Black joy matters, and a new photo project is bringing that idea to the forefront in a brilliant way.
The “We Are Joy” series, created by Brooklyn-based photographer Laurent Chevalier, consists of intimate portraits of black millennials. Each portrait is accompanied by a personal story from the subject, recalling a happy moment in their lives when being black was the key, positive element to their joy.
It isn’t always easy to be black in America, or in the world, for that matter. After the election, and with the rise of racial, social and political tension in the air, Chevalier was trying to think of ways to counteract the visible, palpable struggles of black life. How, Chevalier wondered, could he combat the negative narrative of the black experience?
“I thought about some of the more obvious ways, such as protesting, teaching, reporting or organizing, but I also thought of other impactful ways to support and involve myself,” the photographer told The Huffington Post.
“You can only really keep working when you are whole enough to work... and it’s hard to be effective if you are broken down. So in order to maintain ourselves, our sanity and health, I felt that we needed to really draw upon the experiences, the joys and the successes that we have individually and collectively.”
In January, Chevalier decided to embark upon the photo project, with the aim to demonstrate and discuss the ways in which it’s “dope to be black.”
“I was intrigued by the idea of black joy in story form, because when someone tells a story you relate to, you can’t help but be impacted by it,” Chevalier explains.
“Black joy is contagious, especially when you can relate to it. Then adding to that our culture of oral history, I thought it would be a great way to present this idea.”
Most of the subjects in the series are Chevalier’s friends or friends of friends. The joyful stories they share range from one woman’s first “big chop” to a moment of fellowship and solidarity of everyone dancing to an old school jam at a party. For each portrait, Chevalier photographed his subjects as they told their stories, in order to capture the spark of their memories. The result: a collection of photos and stories forming a vibrant mosaic of black joy.
Centering a series on the positivity and beauty of the black experience, even amidst the struggles, is a political act. For Chevalier, the idea of art as resistance is a powerful one.
“I see this project as resistance against this current [political] climate, because at the heart of many of the issues facing our community are questions of identity and value, both within and without,” Chevalier says.
“Affirming the importance of our memories, reminding ourselves of our joy, these are aspects of this project that help fuel further resistance.”
The photographer plans to continue collecting stories and creating images, drawing from an even larger and more diverse group of black people. In addition to the series, Chevalier is also working on a book project, as well as a collaboration with writer and playwright Cyrus Aaron on creating dialogue on black identity, with two pop up discussions and photo presentations in New York scheduled later this month.
And for the rest of Black History Month, he will be sharing a new portrait and story for the “We Are Joy” series every day on Okayplayer and Instagram.
Check out some photos and stories from the series below:
“It was my first time ever coming to Brooklyn, and growing up in Seattle, it is diverse in our own way, maybe high school or whatever, but its not really fully diverse. Like I would go to basketball games and things, but I could never remember being in a space with just like thousands of black people. So I remember it was fashion week, and it was also the weekend that they had Ft Greene day in Ft. Greene park. A friend lived in Ft Greene so we just walked over, and there were white people there too, but there were like thousands and thousands of black people who looked like themselves. It wasn’t like 'oh this girl has a weave, this girl has natural hair.' There was individualism which I thought was dope. I was like 'this is where I need to live.' And I made a decision in that moment that I was going to move."
"A pivotal moment for me and a true expression of black joy, was probably when I big chopped my hair actually. So I’ve grown up in a lot of suburb communities throughout my life. I’ve always sort of been the token black girl to say the least. So coming to NY I was exposed to a lot of cultures, and true exposure of black culture living in Harlem. Tons of beautiful women with natural hair, and I’d been going back and forth in my mind with whether or not I wanted to do it. And finally I was like alright, I’m going to take the jump and this would be it. So I big chopped my hair, and it definitely was liberating, and I just started feeling even more confident in myself. I don’t identify as someone who is lacking in self esteem, but I think the increase in self esteem in my beauty and understanding and getting comfortable with this texture that I was born with and embracing it to the fullest is definitely something that did give me personal joy. In the same breath, I just was lifted up by other people who saw that beauty. For me that was something, that as a young black woman in a society that is always showcasing a beauty that doesn’t look like yours, was quite important.”
“I think a lot of it has to do with family. One of my earliest memories was when I went to Haiti, and meeting a lot of my family members for the first time. I have a lot of memories from that, and I think I was 3 at the time. Which crazy to have that memory engrained in my mind. I have [the memory of] visiting my cousins, and my aunt who passed away last year. Being at her and her husband’s corner-store, and being at the well and seeing all these Haitian kids come and pump water. And I remember thinking 'oh my god I would never be able to do that.' And just kind of basking in the experience, like that real Haitian experience. I was just in awe. watching these kids pump water in the well, take the bucket, put it on their head. And they were small kids like me. since my aunt passed away, I connect that memory specifically to that. Because she died recently, I think about her being in my life, and a-lot of those memories that I have of her were when I visited Haiti and being at her shop and being with them."
“I think the most funny moment that happens all the time, is if I’m at a party, and if I’m DJing or anybody else is DJing, and they decide to play 'Before I Let Go.' In that moment, when all the black people just kinda lose their shit, those are some of the most blissful happy black moments that I can think of. Its crazy. Cause when you hear that 'dun dun dun, dun dun dun, whhooaa ooohhhh'... its over. Everybody loses their shit, no matter what anybody is doing. You could be half way in the bathroom line, you could be getting a drink at the bar, you may be macking to this girl, and if she don’t react while you’re like macking to her, then you know she’s not the one. When that song drops, in the beginning. Those are some blissful moments. For that minute and 1:45 seconds, however long that song gets to play out, people lose their shit, and its really great to see. And it’s funny because white people haven’t caught on to that song yet.”
"I was in Brazil, I was in Sao Paolo, 2010. A friend was in school and we decide to go to carnival, not in Rio but in Bahia. And that’s the beauty of blackness, its completely transferable and translates no matter the language barrier, no matter the hue, no matter the destination that you’re in. Bahia had to be the most lit place to be during that period of time too. There’s something about the energy in Bahia, there’s an electricity in the air. I also think I like the fact that they are very hedonistic. They like all the shit that I’m into. They wanna eat good, they wanna fuck, they wanna drink, they wanna dance. Life is good, and its like no matter what socioeconomic status you are, this is what we all do. So just being in Pellorino, it’s the old part of Bahia, its where the slave ships came, and so obviously there’s a palpable spirit. So just to see everybody just out in the streets, filling up all the streets, just dancing, just laughing. I had no idea what people are saying, I don’t understand the music, I can’t do samba, but you just get involved. There is something about that, and being able to unabashedly just live in it and be loose. A spirit of ‘we are all here and we are in this together’."
“My black joy story happened on November 11, 2008. On the day Barack Obama got elected. I happened to be living in Atlanta Georgia, my second home. And I remember it like it was yesterday. The results came in that he was elected as president of the United States of America. So then I turn on the news, and you know Atlanta is very monumental in the civil rights movement, so every black person in Atlanta went down to MLK’s old church, Ebenezer Baptist church, on Arbor Avenue. So we drove down there and it was so crowded. People were on top of their cars celebrating, people were crying. And the blackest thing I’ve ever seen probably, up unto this point, was Young Jeezy pulled up, in a blue Lambo. This is when he had that song “My President Is Black”. So he opened both doors in front of Ebenezer Baptist church, and played “My President Is Black” and got on top of the car. And everybody just went crazy. It was probably the most happy I’ve seen a collective of black people in a long time."
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