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Photographing Harlem’s Residents as They Want to Be Seen

Artist Azikiwe Mohammed has set up a free, temporary portrait studio at Long Gallery Harlem.

Installation view of Azikiwe Mohammed: Armor Photography Studio: House Visits Welcome at Long Gallery Harlem (photo courtesy of Long Gallery)

The title of the exhibition Armor Photography Studio: House Visits Welcome hints at what’s happening within the walls of Long Gallery Harlem — the title is an invitation. It’s founded in an earnest generosity that makes this show, rather than the typical presentation of an aesthetic fabulation, an opportunity for members of the local community to be photographed as they would like. The artist directing this, Azikiwe Mohammed, has set up a functioning photo studio in the gallery, where visitors can have their pictures taken for free. Each person or group that participates is given a physical print of their image shot by Mohammed. As indicated by the title, Mohammed also offers to take his portable equipment to those cannot go to the gallery. As he says, “Not everyone can make it down to the gallery, and they shouldn’t be exempt from this.”

Installation view of Azikiwe Mohammed: Armor Photography Studio: House Visits Welcome at Long Gallery Harlem (photo courtesy of Long Gallery)
Azikiwe Mohammed, “Haley” (2017), from Armor Photo Studio: House Visits Welcome (image courtesy of Azikiwe Mohammed)

When we spoke, I asked Mohammed how the project is being financed, and he explained that he’s paying the costs himself, with the help of a small grant he received to offset some of them. He acknowledged that the project is expensive, but said, “The best way to show your support is with your wallet; wallets speak loud. Too often money is a barrier between vision of self and representation of self and the means to regrab some of those assets that are leaving the community.” He added that photographs of the Harlem community are often taken by outsiders, who come in to lay claim to the district’s cultural assets — its unique visual treasury of geographic features, residents, and street life — and leave with images that go out into the void, giving nothing back to the citizenry. The tangible keepsake of the photograph is the thing Mohammed believes can help concretize the gossamer concepts of self-respect, self-empowerment, and visual representation. “What more literal way of talking about, dealing with, and addressing means of representation than photography?” he said.

Azikiwe Mohammed, “Michelle” (2017), from Armor Photo Studio: House Visits Welcome (image courtesy of Azikiwe Mohammed)

During the run of the exhibition, portraits that have been taken as part of the project line the walls of Long Gallery. Mohammed has also set up a monitor showing footage of visitors to the temporary studio, as they prepare and pose for their portraits. The framed images are mostly full of color. One backdrop is a black-backed but brightly floral toile, another a washy slate gray; against them the subjects mostly stand gazing at the camera in unposed, naturalistic postures. In one image, a middle-aged black woman faces the viewer, wearing an orange, patterned shift; with her shoulders back and relaxed, she smiles serenely. The light in the image is darker below her chest but brightens on her neck and face, as if she is emerging into a welcoming place.

Azikiwe Mohammed: Armor Photography Studio: House Visits Welcome continues at Long Gallery Harlem (2073 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd, Harlem, Manhattan) through August 13.

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