It is always a joy writing about my favorite art medium–photography. Photography, to me, is a visual language that can reach people, no matter their culture, language, or location. Sometimes, photography can feel mundane or unimportant, because of the ease of access to cameras that we have these days. According to Business Insider, there are over 1.2 trillion photos taken every year (2017). Nevertheless, there are still those who wield their magic with photography as a channel of both expression and connection. Photographers can be seen as poets and their photographs, visual poems, roaring with limitless possibilities and choices on varying subjects, situations, perspectives, places, and narratives. They document different periods of time while visually uplifting people and bridging borders. Photos hold memories that people cherish. Photos capture present moments in time that might never be re-created.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, here are 10 black women photographers who are challenging the status quo and creating spaces within a field that is heavily dominated by men. By no means, is this a comprehensive list. Consider this piece, a starting point for photography through the lenses of black women.
1. Sarah Waiswa
Ugandan-born, Kenyan-raised Sarah Waiswa’s work provides an anecdotal lens on the world. As a documentary and portrait photographer, her interests explore identity on the African continent, more specifically, the new African identity. Her photographs are an apt mix of color, black and white, portraits, landscapes and scenery. She co-runs the Instagram account African Cityzens which aims to encourage “trans-city movement and spatial exchanges through photography.”
2. Christina Ebenezer
Christinia Ebenezer is a London based fashion and portrait photographer. When looking at her photos, the eyes of her subjects immediately seize your attention. Christina juxtaposes minimal, simple backdrops with elegant and luxurious fashion. Her photography style explores identity and captures her subjects in avant-garde compositions.
Morgan Smith, better known as Phobymo is a Philadelphia-based photographer who has mastered the art of using any part of the city with limited resources to produce her photographs. She is the creator of the #TimeToPretendChallenge on Instagram, creating portraits of women in the most mundane, overlooked and unexpected locations of Philadelphia’s streets, transforming her environment and transporting her subjects into stunning dream-like spaces.
4. Laylah Amatullah Barrayn
Laylah Amatullah Barrayn is an award-winning documentary photographer based in New York City. Her work explores social bonds and collective histories through themes of resistance movements in West Africa, to queer identities among black women in New York. She is also the co-author of MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora, an exclusive commemorative publication that is committed to establishing and representing a collective voice of women photographers of African descent.
5. Adama Delphine Fawundu
Adama Delphine Fawundu is a critically acclaimed, award-winning photographer and visual artist. Adama was born in Brooklyn, NY to parents of Sierra Leonian and Equatorial Guinean heritage. Adama’s work is about finding ways to connect with her kin. She co-founded and independently published the sold-out book, MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora.
6. Maheder Haileselassie Tadese
Maheder Haileselassie Tadese is an independent photographer and aspiring writer based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she was also born and raised. Through photography, Maheder shares her vision with authentic storytelling and photojournalism. She is a contributor for the internationally-acclaimed @everydayafrica and has been accepted to programs such as
World Press Photo Masterclass East Africa 2018 and The New York Times Portfolio Review 2019.
7. Ngadi Smart
Ngadi Smart is a Sierra Leonean visual artist based in both London and Côte d’Ivoire. She specializes in photography and illustration. Ngadi has a strong interest in the broad spectrum of cultures and subcultures, including a passion for connecting with people from all over the world. Her work is focused on how people choose to self-identify through the lenses of fashion from an African point of view.
8. Yagazie Emezi
Yagazie Emezi is an artist and self-taught photojournalist from Aba, Nigeria. Her photographs center on stories surrounding African women and their health, sexuality, education and human rights. In 2019, Yagazie was among the inaugural artists selected for Kehinde Wiley’s art residency at Black Rock, Senegal.
9. Nicky Woo
Nicky Quamina-Woo is a black and Polynesian visual researcher who divides her time between Southeast Asia and the African continent. Her fascination with the tenacity of the human spirit deeply influences her approach to photography, with work that unpacks the nuances of human storytelling. Nicky recently became a recipient of a Reuters Storytelling grant for work on a Tanzanian-based project focused on the intersection of western medicine and witchcraft.
10. Mmekutmfon ‘Mfon’ Essien
Mmekutmfon ‘Mfon’ Essien was a Nigerian-born American photographer from the Ikot Ekpene village in the Southern region of Nigeria. Her name, Mmekutmfon means, “I have seen the goodness of God.” When she was two, her family relocated to the United States and settled in Baltimore, Maryland. Mfon studied literature and art at Morgan State University, she later moved to New York and started working as a photographer. Mfon’s genius as a photographer was in the way she blended edgy shapes with soft gestures and delicate props. In 1998, Mfon was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and underwent a major mastectomy to remove the cancer. The shock of being diagnosed with breast cancer was crippling, however, Mfon used her art to learn to embrace her body and accept the experience through taking nude self-portraits. It was her form of healing. Her last project titled, “The Amazon’s New Clothes” was a series of nude self-portraits that she produced after undergoing a radical mastectomy. Two of the portraits were featured at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2001.
On February 13, 2001, Mmekutmfon ‘Mfon’ Essien, age 34, passed away from triple-negative breast cancer in New York, four days before the opening exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Her legacy inspired the creation of MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora designed by photographers, Adama Delphine Fawundu and Laylah Amatullah Barrayn.
BONUS: Deborah Willis
The time is always ripe to pay respect to the ones who paved the way before us. Deborah Willis is a celebrated photographer and acclaimed historian. Her work revolves around themes on cultural histories surrounding black bodies, women and gender. Human connection is the driver of Willis’s work and she aims to collaborate with artists, scholars, and activists as a way to break down barriers and hierarchies. In 2015, Willis received the NAACP Image Award for her co-authored book Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery and again, in 2015 for the documentary Through a Lens Darkly, inspired by her photo book, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the present.