PUBLISHED IN ISSUE 16
INTERVIEW BY SARAH IANNONE
Nydia Blas’ photographs are inspired by the relationships she creates within her community, possessing the desire for her subjects to reclaim their identities and their bodies. The recent portraiture series The Girls Who Spun Gold, is made up of images of the black teenage girls she met through a Girls Empowerment Group that Nydia started in her hometown of Ithaca. Nydia’s portraits of girls reconstruct their time spent together and their formed relationships in a staged visual setting. While creating the images, the girls looked far beyond the way society can ignore and limit black women. The images spin new, empowering narratives through the girls’ self discovery, questioning what it really means to be a young woman of color. The majority of Nydia’s projects deal with notions of history and lived experience, while her body of work functions as both an exploration and confrontation of self-representation within pre-existing structures, ultimately working to destabilize oppressive forms of representation.
How did you come to found the Girls Empowerment Group and why did you think it was necessary?
Upon the completion of my degree in Cinema and Photography (minor in African Diaspora Studies), I began working at Southside Community Center in my hometown of Ithaca, New York. Historically Southside is the only place that has continuously served the Black community and it was there that I was excited to share the knowledge that my formal education had afforded me. I began working with a group of teenage girls in a summer camp program, we became very close, and they began to voice concerns about a lack of physical space to meet as young women. Together we created a Girl Empowerment Group where an exchange of knowledge and power in an intimate space took place. We threw parties for bored teenagers in the community, deconstructed rap videos with a focus on male/female relationships, read Sista Souljah’s “No Disrespect,” kept journals and traveled to places like Harlem to attend the Kwanzaa Show at The Apollo, and visited the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Can you give some background on the girls? Are you still involved with the group?
These girls all grew up in Ithaca, as did I. Immediately I saw parallels between my life and theirs. We grew up in the same community and literally hung out in the same streets, felt stifled at the same schools, and had the same “hometown grievances.” During our time together what moved me the most were our conversations about love, self-esteem, and our visions for the future. Today some of the girls are in college, some are mothers, and others are working full time. As a teenage mother who pursued a college career as an adult, I am continuously making connections between their lives and mine. Although the group technically no longer exists, we will always spend time with one another and have a special bond.
Did you always plan on photographing the girls in the group or did it occur to you naturally while being around them?
Early on I took a few rolls of film but didn’t return to photographing the girls until I moved onto graduate school to obtain an MFA in Art Photography. I was interested in the ways that I could recreate our relationship visually. Specifically I was captivated by their celebration of one another’s differences such as body type, skin color, hair texture/length, etc. In this group each girl was valued for their uniqueness, despite the way society uses these things to divide women and keep them in competition with each other.
What did you want to get out of the photographs? How did you view the girls?
I wanted the girls to see themselves reflected in my work. To see these photographs as a space for them to reside, in the same way that the Girl Empowerment Group was created and functioned as a space that we made together where their lives, concerns, and feelings were being addressed and explored.
What did the girls want? How do you think they saw you behind the lens?
For the girls, I think that the process of making photographs was an extension of all the other time that we had spent together. We would meet up and I would explain my vision for the day, often having a lengthy conversation about something I had read in class or something I watched, or witnessed in the world that had inspired me. Then we would cook food together or order takeout, listen to music and talk about life. The image making just became part of our relationship, we just wanted to be around each other. I think they saw me as myself. Excited, passionate, eccentric, dedicated, etc.
How did the girls react to the photos?
They are pretty amazed with the final images. For the most part the process of making the photographs was very informal so to see the final images, was like seeing the story come to life; like the disparate pieces of our encounters finally made sense. I remember asking one of the girls what they saw in the work, and she replied: “I dunno, it’s like a feeling. Like our story.”
Did anything surprise you about the suggestions the girls had for the photographs?
Many times I asked the girls to come up with ideas for the images but they seemed to want to leave that up to me. Instead they would offer suggestions once we got moving as to how we could improve the images, such as shifting a prop, changing a costume, etc. Sometimes one of the girls would be the photographer while I was the director and vice versa.
Where were the photographs taken? What significance did these locations hold?
All of these images were made in Ithaca, N.Y. Only making work in Ithaca as I was traveling back and forth from here to Syracuse made sense logistically. At the time I wasn’t thinking about how place specifically spoke to the images and what I was trying to get at. I work very intuitively, with an idea often arriving like: “Resana with a baseball bat.” From here I would go about finding the perfect location, prop, costume, etc. The spaces range from lush green outdoor exteriors to interiors such as bathrooms, bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens. The home is an intimate space, one that is both private and yet still public.
How do you feel that black female sexuality is portrayed in mainstream media?
The media portrays black women as hypersexual beings, which works to reinforce very old stereotypes that were created to justify the mistreatment and exploitation of black women during slavery. One of the things I wanted these images to do is complicate the notion of what it means to be a black girl, teenager, woman, and mother.
I kept questioning if it was possible for the subjects to reclaim their sexuality. How could I address this without letting them be sexual beings on their own terms, in their own world that is very much about them and their understanding of themselves and their bodies; their own pleasure.
What are you working on right now?
Currently I am working on photographing people I know in my community. At this time I am specifically interested in adolescent boys. I believe this addition will complement and complicate the work I have been making. I tend to scope interesting people out for a while, build some rapport or relationship with them and then begin making images with them.
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