Collection Explore
Interview
About Black Joy
Daesha Devón Harris, Luis Jimenez Inoa, and Kamui Olujimi on Family Photos
2018 12 121 pr w01
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Unrecorded artist
title unknown, June 18, 1987
color photograph on Kodak paper
Peter J. Cohen
2018.12.121

On March 22, 2019, Daesha Devón Harris, Luis Jimenez Inoa, and Kambui Olujimi sat down with Dayton Director Ian Berry and Mellon Collections Curator Rebecca McNamara to look through a recently acquired collection of vernacular photographs.


Daesha Devón Harris
I like these pictures of people enjoying the outdoors or flora and fauna in the photo with people.

Luis Jimenez Inoa
I am particularly drawn to photos that disrupt stereotypes. Black people don’t go near water, right? Black folks aren’t typically captured having fun, or …

DDH Or going outdoors.

LJI
I don’t know if you ever took a picture in front of a car that wasn’t yours?

Kambui Olujimi
I have—ages five to eleven.

LJI
I’m curious about things that show possession, things that show wealth, or what it means for people who have historically and generationally been owned to begin to own things, and how that might be caught in photos. You see these car pictures, toy pictures …

KO
As a little kid, you do the same thing. You’re like, “This is mine.”

DDH
Yes!

KO
This is mine; let’s take a picture with it.

DDH
I feel it’s less about possession, and more, this is the fruit of my labor. This is evidence of my work and pride. Of course, we all have been in front of those fancy cars, where it’s just about the car. But look at this adorable couple in front of a home. I love these photos. Homeownership is still such a fight.

I particularly love this one of the woman in the garden with her onions or potatoes and tomatoes. She’s so proud of the garden. I’m a gardener, so I know how that feels. That’s been in my family for as long as I can remember. Both sides, gardening. My cousins think it’s hysterical. It’s as if it’s gone out of our family memory from living in the city for so long. And so, when they come over, they’re like, “Oh, Daesha, you’re so weird.” But this is what our grandmother did to feed the family. We lose sight of the history that’s not so far back at all. These are the kinds of activities that you never see popularized.

KO
The beach pictures stand out for me because elsewhere, you don’t see black intimacy much. Moments where you’re at the beach and it’s your body, but it’s not charged in the way that the black body often gets framed in America. It’s sensual, it’s jokey, it’s goofy. The continuum, the spectrum, is there. Like, I’m in the water, but I don’t want to get wet. I’m literally climbing on you, even though I’m grown. From this one, which is like, I worked all summer for us to make this fantasy of Virginia Beach, to okay, wait, wait, hold on, get it, I have, like, my leg, wait, put your leg, like, here … There’s an absurdity here. That’s the space of the beach—everyone is basically in their underwear, playing, laughing, doing all the things that the barrier of clothing holds down.

LJI
Those pictures are similar to these, where somebody is holding somebody else. There is typically a little bit more intimacy between people in the beach pictures. Not as often men with men. And even in the pictures of home, when you find people in the living room, and they’re holding each other, not often is a black male touching another black male. You might find these in army photos, but images of intimacy between black men and their children or family members are scarce.

DDH
I also wonder who is taking the photo. Because in my family, it was my uncle who was the photographer or my grandfather who was the photographer and always had the camera.

LJI
They’re there, but not in the picture. In my family, it was my father who was the photographer, and so he’s not in a lot
 of pictures. And when I see him in a picture, it’s special. And the same with my family, I’m the one that ends up taking the pictures.

KO
Unfortunately, I think part of it is homophobia, and the homophobia of the time, and notions of upstandingness. Status quo plays into a lot of these, where you don’t want to record anything that is not on par. I think about this a lot. I want my nephews to see that I’m loved, and how I’m loved by my brothers. Some of it is awkward. I think we’ve seen the subtle awkwardness of the everyday in many of these pictures.

LJI
There’s something about finding the holy in the ordinary—you know, the things that make something special. And how often are those captured from day to day?

DDH
This whole collection in general has never been our public narrative, which is why it’s so lovely. All these different aspects that we’re still resisting and fighting against. Stereotypical images of us are so normal. I’m so happy that this museum has alternative imagery as references for the students.

LJI
It certainly made me think about what it means to have a subject, in terms of what you’re photographing … But these photos are meant for the family. Would it be too cheesy to say, “now I am family”? Or am I intruding on a private moment that was never really meant for my eyes? For these particular photos, this was meant to send to Grandma, meant for Grandma’s eyes. This was meant for her to be able to look back, not meant for Luis in 2019 to sift through. What does it mean for family photos that capture rather intimate moments to be out for public consumption, for the public gaze?

