Africa: Black Women Photographers Shine in a New Network

From a life of "blistering loneliness", photographer Polly Irungu was one of many evolving artists and photographers struggling to find their place in a fast-moving world.

Information was not readily available and for years Ms. Irungu did not know where to turn to for mentorship while trying to make a living out of photography, which is also her passion.

She would have welcomed advice from her peers, or been grateful for apprenticeship, or just being be part of a community of photographers who wouldn't mind sharing their experience of navigating the challenges of a fast-moving media industry. Yet, Ms. Irungu couldn't find such support. As a young photographer, the journalism graduate longed to connect with people she could culturally and professionally identify with.

Reflecting on her formative years, Ms. Irungu says: "I was acutely aware that I needed perspective... More than that, I needed community."

Building a network

This is what led the young photographer to her current objective - building a network of Black women photographers sharing insights and resources that would propel them to recognition in the creative industry.

"There have been moments where I thought to myself, if only I had a community, if only I had a mentor, if only I knew other Black photographers, specifically Black woman photographers' and photojournalists that I could turn to," Ms. Irungu told Africa Renewal.

"I finally realized that I needed to do something other than just sit on the sidelines," she said. "Photography remains a white-dominated field."

Born in Nairobi, Ms. Irungu grew up in the United States where she fell into photography almost by chance. She bought her first camera and computer at the end of her senior year in high school year with money earned working at a fast-food restaurant.

She photographed family, friends and almost everyone and everything she came across. She taught herself the techniques and searched the internet for photography tips.

"I finally realized that I needed to do something other than just sit on the sidelines," she said. "Photography remains a white-dominated field."

At the onset was a list of black women photographers Ms. Irungu had compiled a few years back. She dusted up the list and tweeted to it. After the tweet garnered a couple of hundred retweets, she decided to reach out to the responders, introduce herself and ask them about their experience.

"What was your last assignment? Was it paid? How often do you get getting hired? Did you ever feel moments that you wanted to leave this industry?" were some of the questions, she asked, observing that the experience was similar across the board.

Fast forward barely five months later, and Ms. Irungu's "doing something" has resulted in a diverse community of black women photographers -- an initiative with the aim, it proclaims, "to disrupt the notion that it is difficult to discover and commission black creatives."

Over time, the envisioned network of Black Women Photographers would become a diverse community of Black women who would disrupt the notion that it is difficult to discover and commission black creatives.

Dusting up old list

When COVID-19 hit, finding a job became harder. The protests against police brutality erupted across the US and elsewhere in the world following the death of George Floyd.

For journalists, the historic events unfolding in cities across the world would have presented the perfect opportunities to get to work. Yet, these opportunities remained scarce for someone like Ms. Irungu.

Today, BWP maintains a digital database of 600 members since its first launch in July of 2020 with support from a COVID-19 relief fund (#BWPReliefFund) that raised over $14,000 to provide financial support to Black women and non-binary photographers during the pandemic.

"When I set out to do this," she remarked, "I really didn't use (the unfolding events) to inform my approach. What I used was just my own personal experiences and those that I was hearing from other women to inform my approach."

Still, it can't be overlooked that the initiative received a great deal of interest across the world, because conversations around race and justice resonated with many people.

Members of the community come from countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Japan and Australia.

And to hear Ms. Irungu tell it; this is just the beginning: "What really keeps me going, is being able to shine light on different stories that have been overlooked for so long."

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