10 minute read

Rites of Passage

Bethany Mollenkof’s poignant mixed media essay bolsters the undersold stories of young black women, daring them to dream big, and aim high

It’s the early nineties in rural Kenya, and a young Bethany Mollenkof sits perched at her family dinner table, attentive and alert. Encircled by his five children, her father clasps a copy of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings between his fingers, gesticulating as he reads animatedly from the pages. The room is rapt: transported to the fantastical realms of Middle-earth, a little girl cocks her head, sharp enthusiasm beginning to form in her mind.

“We lived without cable TV or the internet, so this is how we accessed other worlds,” Bethany remembers. “Over the years, I relied on imagination as my outlet. As we moved around, it was the most reliable means of self-expression I could find.”

Fostering creativity, something invaluable was instigated during these get-togethers. A passion for storytelling was deftly sown, and over the years, Bethany’s inclinations would only continue to thrive. In time, these attachments would manifest on the canvas and the broadsheet – her artistic interests a multifaceted mixture of media invention.

From 2008 to 2011, Bethany studied Photojournalism and Art History at Western Kentucky University. Acknowledging the underrepresentation of black women in her sphere, she began to mull over the importance of inclusion, and more crucially, how her influence could generate meaningful change for others.

“I quickly realized I needed to be outside, and not cooped up in the art studio. I hated being alone,” she explains. “Photography allowed me to work communally. It was the perfect tool – a conduit for connecting to something larger than myself.

“Around the same time, I also started to recognize that certain narratives just weren’t being platformed. As a young black woman, my experience was one such story.”

In 2016, the American Society of News Editors published a revealing study, appraising the ethnic makeup of the country’s journalistic workforce. Staggeringly, it disclosed that black women made up a meagre 5% of US newsroom staff.

Contending with this issue was and is a complex undertaking. When it comes to youngsters’ hopes and dreams, desires are anchored by the presence of identifiable role models, marketed in and amidst the public eye.

For Bethany, promoting relatable figureheads makes ambitions tangible for future generations. Recognition of marginalized groups begins by avoiding tokenism, and championing dexterous, capable people.

“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. It’s so important – that mirror image validates your sense of self,” she says.

For her most recent project, Bethany used FUJIFILM X-H2 to showcase four women on the cusp of adulthood, enshrining their viewpoints and perspectives in various formats.

Entitled Sister, kinship and connectivity top her agenda, advocating the distinctiveness of each subject in experimental patchworks and captivating collage.

Stills juxtapose motion, color contrasts black & white, paint meets instax. Affirmative, handwritten scrawls overlay the snaps, authored by the women themselves – messages of support, reiterating personal pledges to self-care and aspiration.

“I believe deeply in the dignity and worth of everyone. That’s the essence of this series,” Bethany says. “I like my photographs to be compositionally organized, and have clean backgrounds. Here, I intentionally utilized lots of space, so I could include multiple elements.

“Representations of black and brown girls have often lacked depth. They’ve rarely been provided an opportunity to be seen as multidimensional people living nuanced lives, so I sought to create a body of work that plugged that gap.”

Reflecting the layered characteristics that make up personality, Bethany’s chosen medium fittingly signifies the individualism of her participants.

“The most important factor is building connections. When I first encounter people, I love unpacking who they are. I might not know them before we begin our session, but when we meet I try to figure out the most productive form of collaboration.

“In this instance, I had to generate a sense of rapport. From there, I was able to craft something that aptly symbolized each of these girls’ identities.”

A young black woman stands framed against a tumultuous wave formation

Nyarae Francis | Photo 2022 © Bethany Mollenkof | FUJIFILM X-H2 and XF33mmF1.4 R LM WR, 1/2000 sec at F2.8, ISO 125

For her first collection of portraits, Nyarae Francis stands in relaxed, assured poses, framed against a fierce, unpredictable shoreline. Taken as a whole, the scene asserts the divergent aspects of the young poet’s temperament.

“Nyarae is an incredibly expressive and intuitive person, but she’s also got this quiet confidence. Her poetry is so strong and powerful. I tried to figure out a way of embodying both of those attributes.

“We were working at this beach, which had these super erratic wave swells. They’re totally crazy and wild. The backdrop created this awesome tension with the stillness of her body language. That conflict made for some dynamic results.”

