December 4, 2022


Capturing Magic Moments

An artist focuses on black representation

3 min read

The Holy Corona, 2021Sister’s Keepers, Bronzeville, Chicago

“Growing up, I didn’t see people who looked like us in publications or billboards,” says photographer Maya Iman. She studied American art history at art school, but the curriculum largely ignored the monumental contributions of black artists. She’s been a photographer since high school and wanted to change that? First, by working with the people closest to her, including friends and family.

She immersed herself in the work of Carrie Mae Weems, Deana Lawson, Dawoud Bey and Gordon Parks? — and in 2018, she saw Tyler Mitchell shoot the cover of American Vogue, becoming the first black photographer in the magazine’s 128-year history. He was 23 years old. Mitchell and photographer Renell Medrano, both of Iman’s generation, continued to inspire her.

In 2019, the National Portrait Gallery acquired Mitchell’s now iconic portrait of Beyoncé for its permanent collection. Change was in the air. That same year, Iman quit her 9-to-5 advertising job in Chicago and bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, where she would begin her career as a freelance photographer. “I took my leap of faith,” she tells me now. “It was scary, but I wanted to make the best of it!”

Three months later, the pandemic struck and lockdowns ensued. But Iman looked for inspiration every day and continued to take photos. “My creative journey has led me to the light at the end of the tunnel,” she explains. “During this unanticipated time in history, I created some of my most personal work.”

This creative journey coincided with a pivotal moment for the United States as the Black Lives Matter movement grew into the largest in our nation’s history. On May 25, George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis. The next day, demonstrations swept through our cities. On June 6, 2020, half a million people took part in protests in 550 locations across the United States.

In July of this year, another photographer, Polly Irungu, founded Black Women Photographers, a platform and community campaigning for change and representation in an industry historically overrun by white men. Iman joined. “As a black photographer, I strive to make impactful and timeless work,” she tells me. “The history of African American visual culture has been overlooked throughout history; Now we are at a pivotal time to share the stories of our past and present, while also envisioning our future.”

Since moving to LA, Iman has thrived. Today her customers include Air Jordan, Audi, Versace, the New York Times and Wired. She is represented by Hello Artists. But even as her star rose, she made time to photograph friends and family, as she did at the very beginning of her career. Collaboration and conversation remain at the heart of everything she does.

“I work with my subjects in safe and intimate spaces where the beauty of trust and lifelong bonds are created and nurtured through image composition,” shares the artist. “While I strive to always take beautiful pictures, this is not possible without working directly with the people I photograph. I take great care to create spaces where we have an open dialogue with each other as I believe the way they choose to be photographed is critical to the process and outcome.”

In the process, she has reached unexpected milestones. In December 2021, Iman’s phone began to “explode”. Three of her portraits featured prominently in the fifth and final season of Issa Rae’s HBO series Insecure. “I rushed home to watch the episode,” she recalls. “All my friends and family called to congratulate me? – It was a surreal full cycle moment.”

Iman didn’t want to be a portrait photographer; that was something that happened naturally. However, what she recognized very early on was her potential to make images that would make a difference and make an impact. Growing up, she dreamed of being reflected in magazines and billboards. As an adult, she has set her sights even higher.

Maya Iman is a member of Black Women Photographers, a global community bringing together black women and non-binary photographers. To find out more about Black Women Photographers, visit their website and follow them on Instagram at @blackwomenphotographers.

D Smoke, 2020Dimplez for Jordan, 2021.BTS by UOMA Beauty for Coming 2 AmericaBoma Iluma, 2022

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