Photography. ‘The Importance of a Sitting.’ Portraiture in the Wake of #BlackLivesMatter. by Gioncarlo Valentine.
WORDS AND IMAGES BY GIONCARLO VALENTINE
The Importance of a Sitting is a project that I thought was necessary for black people to see, consider, and take part in. The idea had been floating around my head for some time; it grew legs after the murder of Eric Garner. In Brooklyn, there was a mural created for him in front of Spike Lee’s studio. The mural featured an outdated senior photo of Garner. Many people were confused as to why they used such an outdated photo, but in the Black community this is far too common. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the older Black people in my neighborhoods and in my family saying that they don’t have a decent picture of themselves or their loved ones. They always shy away from being photographed, and they don’t take it very seriously. I’ve also heard young Black men saying that they don’t want pictures of themselves floating around, under the impression that it will lead to some kind of trouble.
I think if we spend time unpacking the origins of these traditions, we’ll find things like self-hatred, insecurity, and on the deepest levels, a sense of unworthiness. Sitting for serious portraits is something that comes off as decadent and unattainable to the poor and working class Black communities who certainly have more important things to worry about. However, in Black America today, taking the time to photograph your loved ones is something that is unfortunately becoming increasingly important. I know that there is no one Black experience. There are plenty of Black families in and out of poverty that sit for portraits regularly. However, this was not my experience or the experience of many of the people in my neighborhood.
(The Importance of a Sitting)
When the project began, I reached out to my absolute favorite black-owned business in Baltimore, The Terra Cafe. They not only allowed me to shoot in front of their space, but the staff assisted me for the duration of my stay. The plan was to shoot for two or three days over a period of two weeks. I would ask passersby if I could photograph them for a second and maybe ask them a question. Then, in a week I would email them the photos and make special arrangements for those who lacked an email account. The questions were a secondary motive: to create a commentary on the state of blackness in Baltimore and America today. At the end the two weeks I felt a sense of completion. I was proud of the series. Then Freddie Gray was murdered, and Baltimore was turned upside down.
I was in New York at the time, but left immediately to be a part of the protests in my hometown. As we stormed the street I felt an insatiable need to do more, so I decided to shoot a final day of the series, this time using a white background to symbolize a blank canvas and a new beginning for Baltimore in honor of Freddie Gray.
With this series, I hope to explore the importance of portraits. I hope to examine the ideas and myths surrounding sitting for portraits in general and within the Black Community. I want to dissect the effects that portraits have on one’s self esteem and to understand why so many black people have never had portraits taken. Beneath the surface, I hope to engage in a very serious and necessary dialogue about the current climate in Black America. Exploring things like police brutality, changes in the community, and institutional racism, and ultimately seeking to identify the relationship between the current climate in Black America and the importance of sitting for a portrait. Making black people feel beautiful is just a bonus.
Gioncarlo Valentine is an English Major at Towson University, who splits time between New York City and Baltimore. He employs his photographic talents to express himself and tell the stories of black people. Read more about his work HERE.