Operating in volatile conditions, Bethany relied on X-H2 to stabilize and facilitate the execution of her approach.

“A great storytelling portrait depends on the decisive moment – the instance where you catch a genuine smile… or that twinkle in someone’s eye,” she reasons. “A good photographer clicks the shutter when they notice these things. That requires agility, and perhaps more importantly, a great camera.

“The speed of X-H2 is just incredible. It flowed seamlessly with how I work, and didn’t lag when I was moving quickly. The eye-tracking autofocus was particularly helpful during Nyarae’s session.”

Using FUJINON XF33mmF1.4 R LM WR, XF56mmF1.2 R WR and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR to document her images, Bethany’s results are acutely defined depictions, edge to edge.

“All of these lenses are wonderfully tack-sharp – even the zoom. It also didn’t add a ton of weight to the kit, so I could be nimble as and when necessary.”

Whether commanding close-ups or wider environs, the clearness of these photographs epitomizes the clarity of Bethany’s interpretations – each and every woman wonderfully summarized within the limits of the frame.

Video 2022 © Bethany Mollenkof

“Everyone was so unique and vulnerable. I absolutely loved creating with these girls,” Bethany extols. “Working with X-H2 creates insanely accurate color reproductions. Skin tones look amazing, and the depth is truly impressive. Dynamic range plays a huge role when I construct portraits – heavily influenced by my background in painting.

“I used photo and video, and it was easy to switch between the two. It was so smooth, and I didn’t have to constantly alter my settings when shifting back and forth.

“When I was finished, I post-processed to prepare for collaging. That procedure involved a lot of stretching and shrinking of files, but thanks to the level of detail, quality was never compromised.”

Maintaining a scrupulous approach, skater Samatrah Burroughs forms the focal point for Bethany’s second subject. A nearby neighbor, Samatrah is an avid skater also based in Los Angeles.

Black and white woman bucket hat with skateboard

Samatrah Burroughs | Photo 2022 © Bethany Mollenkof | FUJIFILM X-H2 and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR, 1/4000 sec at F4.5, ISO 400

Cast in somber black & white tones, a selection of these images is moody and contemplative, sparingly adorned as the 18-year-old moseys about empty streets and sidewalks. Brooding aesthetics prove vivid and dramatic, underscoring the demanding real-world context of the pair’s initial meetings.

“When coronavirus first hit, I’d wander around the area we lived in. I’d always see her around – and she was almost always skating,” Bethany recalls.

“In a wider context, these photos explore how teenage girls navigated the worst of that period – particularly here in LA, where we had lots of lockdowns.”

In a thought-provoking contrast, Samatrah stands nobly against the iconography of Californian palm trees, bordered by a beautiful, baby-blue sky. A loose, gleeful studio sketch complements these hopefully arranged snaps – splurged with a comparably bright color scheme – typifying the lively optimism of a post-pandemic world.

“She has such a cool energy. There’s so much sureness in her styling and demeanor. I wanted to photograph her before I even pitched this project,” Bethany chuckles.

For her final likenesses, Bethany photographs Liz Escobar & Janell Thompson. Facing the trepidatious limbo of pre-college life, the school friends confront a significant transition in tandem, as daunting prospects loom on their horizon.

Video 2022 © Bethany Mollenkof

Foregrounding Liz’s femininity and makeup interests, bright trappings of pink encapsulate her warm temperament and girlish charm. Janell’s bashful portrayals illustrate youthful vitality, soon to be challenged by the emergence of independence and responsibility.

“Janell was soft and tender. She felt like she was trapped between two worlds – and personified that visually,” Bethany says.

“As for Liz, she has this truly welcoming persona, and an obsession with pink – so we decided to go all out for her segment! I tried to listen, and let them incorporate elements of themselves within the frame.”

With futures intimidating, Sister serves as the perfect encouragement tool – a persuasive guarantee that these women can attain whatever they hope to achieve. For the ostracized and disregarded, Bethany Mollenkof’s dedication enables such voices to be heard.

“I wanted them to feel empowered. I knew only they could tell their stories. There’s a partnership inherent in montage, and in these pictures, I think that shows.”

Two woman back to back pink background portrait

Elizabeth Escobar & Janell Thompson| Photo 2022 © Bethany Mollenkof | FUJIFILM X-H2 and XF56mmF1.2 R WR, 1/160 sec at F5.6, ISO 500


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