Women are overlooked far too often in photography. How can we continue to combat this erasure? My answer is this column, “Woman Seeing Woman.” While it’s just the start of solving this problem, I, a female writer and photographer, hope to celebrate the astoundingly powerful female voices we have in photography by offering a glimpse into their work.
“My mother would always document the family,” Laylah Amatullah Barrayn tells VICE. “She would just have this urgency to make a picture.” Family gatherings at their house in Brooklyn were never short of the group photos that eventually became a family archive. Cousins, grandfathers, great-grandmothers all documented, the memories of them held even by family members who never knew them because their faces were cemented in images. “I think that really struck me,” she says. “It became an important way of knowing who I was, through my family and through images that my mother created. [Her photos were] powerful and they affected me—who I am, who I know myself to be.”
Since then, Barrayn has turned imagemaking into a successful career as a photojournalist. Recently she was the winner of a 2018 of En Foco’s Photography Fellowship; her work has been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, among many others; and her photos have appeared in publications like The New York Times, Vogue, and The Washington Post.
For the past 20 years, Barrayn has been traveling to Senegal, interested in its majority Muslim population and its heavily Sufi-influenced culture. Because she was raised in a Sufi household, the culture she's found in Senegal has resonated deeply with her. The images Barrayn creates are explosions of color, spirit, and even admiration. Her work is respectful of the communities she has been visiting while also maintaining an intimacy you don’t get as a casual interloper.
“I tend to work slowly, so I think that’s probably what you see, me taking time to get to know the environment that I’m in, getting to know the particular people that I’m working with and communicating with,” she says. “It’s a slow process. I try to be respectful and understanding and all these kinds of things that are ethical when you’re working as a documentary photographer and a journalist. I love being on the African continent and I love being in Senegal in particular, so I think that is also something I felt when I’m creating images as well.”
Her current series in Senegal is on the Baye Fall, a prominent Sufi Muslim community in the country. Images from this series are currently on view in an exhibition called “Baye Fall: Roots in Spirituality, Fashion, and Resistance” at the Taubman Museum of Art in Virginia until July 15. For the last three years, Barrayn has also been photographing the women who lived through the Casamance conflict in the Southern part of Senegal, documenting their lives and stories and making portraits of them. Last year, she spent time in Zanzibar, Cairo, and Senegal documenting different types of spiritual healing and cleansing through exorcism. That body of work ultimately earned her the En Foco Fellowship.
In addition to her work in Senegal, ongoing portraiture of women in and out of New York, and regular freelance work at The New York Times, Barrayn is also the cofounder of the photography journal MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora with artist and educator Adama Delphine Fawundu. Named after photographer Mmekutmfon ‘Mfon’ Essien, who passed away from breast cancer before her work opened in the Brooklyn Museum’s “Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers” exhibition, the journal is dedicated to sharing the work of women photographers of African descent. The debut issue featured over 100 artists. Future editions will feature four or five photographers alongside interviews and essays. The next one is due in September, just in time for Photoville, the annual United Photo Industries event.
“There’s not many black women photographers or African women photographers that have the platform that they deserve,” Barrayn says. “We were just like, we can’t let another photographer just disappear into our memories. We wanted to bring all of our sisters with us, show their work, and support them.” This support also extends to the new MFON Legacy Grant, which will be awarded annually to “a woman photographer of African descent who has demonstrated a commitment to exceptional image-making in the spirit of Mfon’s body of work.”