Gabriella Wyke Sheds Light on the Lives of Black Men
Inspired by genre painting and the Black men in her life, the recent SCAD graduate counters stereotypes with a visual tribute to regular guys.
“He’s a young guy, but his eyes look so mature,” says Gabriella Wyke. The young man she photographed caught her eye as he sat in the corner of an Atlanta training gym putting on his shoes. “The light hit him so perfectly,” she explains. “And literally as soon as I looked at him, he looked at me.” Wyke was ready to capture the moment and create a portrait suffused with both the everyday humanity and the symbolic touches that mark “The Letter,” her photo series portraying Black men whose lives and experiences undermine racial stereotypes. One of Fujifilm’s 2020 Students of Storytelling, Wyke had become a regular presence at the gym after reaching out to its coach about her project, and she has photographed men of all ages there.
Not that the windowless gym was ideal for photography. “The light in there is horrible,” says Wyke. “They have two doors—one to the front, one to the back—and they keep them open to get a breeze.” With the open doors as her main source of light, she was also short on time. “I only had 45 minutes at most each time I went to the gym because of COVID-19,” she says.
To make the most of the available time and light, Wyke shot with FUJIFILM X-Pro3 mirrorless camera and FUJINON XF35mmF2 R WR lens, relying on the camera’s physical controls and eyepiece viewfinder to work without reviewing images or fiddling with settings. “I think the X-Pro3 reminded me of a film camera so much that I immediately treated it like a film camera,” she says. “It really made me concentrate more on what I was shooting, and I think that made the images better.” Forgetting about the camera let her engage fully with subjects like the young boxer, so that her audience can too. “I think the strong eye contact that he makes with the viewer is kind of the tool that I’m looking for in the project itself,” says Wyke. “I really want the viewer to be confronted with the issue.”
The issue Wyke is talking about is the racial stereotyping of Black men. She created her series to serve as an antidote. “Black men are often painted as thugs and thieves and killers and rapists,” she says. Her series counters those stereotypes with images of real people. “During my entire life I’ve been surrounded by men like my father, my brother, best friends,” she says, “and I wanted to pay tribute to these men in my life.” She was inspired by 17th century genre paintings depicting average people’s lives. “I wanted to portray the Black father, the person who is just going about his daily life, doing regular things,” says Wyke. “I didn’t necessarily want to show them in a way that was extraordinary.”
Still, in the everyday gesture of the young man, she sees subtle allusions to the challenges he has to prepare himself for, as well as to progress toward, overcoming stereotypes. “The mere fact of him lacing his shoes, getting ready to do something else, symbolized to me that this was a transition into moving forward,” she says. As she moves forward with her series, Wyke is focused on engaging a broad audience. “My concern is really to invite everyone into my work,” she says. “I don’t only want Black people to love my work or to understand my work. I want everybody to understand it, because racism is a human issue.”
“I think the X-Pro3 reminded me of a film camera so much that I Immediately treated it like a film camera.
It really made me concentrate more on what I was shooting, and I think that made the images better.”
As a Fujifilm Student of Storytelling, Gabriella Wyke got advice while working on her project from a team of mentors including photographers Michael McCoy, Akili Ramsess, and Tom Maddrey; Fujifilm technical experts Michael Bulbenko and Victor Ha; and Muse Storytelling pro Varina Hart Shaughnessy. Here are some of the tips she found helpful:
Fail quickly so that you can learn, apply the lessons and keep going!
Always shoot wide.
Wyke says Michael McCoy would often give this advice during critiques to encourage students to expand their scope and include contextual elements. “It worked!” she says.
You have to be vulnerable enough to expose a part of yourself so people trust you enough that they can expose a part of themselves.
Remember that you deserve to be here. After an in-depth conversation about imposter syndrome, Victor Ha said these few words that meant the world and encouraged Wyke.
Protect your work. Take the time and invest in copyrighting your images.
FUJIFILM X-Pro3 mirrorless camera with a FUJINON XF35mmF2 R WR lens.
ABOUT: Fujifilm created the Students of Storytelling contest to identify the next generation of U.S. storytellers, and to provide them with Fujifilm X Series or GFX System gear to bring their vision to life. Visit the official Fujifilm Students of Storytelling site for more information about the complete program.
Follow @gifts_from_gab to stay up to date with Gabriella Wyke.
Photo © Gabriella Wyke