery changed dramatically when the first antenna was transformed into an artificial pine tree in 1992 by a company called Larson Camouflage: a company that worked for Disney. Therefore, it’s appropriate to talk about the Disneyfication of the landscape. This term has had a certain traditionin sociology since the early 1990s. Put simply, Disneyfication is used to describe the consumer-oriented transformation of the environment into a spectacle.
The images from the series Second Nature show the artifacts of twentieth and twenty-first century life in the Southern California landscape. These artifacts that are created by camouflaging the communication and surveillance infrastructure of the modern era through assigning a new role to the natural world can be described as a ‘societal preference for ‘fake’ aesthetics over ‘ugly’ reality’ (Amy Clarke).”
–– Işık Kaya
We like our world beautiful, and so we package it, sterilize it, rearrange it, decorate it, and otherwise curate it. We build lakes where we want boats and we place speaker systems in our yards that are shaped like garden rocks. We call ourselves consumers first and inquisitors last, turning the world into a play park and a palace. This behavioral blend of perfectionism and escapism can yield some positive things: we get a world that’s easier to live in, at least emotionally. But ultimately, we weaponize imagination against ourselves, distracting from the very real problems that require our address.
This complex is at the core of Işık Kaya’s exposition of “Disneyfication” in the global landscape. The queasy trees in the Second Nature series are cell phone and surveillance towers tracking movement and communication. But, they are green, foliated, and camouflaged into the background. It’s wonderfully easy to ignore them, and so they are ignored.
Somewhere in between the wires woven into bark and the spray-painted fairytale leaf decorum, the landscape became a theater, and the daydream became a pseudo nightmare. This deceptive strategy, an imaginary correcting method, hides what is both physically and morally ugly. Nature is cut down to irreparable lengths by intelligence systems, only to be replaced with tracking signal machines pretending to be what wasn’t allowed to exist. In the forest or the park, solitary refuge is remodeled into ex situ surveillance.
The synthetic handiwork comes in many even subtler forms, too. It is pumped into lawns with the pesticide, and seeps out of fast-paced forestation. It’s the scream of bright green turf through the winter, and the glorious demise of flower species that are engineered to bloom until they die. At the end of it all, it’s hard to tell where the stage ends, or when the show even started.
Işık Kaya was born in Turkey and currently lives in the U.S.A., where she is pursuing an MFA in visual arts at the University of California, San Diego. Through the use of lens-based media, Kaya observes human relationship to the environment and how we shape contemporary landscape.
Community by BLACKKSWANN –– A record of peaceful protest against anti-Black police brutality in the U.S. which aims to humanize the protester community, fortify Black archives, and appendix the Westernized record of culture and art.
“My work aims to add to and amplify the archival of Black history and art. Community specifically speaks to the nature of the state of the world. This image, like most of my current work, stands as a message to society, that Black lives are important and relevant. Black history will no longer be erased or passed down through word of mouth. Black artists are actively documenting and preserving these movements, ultimately taking ownership of our stories and futures. This photo specifically documents the Black Trans Lives Matter protest in Baltimore, Maryland.”
In a 2014 interview with National Public Radio about persisting racial biases in photography, writer and photographer Syreeta McFadden stated “We’ve seen so many images of Black bodies denigrated, or rendered as criminals, or rendered in a way that doesn’t necessarily reflect a kind of normalcy. We see in stock images, whether it’s in commercial advertising or on television, we just see images of a normalcy of living and existing that seems to center around whiteness and shows the full variety and humanity of white folks, or of lighter skinned people.”
McFadden’s articulation of our reality stresses one of the many reasons why photographers like BLACKKSWANN are doing such important work. BLACKKSWANN (pseudonym for Shelby Swann) often works in a nearly invisible way, using street photography to capture her D.C. community in their most sincere and unrestrained form. Often, she immortalizes her subjects while they relax on their front stoop, or laugh with loved ones in the urban landscape of their home. It seems like not only knowing her subjects, but also living alongside them, is an integral part of her work.
