EXCLUSIVE: Interview with IWMF Courage in Journalism awardee Vanessa Charlot

Originally published: Missing Perspectives

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Vanessa Charlot is a documentary photographer, filmmaker, lecturer and curator. Her work focuses on the intersectionality of race, spirituality, economics and sexual/gender expression. She shoots primarily in black and white to disrupt compositional hierarchy and explore the immutability of the collective human experience. The purpose of her work is to produce visual representations free of an oppressive gaze.

What led you to become a photographer and your focus on the intersectionality of socio-economic issues and gender/sexual expression?

I was born to Haitian parents in Miami in the 80s, at a time when being Haitian had its fair share of challenges. Harmful stereotypes and misperceptions were being propagated by local, national, and international media. We were even blamed for HIV/AIDS. It didn’t matter if you were born in this country or not, you were labeled as “boat people”, a sneer used to denigrate Haitians, which made reference to the Haitian immigrants who arrived to Florida’s shores by boat.

Yet and still, being born and raised in Miami was a beautiful experience. My neighborhood was an enclave of Haitian pride. Everything about our culture, traditions, legacy, and roots were celebrated within the community. Despite the cultural pride, growing up there wasn’t always easy. Today, most of the people I grew up with either left the area, are dead or incarcerated. My mom enrolled me into an arts magnet school an hour away from my neighborhood to get me away from some of those influences. I doubt she knew then how enrolling me at that specific school would lead to my career and lifelong passion for photography. Using a disposable camera she bought at Walgreens, I created images of my community and the people around me, sharing raw, intimate portraits which challenged commonly held notions about communities like mine.

Even though I took those photographs decades ago, what was true for me then is true now—I couldn’t help but see humanity, beauty and richness where others saw ugliness, struggle and harsh realities. Centering racialized bodies and the communities they inhabit, free of an oppressive gaze, is an invitation to viewers to reimagine the lens through which they view “the other.” Focusing on the interplay where notions of race, socio-economics and gender/sexual expression collide allows us to explore the effects of these constructs on the lived experiences of communities of color, queer communities and other marginalized populations. Sometimes the images make hearts smile. Other times they impress souls with the weight of injustice and cruelty. Nonetheless, the objective is the same—an invitation to reimagine what we see in “the other.”

You documented the protests relating to George Floyd’s death – what impact do you think this had on America and how did you approach your work?

Documenting the protests in St. Louis, a city already haunted by racism and still reeling from the repercussions of the Ferguson Uprising, allowed me to pierce through the surface of what happened into the heart of America—what it stands for and what brings her to her knees. As a Black woman, it was shocking and traumatizing to witness the ignorance most people in this country have to what communities of color have been living with, and living through, for centuries, as if those realities were previously hidden from plain sight. George Floyd’s death marked a pivot point. I recognized that history was being made and I brought my entire self into the moment to create a body of work that was authentic to the reality, nuance, beauty, range and complexity of the times we were living in. I sought to make photographs that challenged the stereotypes propagated by the media which placate certain sensibilities while disparaging communities and peoples who identified as I did—woman, black, immigrant and queer. More than a year later, I am haunted by the fact that we have yet more work to do in order to gain freedom and justice for all.

A lot of our contributors have written about the male vs female gaze. Can you talk about the white vs black gaze and how you address this through your work?

The white gaze is a silent judge dressed in white robes that sits on the shoulder of image makers, especially Black ones who have experienced the full weight of white supremacy and the aftermath of colonialism. The judge sits within and shows up in how we make still images. We seek their approval, validation and support. In some ways, sacrificing authenticity and truth to please the white mind. The judge’s sensibilities demean, damage and denigrate Black bodies and their experiences, ultimately dehumanizing them. The white gaze requires voyeurism, simplification and exploitation to satisfy them. The white gaze must see itself in order to see anything meaningful about the subject or their experience. There is always some level of fetishization. For the black photographer, the white gaze is a conscious point of tension within the psyche. It presents itself as a desire to present black bodies in ways that appeal to and engage the white uncontrolled imagination and white sensibilities.

When the black gaze is introduced into the making of a photograph it creates the space for several things to transpire. It allows Black image makers the opportunity to hold and wield the power to tell their own stories, through their own lens. It reduces the need for performance and allows authenticity and rapport between photographer, subject and camera. It centers the Black body and assigns it the focal point, instead of positioning it as an object existing on the periphery of what really matters. It highlights Black aesthetics and brings it into the mainstream. Together, these components work to invite the viewers to reimagine Black bodies as a center of life, community and humanity.

My work as a documentary photographer prioritizes the Black experience. I seek to breathe life so that our experiences are represented as full, meaningful and powerful. I seek to demonstrate that our lives happen, with and often without the presence of whiteness. The white gaze does not dictate what matters, nor what is true.

Which photograph are you most proud of and why?

It’s hard to say that I’m proud of any one photograph simply because the aftermath of what ignited this movement for justice and freedom is ongoing. That said, the image forever etched in my mind is “American Patriot”, a photograph I took of a black woman sitting on the roof of a car with an upside down American flag. An upside down flag is a sign of distress, alerting others to the imminent danger to one’s life. I hope this photograph inspires others to ask themselves “What would make a woman leave her home, in the middle of a global pandemic, to protest against police brutality in 2020?” For many Black people in America, the answer was simple. Black communities were facing two existential threats: the police and coronavirus. And since black women have been the pillars of their communities, and are accustomed to being on the frontlines defending and advancing the wellbeing of their communities, this photograph speaks to the strength and audacity of Black women in the face of threats and oppression.

What do you hope people – and our readers – take away from your work?

I hope that my work invites people to see the humanity of all people, regardless of the conditions and differences in their lived experiences. There are common threads that unite us all and while the expressions of those ideas may differ, we all inherently want the same thing—to live with dignity and die in peace. If freedom and justice is ever to be for all, we must be willing to examine the lens through which we see “the other.”

What are your tips for young photographers and journalists?

You don’t have to travel far to find stories worth sharing. Pursue the stories and subjects that matter to you, that animate and fuel you. It won’t always be easy and it’s easy to neglect to take care of yourself in this business so make sure that what you do is fueled by your passion. I’d also recommend you take the time to find your voice and your style. Once you’ve found them, stay true to yourself. That’s what helps you stand out among a sea full of photographers and journalists.