One Community, Two Worlds with Brandon Hunter
Sometimes I wonder, where did I get it from. I remember when I was a child and my father used to take me with him to the darkroom to develop film. He loved to take photos and enjoyed his time developing them. I grew up in Western New York, in the suburbs of Buffalo where the photography community was pretty much non-existent. Forget about a community of African American photographers. So I guess it’s not surprising that I was never inspired to take up photography.
Throughout the years, I was the typical tourist with fixed lens cameras, until January 2008, when I attended a speech at American University where Senator Kennedy was endorsing then-candidate Barack Obama. As I stood to the left of the stage, there was a moment when Kennedy was speaking to the audience and Obama leaned slightly forward on Kennedy’s right, looked at him with that classic smile and applauded his words. I took that shot, great composition, and couldn’t wait to get home to put it on the computer. It was a dark gym and I had a little Panasonic Lumix. When I saw the image on a large screen, it was terrible because of the low light. Imagine if I had the knowledge and skill I have today. That was an iconic moment with a man who would move on to make history as not only the first Black American President, but the first minority president. That could be a print hanging on my wall with some of the other images of black art and history. It could be next to my images of Martin Luther King or next to my posters of Fredrick Douglas, the Jim Crow era, and the brave protests for equality throughout history. This inspired my first steps into photography as a 35-year-old African American working as a storeroom clerk in Washington D.C.
I bought my first DSLR, a Canon 40D, and practiced with my family first. I attended some local workshops to learn off-cameralighting. I met a small group of local Black Photographers who helped cultivate how I see light—learning with cheap small speedlights and eventually progressing into the budget strobes. There was a lack of resources back then, and photographers were not as open as they are now with sharing their “secrets.”
I was grateful to be able to meet, learn, and commune with a group of black men and women over those early years. I was soon inspired by my cousin who called me up to tell how a photoshoot we did could have very well saved her relationship. She felt that maybe her relationship had become stale. They had been together since high school and she had never dated anyone else. For both of them the photoshoot was a chance to see each other from a new perspective. I began to realize that photography wasn’t just a fun thing, but it was an opportunity to see themselves in a different way. After that conversation I began to look at where I wanted to take my photography. I was growing in a different direction than the circle of photographers I was shooting with. The community in D.C. shot more “Urban Eye Candy.” It wasn’t me and it wasn’t inspiring. I wanted to portray something different from the overtly sexual images I was seeing. It was difficult to find black photographers at a nationally recognized level; they were few and far between. You had the Mathew Jordan Smith and the Dallas Logans of the world. I watched Mathew’s videos on YouTube. I bought Dallas Logan’s ebook “Light Is Light.” They were both great at helping me understand light better and take it to the next level but it was 99% studio work. I wanted to bring the beauty and elegance that I saw in the studio out on location, and combine the two worlds. I would continue to learn from those who look like me. I began to see we were not well represented in the photography world.
At the time I felt the only mainstream resources to learn from were Scott Kelby, Chase Jarvis, and Zach Arias among other white educators. Then in 2011, I attended a 4-hour workshop by Sal Cincotta. The workshop didn’t break the bank, so I went. He was discussing the style he became known for, large environmental portraiture. I didn’t get it at first. The people seemed so small but I loved the feel of the images he showed. That set the tone for me, however, I was still struggling with getting subjects. At one point I was discouraged enough to put down the camera for months. I was introverted and did not take rejection well.
I heard about photography conventions such as PPA and WPPI, but they were so expensive to attend. I also didn’t see any diversity. In 2015, I decided to attend Shutterfest, created by Sal in 2014. It was affordable education that was different. I remembered Sal’s images from the small workshop. That year I had a chance to work with McKenzie Leader and I was able to create environmental portraiture featuring a big red dress using the backdrop of a blue train. I was creating the type of imagery that I fell in love with that I hadn’t seen around the DMV.
I did however notice that there wasn’t a strong minority presence at the conference, attendees or speaker lineup. I began to feel a little out of place. I experienced a heightened awareness of being a minority in the crowd. I was in the midwest, more akin to what I felt like growing up in the suburban all-white neighborhood of Buffalo, New York. I left the 2016 conference wondering if I would come back despite having met some great people. I did, I wanted to be different. I wanted my images to separate me from the imagery I was used to seeing in the DMV. I am not saying that no one was focusing on beautiful imagery in the black community, but it didn’t have a presence or a following. So in 2017, I returned to Shutterfest and entered a print competition. I placed second in creative fashion with an image of an African American model, beautifully styled eclectic and colorful. That year Matt Meiers began to push me to apply to be a speaker for SF 2018, I was thinking no, not me. I still had thoughts that I didn’t belong, but in 2017, the black community started to have more of a presence at the conference. When I applied in 2018, I did not make the cut. I felt half relieved, because as an introvert I was terrified to even stand in front of a group, half disappointed. That year the attendance by black photographers continued to grow. An image of mine made the wall of inspiration. Inspired by the movie “Black Panther,” that image was called “The Lady of Wakanda.” It prompted many people to approach me and ask about it. I was floored. The conference was growing more diverse and many of the attendees were starting to show their support. That year Christopher Mikals wanted to set up a shoot with me. There was one thing he said that was inspiring: “I just wanna see how you do what you do!” When I had to leave the patio where we were shooting, I noticed that a large crowd had gathered. Almost everyone in the crowd looked like me. On the way out, I bumped into Mary Stroughter who pointed out to her group that I was the photographer who shot the Wakanda image. She told me later how inspiring my images were because she usually didn’t see that type of imagery from a black photographer. That year, several other photographers pushed for me to apply, some of the Black photographers saying we need more representation in the speaker line up. So I did. I was inspired by a community that had faith in me, and was inspired by me. They saw something in me that they wanted to see as a representation of Black photographers in the Shutterfest community.
In 2019, I became a first-time speaker. The entire community showed incredible support and helped to inspire me to continue to grow. My family, including my cousin and my uncle, both photographers, became very supportive. Seeing the pride when they speak about me and my journey, along with the support of the Shutterfest family, is very humbling. The community grows more diverse each year, supporting each other in every way. Not just with photography but with family and the events currently taking place today. Just yesterday, a fellow Shutterfester reached out to ask if I could be a point of contact for his daughter in case she needed assistance while attending the protests in D.C. That speaks volumes.
We are not just a photography community, we are family. I want to encourage more diversity and awareness. So more like me can see, you have the ability to be just like me.