CULVER CITY, CA — For the group of young Black photographers who founded The Black Image Center, a collective turned 501(c)(3) nonprofit in Los Angeles, COVID-19 allowed time to think deeply about a space where Black artists can come to stimulate their imaginations through photography, and one that can provide resources for their economic empowerment. Kalena Yiaueki, Maya Mansour, Zamar Velez, Haleigh Nickerson, Samone Kidane, and Michael Tyrone Delaney, who all have diverse backgrounds within the field of photography, came together digitally during the pandemic. The Black Image Center opened in Culver City’s arts district in early 2022.
The core members first held meetings via Zoom to imagine the ideal space. They pulled from their backgrounds as commercial photographers, art directors, fine artists, and hobbyist photographers to build infrastructure and discuss what they felt the space should embody. I met with co-founder Maya Mansour to discuss the center’s work. Mansour’s involvement began when she viewed an Instagram post that called for a space where Black people could learn about photography, and where those already practicing could build a community and access resources for their work.
The collaborative nature of The Black Image Center was an important aspect of their work from the beginning. The collective’s first major project was a collaboration with artist Hank Willis Thomas’s organization For Freedoms. The two organizations worked together in fall of 2021 on The Black Family Archive, a weekend-long pop-up to celebrate the Black history of LA’s Leimert Park neighborhood and the power of establishing a space for memory, legacy, and family. Attendees brought in family photos for consultations on their conservation. Digitization and printing were offered, and a free film fridge was available throughout the weekend to encourage the community to engage with photography. The event was centered around a mural by artist Adee Roberson, who draws on an extensive archive of family photos, dating back to childhood, to create art. For Mansour this work is a way to highlight the family archive and its importance in Black culture:
“We really wanted the first project that we did to have access points for all different ages,” she explained. “Thinking about the family archive being the first place many young Black people in America see themselves reflected in any form of media, we wanted to offer something to the community that democratized and helped to preserve Black family archives.”
During our conversation, Mansour told me that the center plans to open a community darkroom. She’s excited about the process: Artist Todd Gray is advising the collective on how to best set up a full-color darkroom for community use: “One of the longterm goals of the space is to build out a community darkroom. When we were looking for a space, that was a huge factor as we knew we would need permits for water lines and ventilation, and our landlord has been supportive of us figuring all of this out.”
The Black Image Center also offers film refrigerators, where a constant supply of free film for community use is available. There are currently two: one at the center and another at Reparations.club, a bookstore in LA’s Mid City.
Currently The Black Image Center is hosting workshops, such as a recent one on community quilting. The resulting quilt, an homage to community, was created by artist Kern Samuel at the center, along with community members of all ages, including artists, local families, and members of The Black Image Center team, and it hangs in the space. There are also plans for camera cleaning and inspection workshops, and the center has launched a free studio day program — offering space to Black image makers in need of a place to create.