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Dahyembi Neal Brings a Fresh Gaze to Commercial Portraiture
Dahyembi Neal Brings a Fresh Gaze to Commercial Portraiture
by The Luupe
The photographer's lifestyle, editorial and commercial portraits celebrate beauty, power, and resilience.
On Juneteenth, 2020, a group portrait by Dahyembi Joi Neal stopped us in our Instagram scroll. Three women stare back at us with a direct, yet accessible gaze. Their spontaneous, yet highly stylized creative direction is both commercial and personal.
And, portrait-after-portrait, we see this across all of her work.
While the Chicago-based photographer is early in her career, Dahyembi's portfolio is vast and deep – she’s collaborated with a diverse list of brands including Dove, V8, and Reeds Ginger Brew. Largely self-taught, she draws from her education in marketing and her sensitivity to the human spirit while highlighting and celebrating the perspectives of Black women.
We spoke with Dahyembi to learn more.
© Dahyembi Joi Neal
The Luupe: How did you first get into photography?
Dahyembi Neal: My love for photography started in high school. During my freshman year I was able to take an elective and a photography class was one of the options. I’ve always loved anything art related, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I took the class, but I actually hated it! However, I knew I LOVED photography, I just didn’t enjoy taking photos of plants and vases and other random objects.
The Luupe: What draws you to portraiture?
Neal: I wanted to get into something more realistic, vibrant, interesting and raw. So, what’s more raw than humans, right? I started taking photos of my sister and I fell in love with it! And that was my start. I continued my education in photography throughout high school to learn more about perspective, specs of the camera etc. and I took my love for portraiture with me.
© Dahyembi Joi Neal
The Luupe: Your use of light and color complement each other so well - it's some of the most sophisticated we've seen in a while.
Neal: Yes, color is extremely important to me when it comes to my work. It’s my top priority actually because I believe color carries the weight in the photo. Color tells a story, it creates a mood, and that’s my focus.
Lighting is also equally important because it has the same affect; being able to convey a mood, emotion, or thought in your photo is important to me because that is my way of communicating my own thoughts, mood and emotions.
The Luupe: It really draws that out in your work.
Neal: I’d like to think that the majority of the time I have a very vivid, vibrant and colorful imagination, so I always try my best to display that in my work. I go as far as mapping out a color scheme for my shoots because it’s that important for me to set the mood of my images. As well as studying my favorite lighting set ups and the direction the sun is coming in if I’m looking to shoot outdoors.
© Dahyembi Joi Neal
The Luupe: Another thing that stands out is how, here and there, you show transparency and little bits of process behind the work in the final photos - sometimes it's showing the backdrop, sometimes it's showing the film borders, etc....
Neal: Yes, I love showing as much of my behind the scenes process as I can! I do this because when I first started out, I wanted to know others' processes and their tips and tricks on how they achieve their photos. I was also a college student on a budget, so I wasn’t able to buy all of the fancy, expensive equipment, so I created different solutions for myself.
I didn’t want to box myself in just because I didn’t have the equipment that I “needed”, so I created it instead and showcased it to my following. In hopes that someone will see it and be inspired and be able to do exactly what I did while achieving the outcome that they desire. I also share because it’s my way of connecting with my audience and creating a personal touch to my work.
Self-portraits by Dahyembi Joi Neal
The Luupe: You also have a background in public relations. Does that play into how you think about photography?
Neal: Yes, I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Public Relations/ Advertising and Media Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. My major did play into how I thought about my photography and my business. I wanted to know the best ways to put myself out there and about how audiences work and social media so that I could properly promote myself and my work. My major also aided in my creativity and how I thought of certain aspects of a photo.
The Luupe: How so?
Neal: In Advertising and PR, everything is VERY intentional and I definitely took that into my work. Now, I’m making sure that whatever is in my photo, is very intentional because it matters and I never want to send a message that is outside of my original idea or the wrong message in general. However, outside of photography I learned a lot about the how the world of PR and Advertising and Media Studies, so that was very informative.
The Luupe: We’ve been thinking a lot about your work for Not Your Average Size (NYAS). What was it like working with them and how did that relationship come together?
Neal: Thank you so much! I loved that project so much and it actually brought me out of my comfort zone more than I though it would. The creator of NYAS, Ashley Hamilton, reached out to me to photograph her Fall collection and of course I accepted. It was honestly such an honor to photograph shoes so beautiful! She also brought in one of my favorite models, Dara Jazra to shoot in the collection so I knew we would have a successful shoot.
The Luupe: What was the shoot like?
Neal: It was a great shoot overall, It pushed me out of my comfort zone because I’m not used to shooting in studio, I prefer natural light but it turned out wonderful! I shot with V-Flats for the first time on that shoot and I was so happy because I had always wanted to test them and see how they would be able to enhance my photo and give me my desired look. So, overall it was a great shoot with an even better outcome!
© Dahyembi Joi Neal for DIRECTIVE
The Luupe: What are some other brands you've enjoyed collaborating with recently?
Neal: I loved working with DIRECTIVE, Jess Goehner, the creator of DIRECTIVE, is the absolute best! She was so fun to shoot with, she allowed me to be creative and voice my opinion for the project which really helps because it makes you feel seen as an artist. She also assembled a great team as well with models, Leidy Castillo and Kynnah Neal (my sister), and they really did such an amazing job showcasing the bags and really just making my job easier.
© Dahyembi Joi Neal
The Luupe: Another thing that stands out as we dig deeper into your work is that while you do occasionally photograph men, most of your subjects seem to be women….