Most recently, BLACKKSWANN’s subjects have appeared in a different display of urbanity and kinship. They are kneeling in the streets together, shouting in unison, standing tall in the heat of this summer, or otherwise engaged in peaceful and passionate protests against police brutality and other anti-Black systems.
In both her protest records and her portraits, BLACKKSWANN is drawn towards the power and self-ownership that her subjects emanate. Such images surely have roots in the Black Lives Matter movement, but, their place and purpose reach even further. This creative labor extends the Black Lives Matter movement as an important opportunity to correct the canon of photography. The unjust history of this medium spans across both practice and culture––from Kodak’s “Shirley” card held up as the original standard for developing film, to Syreeta McFadden’s more recent account of how Black bodies are denigrated and exploited in media.
BLACKKSWANN’s photographic process gives volume to the Black experience in a world that has historically flattened it. The sensitivity with which BLACKKSWANN documents the specific joy, strength, love, pain, and resilience of her community––the beautiful normalcy of Black life––and then sends such documentation out into the world, is a necessary and powerful reclamation tactic.
BLACKKSWANN is a Baltimore-born, D.C.-based photographer. Through street photography and candid capture methods, BLACKKSWANN seeks to expand the archival of Black history and art.
Community is published here with the consent of the individual shown.
Petals by Adriana G. Torres –– Like a still from a dream or a frame in a movie, Petals is a tender testament to the annual miracle of spring and the spirituality that comes with it.
“My work revolves around fleeting moments, nostalgia, and magic.”
–– Adriana G. Torres
Adriana G. Torres could have photographed spring by showing us its flowers, its colorful trees, its new blades of grass, or its throngs of admirers. She could have taken our breathe away with its customary rainbows and the sheer volume of its spectacle. But, Torres showed us its dusty soil still dried from the frost, its weathered grass that made it through every snow. Only the shadows of its flowers and the petals that crumbled from them; only those petals after they’ve fallen to the ground. In a place lauded across the world for tree lines saturated in blossoms, whose bedazzling image brings record-breaking crowds and inspires festivals, parades, proposals, and emojis, Torres shows us three or four small details. One hand on the ground through a velvet sleeve. A pattern of shadows, patches of grass, the spread of matter like soft pink sugar, coating the earth.
In 1912, a gift of over three thousand cherry blossom trees from the City of Tokyo arrived in Washington, D.C. Eight years of planting later, 1,800 of the Yoshino variety lined the capital’s Tidal Basin. To locals, Japanese cherry blossoms are a motif of friendship, spring, and the restoration that comes from both.
In this season, it might be a bit easier to let go of some things and to bring others closer; to look back at pain that was too raw or wounds that were too deep in the winter; to feel that the world is a little more forgiving or that spirituality has many different forms; or to simply bring our warm bodies into contact with the still-hard earth––and feel whole. Spring is both an ask and an answer: the question of what we need in our lives and that which we no longer do, and the permission for our healing, our remembrance, and our refilling.
These flowers remind us that bitter winters are worth it if only to melt into soft and bright confetti. They remind us that countries can gesture love languages to each other, like partners gifting bouquets. And it is powerful; it wakes us up; it calls us to prune and to bloom and to change––as much because of its beauty as its brevity.
These petals christen everything. They fall into outstretched hands, clump into patches on water, and become brown under the foot of their thousand admirers. They rouse locals at dawn and pull tourists from every corner of the globe. They frame newlyweds, and they decorate negatives in the very first rolls of film that some will ever take. They grow on trees that traveled seven thousand miles and spent two hundred years to bloom here. All for only a week or two.
Adriana G. Torres was born in México City, where she studied photography and journalism. Torres currently lives in the commonwealth of Virginia, U.S. with her husband and cat named Musgo.
About the juror:
Grace Marie DeWitt (she/her/hers) is one of the exhibiting artists in Behind The Lens 2020: Women in Photography, RICPA’s in-gallery companion exhibition to Behind The Lens Plus. DeWitt is a Maryland-based interdisciplinary artist, and works in national and international programs at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.