KO
I think about how time erodes privacy. You’re a kid, and you have this secret, and you fold it up, and you put it away. As time goes on, whether it’s a tomb in ancient Egypt or the attic with all your diaries, there’s a way in which time eats away at the shell of our privacy. And the same thing as things move. In Brooklyn, when I’m looking at found photographs in flea markets, a lot of times they’re estates. You die, and your forty thousand heartfelt photographs are now junk. It’s a shift of value, and that shift cracks open that shell of privacy.

DDH
Isn’t that the history of art, though? We are constantly reinterpreting images and visuals and mementos from the past.

2018 12 9 pr w02
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Unrecorded artist
title unknown, n.d.
gelatin silver print
Peter J. Cohen
2018.12.9

LJI
One of the ways I try to teach classes in black studies, specifically for black and Latinx students, is to understand themselves as worthy of intellectual inquiry, to see themselves as art, to see themselves as beautiful, and to introduce that into the classroom. I’m not simply saying black lives, or black photos, matter, or that simply we should see black lives as subjects in these ways. But there is something about black lives as beautiful. And them being captured in these various ways. I’m much more interested in how, if you brought your photo album in and you brought your photo album in, what the conversation would look like. What conversations between your own family photos and these photos look like offers really powerful possibilities for our students as a teaching mechanism—teaching or understanding or valuing the self—that would be incredible.

KO
Those intersections are there. I kind of grew up in a photo lab, and it was all about that connecting—these Russian ladies sitting out near Coney on their lawn chairs on
 the concrete sipping Bloody Marys, same-same. There’s the Dominican men right around the corner playing dominoes, same-same. And maybe it’s like me growing up in Brooklyn, my notion of what it is to be black in Brooklyn, in Bed-Stuy; it was a woven space. It was lox and cream cheese, curry roti. And some people would say, “No, that’s only a Jewish thing.” Are you sure? We eat it every day.

Ian Berry
I like the idea of the collection as a catalyst for bringing your own stories in. That’s a great value. And sometimes the specificity of a thing, the focus of a thing, helps get that started.

KO
It’s hard to get found photos. Throughout the process of art making, you see it over and over in art books, you see it in figure drawing. It’s a tool, and it’s a way to time travel; it’s super useful. As an archive, it’s kind of wack. As a living thing that gets used, it’s really charged and energetic, especially when it can get mixed up.

LJI
I like the collection as is. It’s not to say that it shouldn’t be in conversation with other collections, but for me, what I’d like to do with students, independent of where they’re coming from, is draw inspiration from these photos, and to then think through stories that they want to tell. What stories do you see, and what stories remind you of your own families, independent of where you’re coming from? And some of that is asking, what does it mean to center black reality, black life, black joy …

KO
American life.

LJI
American life, right! And to have that inform your thinking, moving forward, creating something. Too often we think about the number of shootings that we’ve had over this five-year span, and it feels like black folk are presented as subhuman, not human, and not capable of something else, right? And then you have to reckon with these photos. You have to really sit with these photos and understand and value the experiences, the stories, the lives of these individuals. There’s value in drawing inspiration from these photos as a collection. And then after that, what’s the conversation between these photos and other collections?

Rebecca McNamara
How do you think this collection of vernacular photographs does or does not fit with themes of black experiences or depicting joy?

KO
Black joy, black rhapsody, is not historicized in most academies, museums, or collections. And that’s conscious, and it speaks to the understanding of black experience within the narrative created by white Americans. But it’s crucial to have black joy within American cultural institutions. And some of these images really talk about that.

LJI
It’s clear that there’s multiracial representation here, but it’s probably just as clear for me that there may be multiracial representation over here as well, multiracial representation here … You can’t take a black family and it not in some way already be complex. Some of these also show this presence of whiteness. It’s interesting that she’s sitting in the middle here; what does it mean to center blackness in a room that is white? Which reminds me of how I feel when I’m navigating Saratoga Springs sometimes.

2018 12 77 pr w01
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Unrecorded artist
title unknown, 1975
color photograph on Kodak paper
Peter J. Cohen
2018.12.77

RM
What does it mean if we keep these photographs of black family life as a collection, and as a collection, they’re viewed by our mostly white community?

DDH
I think it’s very helpful. Because this is a humongous portion of our lives that they probably have never seen or didn’t know existed. So it’s as important that they see it as it is that we see the reflection of ourselves.

LJI
Like anything that’s been memorialized, statues or photos, it’s thinking about the questions that you want people to be asking themselves as they’re looking at these things. What are you reflecting on as you’re looking? Simply viewing them for the sake of seeing black bodies wouldn’t be sufficient. But asking students to think through why this collection exists, what they’re thinking about as they’re looking through it, what they’re reminded of as they’re looking through it—I think would be really powerful.

DDH
It’s not just important to the students of color; it’s equally important for the rest of the students to know that we’re out there and of equal importance. It’s important for everybody.

