The Luupe speaks with Chicago photographer Akilah Townsend on the process behind her billboard campaign for Square. 

“Black-owned businesses are the heart and soul of this city—and of America. These Black‑owned businesses are making Chicago’s future bolder, brighter, and more beautiful for all.” In June, 2021 Square launched “The Future is Built…” a global campaign to support and amplify Black owned businesses in key cities starting in Chicago and Atlanta. The premise was simple: show these businesses and the people behind them as the backbone for commerce. Show how they are shaping the future of business and a thriving culture.

Square commissioned Luupe photographer Akilah Townsend to photograph the campaign in Chicago, highlighting three Black-owned beauty, apparel and book businesses in the city. Townsend’s portraits channel her signature style warmth and energy, not only to show these brands as a compelling force, but the power and humanity behind them.

We caught up with Townsend to learn what went into the shoot, from working with models and stylists to designing custom backdrops that added a personal flare and connection to the business owners.

© Akilah Townsend for Square

The Luupe: How did you come to shoot The Future Is Built in Chicago campaign? Was this your first project for Square?

Akilah Townsend: This was my first time shooting for Square. Square was looking for a photographer based in Chicago and my name was suggested to them and that’s how it began.

The Luupe: Chicago being your home, did you have relationships with the business owners before working on the project?

Townsend: I had been a fan of one of the business owners since I was a kid. It was a full circle moment because I shopped there when I was in high school. It’s always been a very cool staple of Chicago fashion. I remember being one of the business owners waitresses while I was in college. And the next time that I saw him I was capturing them for a billboard. So it was such a full circle moment, it felt very right. Like all of my hard work over the years (with its twists and turns) had paid off.

© Akilah Townsend for Square

The Luupe: What was it like working with Square on such an important campaign?

Townsend: It was extremely important to me to be able to capture the beauty and regal-ness of the Black women that were featured. I wanted to show the glow that you encounter when you encounter them.

So I took great care in thinking about my art decisions. It was important to me to represent them well. As I knew that their faces would be showcased all over our city, for other Black girls to view, see themselves in, and be inspired by. I thought a lot about being a young Black girl on the Southside, and not having resources. Not knowing how the heck I was going to get out of poverty. The routes that we are told to go, I knew I did not have the resources for.

But I always had a glimmer of hope and I really wanted those billboards to serve as a glimmer of hope for other young girls like little me. Life has a funny way of working out. Even when you can’t see how it’ll work out, things work out.

© Akilah Townsend for Square

The Luupe: Let’s get into the creative direction. These were obviously shot for a client, but really bear your mark. They are warmly, identifiably “Akilah Townsend photos.” They feel so connected to your personal work and signature style.

Townsend: The creative direction really aligned perfectly and I think that that is why Square chose me. It was important for me to have beautiful colors and glow. Square came to me with the idea of capturing the business owners in front of a city skyline. They also showed some images in the mood board for that were colorful. I merged those two ideas and shot backdrops for the campaign and I also created color schemes to go with each business owner then I lit the custom backdrops with the colors on the color schemes.

This was my first time creating a custom backdrop, but something that I have played with since. I had pitched to them that I would capture the backdrop, just in order for me to control the tones and composition. The vibrancy of Black people and our effervescent glow, our resilience and strength, was translated into the art direction. It was very important to me that I do these business owners justice in how I captured them.

© Akilah Townsend for Square

The Luupe: You collaborated with a large team on lighting, styling, etc. What does your collaborative process look like?

Townsend: I had a team of photo assistants that I was able to tell them my vision of lighting and colors and it took a lot of tweaking but with their help I was able to get things just as I wanted them. Our styling collaboration also involved thinking about the colors schemes that I created and the skin tones of our women and what would best compliment them.

We also had a curvy business owner and it was important to myself and the Square team to make sure that she was able to show her curves and not be hidden by garments as we sometimes see.

The Luupe: It’s great to hear that this was celebrated, not hidden. Did you have complete creative freedom?

Townsend: A lot of times I have a very specific way that I see my images before the photoshoot even happens, down to styling and props, so it’s a collaboration. It’s important for me to communicate as best I can.

The Luupe: Were there any areas of compromise on the shoot?

Townsend: I did have to compromise a bit with styling. The details are always important. And I will take as much time and struggle as I need to get things to be as perfect as they can. Pushing for the sometimes-difficult option that was originally imagined, I have seen, pays off, time and time again.

The Luupe: Another thing that stands out about this campaign is how it hovers between an editorial and commercial feel. While it’s a brand campaign, there’s a documentary sense of storytelling to it. Almost a blurring of genres that makes it feel very “real” and accessible.

Townsend: I think that it definitely blurs the lines a bit. We wanted the images to be authentic so I went in asking the business owners “where do you normally hang out in your space?” For Danielle, the owner of Semicolon bookstore, she has a chair that she always sits in and no one else is allowed to because it’s hers and so I said okay and that is where we are capturing you.

The campaign says “Here are three Black business owners that you should support.” But it also says these are real, hard working people, you can also find such people in your neighborhoods, so shop local. I think the campaign felt very grounded and authentic because it was held down by a mirror of who we were capturing. Square hired me, a Black woman from the South side of Chicago and I also hired a Black woman stylist.

The Luupe: Authentic, empathetic representation is present throughout your work, whether it’s personal or clients like Square. Can you tell us a bit about your process for developing trust with the people in front of your lens? What do those interactions/ photoshoots look like?

Townsend: Bringing the guard down when it comes to capturing a person that I had not known prior to the shoot, has definitely been something that I think a lot about and have had to develop over time. I just try to show who I am and be my most authentic self.

The Luupe: How do you make that work?

Townsend: Allowing them to know it is safe to show your authentic self, and I will handle your image with care. My demeanor has a lot of empathy, I’m a pretty empathetic person. Especially now, with photographers being exposed for predatory activities, it affirms my manner when I’m working with the subject. I care about how they feel and I do not conduct the photoshoots in a very heavy-handed manner.

The Luupe: It’s amazing to see these images on larger-than-life billboards. You have a lot of experience shooting for other big brands, like Nike, etc. This was your first billboard campaign, right?

Townsend: This is my first billboard campaign. Seeing my work at this scale, only affirmed what I knew, which is go hard and bring your best self to everything that you do regardless of the outcome or usage. Bringing my 70-year-old dad to the billboards was a very special moment for me. I was able to explain the process as he looked at the images. I think he finally was able to understand what I do and the care that I take in what I do.

The Luupe. That must be an amazing feeling. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. In closing, beyond this campaign, what are you most excited about now and moving forward?

Townsend: I’m excited about taking the things that I care about; representation, colorism; and expressing these issues through motion.