Meet Polly Irungu, founder of Black Women Photographers
In July 2020, Polly Irungu launched Black Women Photographers to amplify the work of Black women behind the camera and get more brands and publishers to hire them. Initially, it was an Instagram page to provide relief for Black women and non-binary photographers impacted by COVID. But soon after, the project evolved into its own platform. It is now a vibrant call to “disrupt the notion that it is difficult to discover and commission Black creatives.”
In just seven months, Irungu has built a rapidly growing community and directory with over ten thousand followers. She regularly partners with brands like Adobe and VSCO to help accelerate her mission, and just launched a benefit print sale to celebrate Black History Month.
Irungu, who balances her days photographing for big brands and creating content as a digital content editor for NPR’s The Takeaway, is likely one of the most driven and exciting people in contemporary photography and media right now.
We spoke to learn more about Black Women Photographers, Irungu’s inspiring career, and her path forward.
The Luupe: Congrats on the growth of BWP. It’s inspiring to see the increasing traction for the project and all of the photographers you’re showcasing. What’s been the biggest, most unexpected, humbling, or empowering moment since you launched?
Polly Irungu: Wow, it is so hard to choose a single moment. One of the community photographers recently shared the news with me that a major airline hired her for an assignment through the database. Her work will be featured in airline booklets worldwide. That seriously blew my mind. It also gave me–and other women in the community–the push to keep going.
It was affirming to know that this database is working even when I don’t know it. All I ever wanted to achieve with the launch was to see #HireBlackWomenPhotographers become a reality and to build the type of community that I wish I had. It has truly surpassed my expectations.
The Luupe: Beyond exposure and hiring opportunities, what do you hope to achieve for BWP as a platform?
Irungu: I hope to see Black Women Photographers become one of the go-to destinations for Black women and non-binary photographers, editors, curators, gatekeepers; you name it. I hope to continue achieving this great sense of community and support internally and also externally.
I hope to continue providing great programming, curation, and growth and development opportunities, from events with highly-respected industry leaders to workshops to portfolio reviews to interviews.
The Luupe: How about for the photographers in the BWP network?
Irungu: For the photographers, I want them to feel empowered to apply for grants, send out pitches and proposals, use the word ‘no’ as a complete sentence, and so much more. I want to continue providing resources that help them be better equipped to take on and create opportunities for themselves.
I want them to understand all of the aspects relating to the business side of photography that we never really had a chance to learn. Lastly, I don’t want photographers just to be hired; I want them to be hired and paid very well.
The Luupe: We’ve been inspired by your work at NPR and your ability to help shape positive narratives. Do you think your work at NPR influenced how you think about BWP?
Irungu: You know, I never really thought about it like that but in a way, I can say it has. With my day-to-day work, I am always thinking about what stories are not being told, whose voices are missing from the conversation, and how we can provide value to any conversation.
With that in mind, I am taking some of that thinking to BWP. Who is missing from the database? Who haven’t I heard from in a while? How can I provide value to the community and industry? Those are just a few of the questions that constantly run through my mind. I wouldn’t be doing this work if I felt like I would be doing a disservice to the communities I am trying to serve.
The Luupe: This may be a daunting question, but… If you could name one single photographer who has – in the past year- totally changed how you think about photography, the gaze, and the potential for change, who would it be and why?
Irungu: Ah, this is not fair. Top of mind, Zaria Love who is a part of the community. She is a Black queer photographer based out of Los Angeles, California. In 2018, she was diagnosed with M.S., and that has never stopped her from photographing Black stories throughout the city of angels.
The Luupe: That’s an inspiring story about Zaria. We’re huge fans of Daniella Zalcman and Women Photograph as well. How do you balance your own work with the time and responsibilities associated with BWP?
Irungu: I am still learning, honestly. I work full-time in news/media, I volunteer for a local high school photography class every week, I am wearing all of the hats for BWP at the moment, and I am also trying to pursue my own freelance writing and photography work. It has not been easy.
But over the course of the last six months, I have been able to chip away at some of my bad habits and create that much-needed balance. I have also set up an accountability partner group for BWP; so I have two people who hold me accountable to practice what I preach like self-care and saying no as a full sentence and so on.
The Luupe: What was the last photo series or editorial/commercial job you took that you’re most excited about?
Irungu: Oh, man. I think it is actually the one that I passed along to another photographer in BWP. I was contacted by The Tribune to photograph a portrait for a story on a sexual assault survivor. They found me through Diversify Photo’s database. Unfortunately, I was unable to do it due to timing. But I was able to share that opportunity with another photographer within the community. I heard it went very well.
The Luupe: What has been the most exciting and/or surprising response so far to the BWP project?
Irungu: Ooo, another tough question. For me, I get excited about almost everything. From a new email inquiry about how to join to a Twitter mention where someone is tagging Black Women Photographers as a resource to an email from one of the photographers saying they were hired for a project to photographers helping each other out in our private Slack and sharing what they know with each other. All of those things excite me and give me the fuel to keep doing this work.
The Luupe: How do you hope readers leave this conversation feeling?
Irungu: I hope they feel inspired by all of the incredibly talented photographers in the community that for too long have been overlooked by this industry. From Rachel Seidu in Lagos, Nigeria who was one of the very first photographers who joined BWP and received aid from the #BWPReliefFund to Zaria Love who I mentioned earlier, this industry would not be the same without these voices and perspectives. I am just happy to shine a light on them.
The Luupe: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Irungu: Hire more Black women photographers!