KO
Diversity is the breeding ground of invention. It shows itself as truth over and over and over again. And I think history redefines and re-centers who innovates. These narratives describe the American experience. African American history is American history. It is critical to refocus how we describe humanity and understanding the full spectrum and resonance of what makes us, you know? This is what makes us.

Who’s taking this photo of this guy in a KKK robe? I’ve seen pictures of KKK events, but where is this? Someone’s basement?

LJI
For me, this particular photo makes me think, can black joy ever escape? This image exists in a collection of black vernacular, black family photos, but there’s still this presence of white supremacy. The fact that it’s here in this collection is a stark reminder.

IB
Daesha, you talked about how you’re interested in inserting things in museums and archives that don’t already exist there. And you were describing how this works in some ways toward that.

DDH
It’s definitely a great start. It’s certainly not close to the whole story, but there are moments. We had these photos arranged in different groups for whatever reason, and each one is a different topic of the black experience. And it’s wonderful. I had this pile here of little girls and dolls. I’m always interested in those photographs.

LJI
What kind of doll they’re holding?

DDH
Yeah, to see what kind of doll they’re holding. Thinking about the “doll test,” and in general, the European standard of beauty and how that talks about self-worth and internalized self-hatred and all that stuff. There’s this one where the girl has a new doll and then the old doll is over at a table with its head down. Her nice, new white doll has replaced her old black doll.

2018 12 8 pr w02
info Created with Sketch. plus Created with Sketch.
Unrecorded artist
title unknown, 1962
color photograph
Peter J. Cohen
2018.12.8

KO
For me, it’s always important to acknowledge not knowing the edges. I was thinking, this is not a collection of the black experience—it’s many black experiences. I’m not an expert myself. And that expectation comes out of a notion of essentialism. But we understand the balance of the boundlessness of human experience. And so this is a beginning of an acknowledgment of an unknowing. You didn’t really know. For example, these women. I felt like this photo talks about women in power and what that looks like. Is this a council of women? They could be principals. They could be writers.

IB
They could be war widows.

DDH
Spanish-American War veterans’ widows. My grandmother was in that auxiliary.

KO
World War II munitions workers. It’s important to have the collection expand and know that you’re not at the end.

LJI
I’m wondering if part of it is that these things have to be found, and somebody has to find value to bring them into a collection. Maybe it goes beyond illumination, which means that something sits on the surface and we’re shedding light on it, as opposed to it requiring a level of excavation.

DDH
Or interaction.

LJI
Yeah, there’s an unearthing of these things. They have to be found to see the light of day. That excavation has to happen.

KO
That also happens in the living, the working. The things we don’t touch die. In that touching we give things life again.

DDH
There are so many nuances of everyday life that you don’t really see outside of your home or family. There’s a wealth of content in here.

LJI
The first time that I’d been exposed to this collection, it inspired me to go home to my mom and to my own collection of these same kinds of pictures. I ran into a picture of my grandmother whose face I hadn’t seen in a while, and she became alive in that moment when I unearthed this picture. Let it see light again, you know? But there’s a thread that exists between my old family photo albums and these photos, and the pictures I have on my phone as well that is important for me. These exist in conversation with your life, too.

DDH And that life is valuable.

Z.african american family life tang collection 2370 hi res
About Daesha Devón Harris, Luis Jimenez Inoa, and Kambui Olujimi

Daesha Devón Harris is an artist and photographer based in Saratoga Springs, New York. Her multicultural family and the unexpected death of her young father have greatly shaped her life while the gentrification of her hometown and its effects on the local Black community have played a major role in both her advocacy work and artistic practice. Harris has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship, and is Lecturer in MDOCS and Teaching Faculty for the Storytellers’ Institute at Skidmore College.

Luis Jimenez Inoa is the associate dean of the college at Vassar College. He is the creator of “English Tongue, Latin Soul,” a one-person piece wrapped in story, photography, music, and poetry. Inoa identifies as a fortysomething, 2.5 generation English-speaking Latino, middle-class, grandfather, son, brother, father, husband, and lover of life.

Kambui Olujimi is a multidisciplinary artist whose work focuses on social commentary and exploring systems of power, invisible hierarchies, and everyday life. His work has been exhibited at museums and galleries across the United States and at the Sundance Film Festival as well as internationally.

Cite this page

Originally published in Accelerate: Access & Inclusion at The Tang Teaching Museum 3 (2019). “"About Black Joy: Daesha Devón Harris, Luis Jimenez Inoa, and Kamui Olujimi on Family Photos.” Interview by Ian Berry and Rebecca Rebecca McNamara. Tang Teaching Museum collections website. (https://tang.skidmore.edu/collection/explore/185-about-black-joy)

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