Naima Green knew she wanted to be a painter when she was in second grade in Philadelphia after she won a city-wide award for her pastel drawing of a Van Gogh sunflower. However, as she grew up and developed her artistic practice, she began to value the kind of realism that can't be achieved through paintings. In 1999, she made her first pinhole camera out of a cardboard box, which opened her eyes to the possibility of what types of tools can be used to make art.
The following photographs belong to Green’s ongoing portrait series, Jewels from the Hinterland. Since 2013, Green has been photographing fellow artists, writers, and creative minds of color, providing a glimpse into the lives of those who serve as the backbone of their respective communities. As described by the Arsenal Gallery, where Green’s work was displayed in a solo exhibition entitled A Collective Utterance, these sensorial, archival, and participatory portraits engage with the “historical and social role of the photographic portrait as a tool deployed to communicate, classify, or reinforce particular notions of subjectivity.” Through this project, Green puts creative minorities in the spotlight, both by recognizing their work and placing them in front of the camera.
VICE: What message do you hope to convey with your work?
Naima Green: Jewels from the Hinterland has created a community. There are times when the significance of the work emerges from seeing the ways our communities intersect. Other times, it is about the ways a person evolves over time. In the five years of making this work, I’ve amassed an archive of artists, thinkers, and writers who spent time in New York City and select cities across the US.
When I began the series, it was all about New York. I have a B.A. in Urban Studies and have always been interested in thinking through the way cities are structured, planned, and what spaces are designated for whom. I continue to ask questions about what blackness looks like in cities and how it’s pictured. Over this five-year span, the map of where participants are has expanded—native New Yorkers now live in Miami, folks who called Brooklyn home for a decade are heading back to their native cities… The series would look differently if I started it today.
How do you select your subjects?
Intentionally. Every person (now there are over 90) I’ve photographed for this series has been selected because I admire the rigor of their practice, their research, or because they’re a close friend, a thoughtful critic, or I feel some sort of gravitational pull in their direction.
Walk me through your process for each shoot.
We meet at the entrance of a park, garden, or greenway. You tell me about your day, perhaps where you are coming from. We haven’t met before and I share a little about myself, what I’m working on, and my connection to this space we’re in, if I have one. We meander through the environment. I’ll do more listening than talking and ask you about a piece I read or something I saw on your website. Then, I take a test shot. You’re a little stiff, slightly uncomfortable in front of the camera. But you keep talking to me. I ask you to hold a position. We keep walking. Stumbling into an area you’re attracted to. I ask you to put your chin up. The shutter clicks. We walk some more, we sit and talk on a bench. By the end of our encounter, we have spent an hour or two together.