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Gabriella Wyke
Nivi Shaham
BIOGRAPHY
Gabriella Wyke was born and raised in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago where she first discovered her passion for art. As a teenager, her family moved to Toronto, Canada where Gabriella took her first photography class. She later moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography at Savannah College of Art and Design.
Gabriella continues to work as a photographer and storyteller in her community, using her photography to showcase black men in a more positive light. With the current racial and social unrest in her surrounding environment, she is determined to raise her voice, on behalf of these men through her work. Her project, The Letter, gained her a place in the final five of the Students of Storytelling competition.
Gabriella's story
The inception of The Letter began two years ago, when I was given a class assignment to go out into the streets of Atlanta and document my experience on the bus. At first, I was very resistant to my professor’s request. I was new to Atlanta and stuck in my way of making photographs. However, it was just the push I needed to expand myself as a photographer.
After returning from the bus ride, I noticed that there was a pattern in the pictures I had made. They were all portraits of black men that I had seen along the way. Subconsciously, I was drawn to them with no clue why, but soon realized that most of my life and development had been influenced by black men, such as my father, brother, cousins, teachers, pastors and life-long friends.
They were all people who meant a lot to me, so having them reoccur in my work was not unnatural after all. What first seemed like a tribute to the black men in my life soon developed into an ongoing advocacy on their behalf. I made the choice to continue pursuing the theme and honor black men by showing them at their best, which included addressing stereotypes that they have been subject to over the years.
“INSTEAD OF GIVING THE VIEWER AN EXTRA ORDINARY PERSPECTIVE OF WHO THE BLACK MAN IS, I WANT TO SHOW PEOPLE HOW HUMAN HE IS”
Consequently, my project, The Letter, strives to show black men in a positive light much opposed to how they are portrayed in the media, which unfortunately perpetuates these stereotypes. Instead of giving the viewer an extra ordinary perspective of who the black man is, I want to show people how human he is. By doing so, I normalize his existence and his role in society. Like a genre painting – a 17th-century style of painting that depicts regular people doing regular things – my photographs show these men going about their daily lives doing things that any upstanding citizen would do. I also wanted to use the project as a means of communication between me, black men, and society as a whole, in an effort to highlight the truths that already exist.
In the planning stage of this project, I asked myself, ‘what would be the best way to show these men as human?’ The answer was to go into spaces where any man would go, such as the gym, the barbershop, on the job, and in the home. I wanted my photographs to reflect real and candid scenes of everyday life so the viewers could see for themselves what is already there. When Covid-19 began spreading and the city of Atlanta shut down, it meant I could no longer go out and make photos the way I had planned.
Everything had to be reevaluated so that I could continue what I started. Thus, I began conducting virtual interviews on Zoom, which gave me a raw insight into how the men actually felt. This was a blessing in disguise as my vision for the project soon expanded. Messages about black men were not only sent like letters from me to the public, but the men themselves were now sending their own letters, in their own words. During this process I became very fond of everyone I interacted with, but especially Mustafah Meekins who coaches boxers in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the first of many men whose stories I want to showcase for the world to see.
The Tools
To do this project I chose FUJIFILM X-Pro3 and mainly utilized XF35mmF2 R WR. This way, I was able to get close to the people I photographed, while not drawing too much attention to myself. The weight and size of the body was perfect as I was constantly moving and framing images in action. What was new to me, but very helpful in making me concentrate more on creating, was the hidden LCD monitor. I did not have the luxury of looking down immediately after to see what I had made a picture of so that feature definitely helped me work more efficiently and intentionally.
The Experience
The most challenging thing about this process was not getting as close as I wanted due to Covid-19 restrictions. Had it not been a reality that we now live in, I would have been at the boxing gym every day if coach Mustafah had let me! I definitely had to become more creative with how I approached the story, which I think in turn made it better. Ultimately, I am tremendously grateful for the memories and experiences I had at the gym. One of my personal favorites is meeting one-year-old, Leigh, daughter to a man called Langston. He’d brought her and her older brother Judah along to boxing practice at the gym. Leigh had such a quiet strength about her and a stare that could pierce any barrier. The first thing I noticed about her was that the boxing gloves she wore were clearly too big for her. However, she did not allow them to weigh her down but wore them proudly as she stood with her dad. In that moment I think I saw myself in her, trying to do what I could do to protect black men like her father and mine.
Interacting with these men has definitely made me a better listener and shown me the power of conversation. Too many times relationships fail because of miscommunication and pride, so if we, as people, take the time to learn about each other and appreciate each other’s differences, misunderstandings may become rarer and fear ignited by ignorance can be eliminated. This is how an issue like racism needs to be handled – open, direct, and between hearts that are willing to learn. This is why during the editing process, I was very selective with the photos I showed. They all in some way had to confront the viewer and cause them to challenge their own views on the topic at hand.
“IT IS IMPORTANT TO ME THAT THEY KNOW THEY ARE SEEN AND APPRECIATED”
The Meaning and the Message
Trying to decide my favorite photo is like asking a mother which child she loves the most. However, if I had to choose, I would talk about the one that shows a young boxer kneeling. Just before making the picture, I thought about the football player Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the US national anthem in 2016 as a sign of resistance to racial inequality. It is what some would call a decisive moment – the moment when all formal and thematic elements in a photograph align. Everything in this photo discusses the issues that we dealt with as a society then and the issues that we are still dealing with. Although it hurts to see history being repeated time and time again, I am constantly inspired by the men I have come to know. Their stories have encouraged me to continue speaking on their behalf, especially in a time like this where black men are shot and murdered senselessly. Instead of showing graphic images of a dead black bodies on social media, I prefer to encourage the men who are still alive to continue fighting. It is important to me that they know they are seen and appreciated.
It is my hope that this documentary project inspires others to see and accept the truth, which is black men are human beings like the rest of us who deserve to be protected, loved, and respected. I hope by sharing these stories people begin to inspect their hearts and question their actions toward these men. May people speak less and listen more to black men who have been silenced for decades. What black men have to say matters! Photography, used in this way, prepares the mind for these conversations and gives people proof of the message I am trying to communicate. This is why it is so important that as photographers we use our cameras and abilities to show the world what the mainstream media often overlooks. Photography is what helps our world learn and evolve, and to have recorded evidence of how we existed. I continue to strive in making a difference in the hearts of people. If I could change one person’s view of black men in our society, then I know I am heading in the right direction. By the constant showing of positive images, I hope it will help people consider their actions.
All in all, working on this project has opened my eyes even more to the realities around me. It has caused me to be more vocal about issues of racial injustice even in my own personal conversations. It has also made me find more purpose as a photographer. This is why I encourage anyone who wants to embark on a photography project of their own to not be afraid to tackle the big topics and to have the difficult conversations. We need more people who are fearlessly determined to go against the norm and people who use their abilities to affect positive change. It will not be easy, but certainly worth it!
“TRULY, I CANNOT THINK OF A BETTER TIME TO BE MAKING THIS KIND OF WORK WHEN BLACK MEN NEED ALL THE LOVE THEY CAN GET”
Truly, I cannot think of a better time to be making this kind of work when black men need all the love they can get. I will continue to develop what I have already started to put out until I feel I have made the message clear. As Malcolm X said, “If not now then when? If not me then who?”
Explore more of Gabriella’s work and discover many more stories in our Students of Storytelling gallery.
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