Philadelphia is home to some of the best artists in the world. It is home to nationally and internationally recognized poetry groups such as the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement and Pigeon Poetry. It also has one of the best arts schools in the country, University of the Arts, which produces a multitude of brilliant artists every year.
Philadelphia is home to a growing arts scene with brilliant creators and innovators popping up weekly. Among them is Temple University junior, Khanya Brann, a photographer whose current focus is empowering black girls and women through her craft. Originally from Trinidad, Khanya moved to the U.S. when she was 12. Photographing black girls has had a significant influence in boosting her perception of herself and her confidence. I recently talked with Khanya about the role photography plays in her life and in the world around us.
Hi Khanya, I liked to thank you for sitting down with me today. I’m going to start off with the most cliche interview question known to man. Out of all the forms self expression to choose from, why photography?
Khanya: Well, photography wasn’t my first form of self-expression. I started writing when I was younger; I wrote a lot. I did some painting and some stuff like that. And then two years ago, I didn’t have a job during the summer. I remember that so vividly: I was so bored and I started thinking ‘What if I just organize photo shoots with my friends around Philly?” It would give me an excuse to go out and actually explore the city and hang out and meet people and do something art related. So, my aunt gave me a camera, and I started doing photo shoots. Basically, the concept was talking to black girls about their experiences in a photo series called Black Girl Hood. And that was my first project style thing. Then I just evolved into photo shoots of black women doing fashion and other things.
Khanya: I started shooting the summer before I moved into Temple. I was still living with my parents in Elks park, which is all the way in the suburbs, and I hadn’t had much exposure to actual Philly. So, photography gave me the chance to take the subway and meet new people and find locations in the city by going to do shoots. I ended up in Fishtown and graffiti peer and other places. It gave me the opportunity see more than what I’d been exposed to and more connection with people there and feel more comfortable there.
So I noticed on your Instagram that most of your shots are focus on people. Why is that?
Khanya: Well, when I started, I was drawn to photography; which for me was art and a way to connect with people and the people in the city. So, I went to instant meets and stuff. I wasn’t really an architecture photographer. I took the cliche Philly skyline photo, it was cool and it was fun and everything, but what draws me to the craft is getting to work with people and meet with people.
In terms of social responsibility that art has to society, does that apply to photography?
Khanya: Well, photography helps to document reality and history and life around us. So photography is an integral part of society telling and journalism; I think its responsibility is to document the truth and tell stories and tell history as it’s happening.
Khanya: No, not really. My plan was to develop this into a larger project and then it kind of fell off. I got more interested in other projects. I’ll definitely revisit it in the future, I’m not sure if I’ll use that name again. But for the moment, I’m not really doing it.
Are there any photographers you are particularly fond of?
Khanya: Oh man, this question stresses me out. I really love Yagazie Emezi. She photographs a lot of black women. She documents her travels and has a project which documents people’s relationship with their scars. I love how vibrant her photos are and how she connects with her subjects, and how it shows through her work! Just scrolling through her feed you see she connects with her subject when she takes her pictures and I think that is so important.
Any future projects that you’re considering doing right now?
Khanya: For the moment, I do not. I’ve actually been on a brief hiatus. Now, that I am getting back into photography, I’m not trying to put fixed projects on myself. I’m just trying to go with the flow and what inspires me. I have some shoots coming around some concepts I came up with around colors and moods. They’re not concrete projects yet though, there just individual creative shots.
Khanya: When you’re being photographed, there is a certain level of vulnerability there. The subject has to feel comfortable with you, especially in street photography. They have to feel comfortable enough with you to open up to you, to have that exchange and have their photo taken. And then also when you’re doing photoshoots, they don’t even necessarily have to be intimate, but that person still have to open up and be comfortable in front of your lens and in front of you. Modeling and posing is like a dance, you can feel exposed. I talked to models about this some time and they’re like “yeah, the shots come out better when I’m comfortable with the photographer, I feel more welcome to try new things and step out of my comfort zone. So, I think the vulnerability aspect of working with photography is what sets it apart.
How do you see photography evolving?
Khanya: Well, that’s actually something that’s really cool. With smartphones and other technologies, now photography is really accessible and cameras are much more accessible. It gives a chance to be behind a lens and frame how they see the world. You can walk down the street and take a snapshot of the sunset. It gives everyone the opportunity to appreciate what’s around them and document it. We’re documenting every part of our lives now and it’s going to be interesting to see how that goes in the future.
Khanya: Well, I believe in reflecting the beauty of black women. I don’t do much work in changing my subjects, I focus more on reflecting their beauty. I want to reflect our beauty, creativity, style, and swag. I’m reflecting all the things that make us, us. Black women are not all the same, we are all unique in our own ways. There are things that we do that are similar but I want to highlight our uniqueness and all the features we’re told aren’t so great. So, what I really really hope is that black women who look at my Instagram say “wow we are so beautiful, wow we’re so confident.” I want them to look at my feed and say “ we are great, we are amazing.”
There are things that we do that are similar but I want to highlight our uniqueness and all the features we’re told aren’t so great.
I noticed a couple of photos of Cuba on your feed as well. Could you go into more detail about that?
Khanya: Cuba was a good experience for me. It helped teach me about what to document, and how to tell other people’s stories from other countries. I could definitely love to get into travel photography in the future. I’m not sure where I would do it immediately, but it is something that I would like to get into. I really think there is so much power in exploring other countries through a photographic lens.
Where do you see yourself moving forward with your craft?
Khanya: I really enjoy the magazine industry and I’m trying to get into that. Next year, I’m going to try to start doing internships in the industry. I would like to move to New York and I would love to be a part of a publication that strives to increase diversity and has diverse viewpoints and storytelling. I want to join a team that is passionate about these things and there are many of them in the media industry.
Khanya’s photography can be viewed on her Instagram: @Khanyabrann.
(Photo by Khanya Brann)