Naima Green has made a name for herself in editorial and commercial spaces by sticking to the vision and process she created for her personal work. Her recent portraiture series “Jewels from the Hinterland” and “Pur·suit” – prior to COVID-19, was scheduled to be on view at Fotografiska NYC this year in the exhibition “Brief and Drenching.” While these exhibitions are on pause, the artist still takes time to consider her work. At once the product of intimacy and trust, Green’s images are thoughtful and forward-thinking, filling the gaps created in our visual language by the absence of communities whose members are far too often underrepresented.
The Luupe spoke with Green about the lines between editorial and personal work, opening oneself up to photographic challenges, and developing visual intimacy.
The Luupe: When did you realize what subjects you wanted to document in your work?
Naima Green: I took one of my first pictures when I was maybe three years old on an old film camera. You can see my parents sitting down, smiling from the nose up because clearly I’m so tiny I wouldn’t know to angle or reach their faces. That picture was important to me because I was always interested in looking and I’m still interested in looking at people around me who bring so much into my life. When I was in grad school I really started thinking about visual gaps.
That’s when I started making “Jewels from the Hinterland,” which is about creating more visual representations of blackness in America. For me, that meant photographing black and brown artists, writers, thinkers, and people I admired in lush, urban, green spaces as a way to reclaim leisure, rest, belonging, ownership, and who can be comfortable in these public spaces that are supposed to be accessible for all.
The Luupe: What other gaps in visual representation did you want to close?
Green: I also started thinking about what my queer community looked like, what my extended community looked like, and the representations I was missing. Growing up, I learned a lot of black feminist thought but I didn’t see a lot of black lesbians. I wanted to challenge my own notions of what family looked like, what community, friendship, and play look like. The queerness I know, am close to, and in community with is flexible, fluid, and supportive. I want to do as much as I can to take care of not only those relationships but how the ways we live are seen, remembered, and archived for the future. I’m tired of the lack of representation of queer black life but also the lack of complexity in how queerness is framed and historicized.
The Luupe: How do you think your work has changed since you started?
Green: One thing I see consistently is that when I’m making a portrait of someone we’re creating this new, third space together. I’m trying to release everything I know about them and forge my own relationships with folks when I’m meeting them, being present with everyone and not holding on to or bringing in any deep judgments and information that might no longer be true in that moment. It’s about giving each other the opportunity for a fresh start at the moment of portrait-making. Allowing people to show up in ways they may have changed or not each time lets me have a more exciting experience.
The Luupe: How does this affect your work in the studio?
Green: Formally, stylistically, Pur·suit is the first project I worked on in the studio. Even three or four years ago, that’s something I probably wouldn’t have wanted to do. I love daylight and natural light. I think it provides a sense of surprise and unknown that helps photography stay interesting to me. Moving into the studio was a big change and a challenge in the beginning. At the same time, it further allowed me to focus on the person in front of me. I knew exactly what I needed to do to technically make the portrait. I could show up and be present with whoever was sitting for me. I wanted to get an MFA because I felt stuck in a rhythm of knowing the type of work I wanted to make and having this structure I created for myself.
I knew I needed to break out of that and open myself up to new ways of working, seeing, and being a little bit looser with my ideas, about what it means to be a photographer and what that looks like. I set that intention going into the program at ICP-Bard. Over those two years pushed myself to the furthest edges. That has impacted how I see, the work I’m interested in making, the spaces I’m interested in creating.
The Luupe: How have you placed your personal vision in editorial and commercial work?
Green: I’ve been really lucky to work with editors and clients who want to work with me because of my personal work. For example, The New York Times piece that came out last June, where I took Jewels from the Hinterland to different cities, was the most direct: we want you to continue the work you’ve been doing and give you the resources to do it, to travel and see how black people interact with green spaces in different environments in different cities across the United States.
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Feeling SO proud & slightly in shock to see Jewels from the Hinterland in today’s NYT. I’ve been making this work for 7 years 😅. Thank you @jeffreyhensonscales for believing in the project and supporting me through Miami, Oakland, Houston and Chicago. Thank you to everyone who sat for this project since 2012, especially those who I met in the last 18 months for this piece. Thank you to everyone who sent me recommendations across cities. We did it 🌹🔗 📸1 @annienovak_ who saw it in print before I did. LOVE YOU 🌿 Those featured online include @lichellemisa @crashingwavy @britticisms #franklinsirmans @pamm @jamilahsabur @akilgibbons @zakkiyyah.najeebah @a_lanmoon @cleogirl2525 & more.
The Luupe: How have editors allowed you space to execute your personal visions in editorial spaces?
Green: I’ve done quite a bit of work for Cultured Magazine, where I work with Kat Herriman. She and I have a good working relationship. There’s a care there that’s uncommon in many editorial projects. She’s thinking about who’s going to be the best person for me to photograph and who I might connect with. She understands I typically like to work one on one. If you’re going to give me any ideas or feedback I’d rather you do that before and not jump in as I’m working, which fortunately not many people have done. There is a trust there: if I’m given the space and the time to be with whoever I’m asked to photograph, that opens up a lot more possibilities.
The Luupe: What has editorial work taught you about your own photographic process?
Green: My style can also change: I worked closely with Toby Kaufmann on Pur·suit and something she always says is any photographer can shoot anything if they are given the right tools and resources. Working editorially, folks see what I’ve done and can do. Also, because I’ve recently been sharing different types of work–from these natural lush portraits to more of these studio, high flash, evenly exposed images, to everything in between. There is more range in the work I’m asked to do.
At the core of it is still portraiture and human interaction. That keeps me really challenged by my own work and process. You never know what you’re going to get when you meet someone, so the idea of being present to receive the person who’s standing right in front of you is the reason I’m so invested in making portraits and photographs of people.
The Luupe: There’s so much of your work that’s deeply rooted in community, intimacy, and trust. How do you translate those into your work for clients?
Green: In terms of advertising and editorial, it is about what the client wants and is asking you to do. For Cultured, yes, they’re asking me to make photographs of different artists, but they’re also trying to sell a magazine. Having the clearest vision and understanding of what the clients want so I can both deliver something that makes them happy and that I’m proud to have my name on is really important. That comes with a lot of pre-work.
A misconception is that photography is just in the moment and there’s not all this work happening around the moment, behind it, and leading up to it. It’s a production. We don’t magically arrive at this image after 10 minutes together. Instead, after three hours of conversations and back and forth, we finally got on the same page.
The Luupe: What parts of this process do you find yourself consistently navigating?
Green: I would say that is something I still grapple with often. For example, late last year I photographed two friends, Cynthia and Travis, a few weeks before they gave birth to their baby. I spent three hours with them in their apartment, hanging out, photographing, moving slowly around them. I had a client say that was something they wanted but I would only potentially have 10 minutes to photograph. That was a huge challenge. I didn’t say that’s not possible to the client, but in my mind I’m like, I don’t really know how I’m going to do this.
The translation that happens when I can still show up, talk to people, and ask questions, even if I have 12 minutes with you, to get a sense of how you are feeling in this moment, is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable. Is there any way that you want to be seen right now? If all those answers are no, I can do my thing, direct, and show up to the moment. I’m learning to trust more in the work that I make and have made, trusting that I do know what I’m doing, figuring out how I can adjust to what’s called for at that time. I’ll be pushed to move differently and be challenged by the process, which is what I hope my work continues to do for me.