Neal: It is a conscious decision to photograph women, more specifically Black women. I made that a point when I first began my photography career, that my main focus would be to photograph Black women in the many different forms that we come in. Growing up, I would read magazines and I wouldn’t see Black women as often as I liked and I despised that. So, I made it my mission that in my work you would see an array of Black women in different styles, shades, emotions etc. While also focusing on all women because we have so much to offer and plenty of beauty to display.
The Luupe: That’s so important - not just visibility, but visibility within the framework of a respectful gaze like yours…
Neal: While photographing my subject, I make sure to bring out their presence because they are more than just a model. However, I also enjoy shooting other genders as well and I look forward to being more inclusive in every aspect of my work through my subjects.
© Dahyembi Join Neal in collaboration with creative director Cherish Witherspoon
The Luupe: That brings to mind a specific image we can't get out of our heads. You shared it on Instagram a couple years ago on Juneteenth - three women looking directly back at the camera/ photographer. It was a collaboration with creative director Cherish Witherspoon... What's so great about it is the direct + gaze, and this mix of glamor, sensitivity and power...
Neal: That is one of my favorite photoshoots to this day! I still get compliments on it which is so crazy to me because that was a three years ago now! I was approached with the idea for this photoshoot by Cherish Witherspoon, who was the creative director and stylist for this shoot, and she was looking to submit to a magazine, which eventually ended up falling through on the magazines end. The prompt for this magazine was based around makeup and beauty so we knew that whatever we did had to involve an extravagant makeup look.
The Luupe: How involved were you on the concept/ how collaborative was that?
Neal: As far as the concept, it was all Cherish’s idea, I just followed her lead on it. Cherish and Kynnah went shopping for the outfits, but on shoot day Cherish ended up bringing pieces from her closet and made everything come together and within the next couple of days we were shooting. The makeup artist, Pastelle Artistry Company, really brought the vision to life with her amazing skills in makeup and brought the softness, glamour and power to life. As far as the actual shoot, it went beautifully!
The models Cherish Witherspoon, Kynnah Neal and Julia Papillon worked so well together and the chemistry was already present and that exudes through the photos. The funny part about this shoot though was that, as we were shooting, the sun started to go down so we were running out of light. I was SO nervous because I didn’t have all of this equipment at the time, so I’m not able to make up for the light that we’re lacking even though this is supposed to be a natural light shoot. So while we’re shooting, Pastelle and I had our phone flashlights on them, I had my reflector out, just trying to savor any light we possibly could.
© Dahyembi Joi Neal
The Luupe: That's so interesting because we totally don't feel those issues when looking at the final photos!
Neal: Fast forward to post production, I HATED these photos when I was done editing because I was so mad at myself for the lighting situation and I couldn’t really see the images for what they truly were at the time. Until, I showed my sister, Kynnah, and she loved them immediately and helped me realize how beautiful these images actually are. So, that’s the little story behind these and also why I love these photos so much because of everything and everybody that made these photos possible.
Self-portraits © Dahyembi Joi Neal
The Luupe: Can you tell us a bit about your self portraiture? What drives you to photograph yourself?
Neal: Self-portraiture is mainly my way of learning about my craft. Sometimes I will think of an idea or a concept that I really want to try out and I might not have my sister at my disposal at the time, so I'll just use myself. I also get nervous about trying brand new techniques on models because I fear that it might not work out and not only do I waste my time, but I waste their time and that's never fun.
So, it allows me to mess up as much as I want, take as long as I need, and just simply relax and have fun with it... it's a way to explore my creativity and gives me some time to just hang out with myself, get dolled up, and work on my passion. It's my form of self care!
The Luupe: Do you see a relationship to your client work, specifically your comments about creating visibility for Black women?
Neal: My self portraits and my commercial work are two very different relationships. I value both relationships equally, but in different ways. Nevertheless, both of those areas are similar in giving me, a Black woman photographer, the space to expand the view of a Black woman in the creative space.
Self-portraiture allows me to express my vulnerability, my creativity, my style, my emotions and allows me to create my own story as a Black woman. My commercial work allows me to create other Black women's stories and show them in their own light. Overall, I try to always make space for black women to showcase who they are, starting with myself.
The Luupe: While you are incredibly prolific, you’re also somewhat early in your career, which is super inspiring. What are some of your creative goals going forward? Any brands you're hoping to collaborate with or creative ideas you're looking to get into?
Neal: I appreciate that so much - I have a lot of creative goals I’m actively working at right now. My biggest goal is to get a studio. I want my own creative space where I can create as I please and spread my work out. I think it’s important to have spaces for your creativity that is separate from your work and personal life. I’m also looking forward to working with more fashion and beauty brands.
I hope to land at least one fashion campaign this year, no brand in particular, but definitely a brand that I admire. Working with a big magazine is also a goal for this year or for the future in general. I also have a secret project in the works right now, so what I will say is that it will be a grand display of my passion, imagination, boldness and vibrancy. It will basically be a big experiment for me and stepping completely out of my comfort zone.
The Luupe: We can't wait to see it! Thanks so much for your time + inspiration!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The Luupe is a one-stop production company that is raising the bar for professional brand imagery on a global scale. With a highly curated and diverse network of professional women and non-binary photo and video creators across 80+ countries around the world, we are reinventing how brands produce original, local, and authentic visual stories that connect with a global audience. Our mission is to champion and amplify diverse perspectives from around the world — in front of and behind the lens.