There were a few different points of inspiration for this series. The first would be when I was in New York working on my senior individualized project and I was interviewing some alumni from Kalamazoo College. There, I decided to photograph my friend that I had met, and he is a Black man. But the photo came out really blurry, and it was a crappy photo as a release. I started editing it anyway because he asked, “Can I see the photos?” And I was like, “Oh, shit! I don’t want to send this.” They don’t look good, but I didn’t want to tell him that, so I started playing with the colors and everything. Do you know the Obama Change Posture and how it is blue and red? The photo reminded me of that, but instead of blue and red, it was more like orange and yellow. Just seeing his smile mixed with the colors made me smile, and I was like, wow, this is cool. I should do some sort of like Black joy photography series.
That was like a year before I actually started shooting, but I was always thinking about it. Once I got home from school for winter break, I was talking to my brother more and getting closer to him. He was telling me more about his childhood and the traumas that he was dealing with. But of course, I didn’t know any of this. It made me think about how joyful he was with holding all of this in from his childhood. I was like, wow, Black men must be holding in so much that they don’t talk about and won’t ever share. It made me think about my dad and the other men in my life. They’re always joyful and lively. I never really saw them sad or not feeling emotions outside of anger and being jovial. I was like, dang! Although Black men are funny and are allowed to express joy in some ways, they’re not given the space to just relax and be happy and share what gives them joy. So that’s really where it started from.
In January 2020, I started shooting a series because I was like, this is what I’m going to use for content, for Black History Month, for my production Instagram. And after the passing of Kobe, I decided it needed its own platform. That’s why I started the Black Boy Joy Instagram account. I didn’t realize that I would end up having a website and selling prints and everything. I sort of just started it for the Black History Month content.
I’ve been meeting so many super dope people. I photographed someone I met in Trader Joe’s. I met people on Hinge and we only would link up for the photoshoot, and then I would never see them again. I met people on Instagram through friends and stuff like that. So, it’s been a really cool experience.
The colors and the color scheme of the photos just sort of happen naturally. I was just playing around with them, and I really liked the blue and how it came out. I also was thinking a lot about Nipsey and Kobe during that time, so that sort of influenced the blue, purple, and yellow in the photos. I’m very inspired by Kehinde Wiley and his work. I like the colors he used in his portraits, so that’s sort of where the color is coming from. I wrote a paper on him like two years ago, so when I think about showing Black men in powerful images, he’s always in the back of my head. I’m also just a colorful person, and I like to use lots of colors in my editing.
Right now, I’m working on putting together a coffee table book. I put together a presentation to present to brands, individuals, and organizations to see if they are interested in partnering or would sponsor a shoot so their story can also go into the coffee table book. I’m looking specifically for Black-owned businesses that would like to tell their story and also support my work because I’ve been doing it all for free. In order to really make it what I want it to be, I need to be focused on this and not trying to get money elsewhere. So that’s what I’m trying to do.
My favorite part of this has been the people I take photos of and when they express gratitude for doing the project. There is one guy who was like, you know, I’ve never been photographed before and this is really cool and thank you for doing this project. And he was really shy and kind of awkward, so it was fun to help boost someone’s confidence by doing something that I just want to do.
With every subject, I send them a questionnaire to ask them questions like, what are your favorite colors? What’s your favorite food and why? Who’s your hero? I recently added stuff like, explain where you’re from. Also, tell us a story about a Black woman that has brought you joy. Asking different things that are kind of personal, but relate to joy and thinking of the different ways to find it at this time, which is what I think is the main goal of this project: to share ideas, thoughts, and experiences of how we’re getting through this period and how people have gotten through struggles and hard times in the past. Although, I feel like we’re always experiencing oppression and at some points, it feels stronger than others. But regardless, Black people have always found joy and have always found the light in every situation. That’s also what this project is about. It’s like collecting those thoughts and sharing them with a broader community. Reading their answers to those questions is really rewarding for me, and that’s honestly what keeps me going. People are really out here wanting to share their stories and whenever I’m like, I should be doing this other job and put my focus on that, those stories will bring me back to this work. A lot of the people I interview just happen to be creatives, so that has been really inspiring for me, too.
I hope that when people see my work, they will smile and get a breath of fresh air or sense of warmth. There is a lot going on right now, so if these photos can help bring about a smile or even a laugh — because some of them are goofy — then that’s what I want people to get from my photos.
Editor’s Note: This story is fully in the artist’s words.
IG: madiisonelaine / blackboyjoy2020