Sistagraphy exhibit highlights work of African-American women photographers

Jena Jones remembers the first time she was bitten by the “shutterbug.”

She was on an elementary school field trip when she saw the iconic work of photographers Gordon Parks, the first black staff photographer for “Life” magazine; and Moneta Sleet Jr.,    known for his gripping civil rights era images and his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Coretta Scott King and her youngest daughter, Bernice, at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral.

“I was mesmerized by each and every image,” said Jones, executive director of Sistagraphy, an Atlanta-based collective of African-American women photographers. “I was in awe. They had to pull me out of that exhibit. I didn’t know what this was, but I knew I wanted to do it.”

And she did. Jones’ work is included in “A Different Eye: Sistagraphy Celebrates 20 Years of Photography,” an exhibit at the Hammonds House Museum. The exhibit of 100 images runs through Dec. 20.

The retrospective includes the work of about 36 other photographers that document various facets of life - from the 1960s until today - depicting urban life, architecture, portraits and product shots.

Jones said the collective was formed two decades ago by a handful of black female photographers who wanted to find a way to support each other, hone their skills and share their expertise.

People “think all you have to do is pick up a camera and point in the general direction, click it and it does all the work for you,” she said. “They don’t understand all the work that goes into creating a good image like knowledge of light and environment, composition and the creativity involved.”

Sistagraphy’s exhibit is an example of the significant interest in photography in Atlanta.

The High Museum of Art, for instance, is exhibiting the “The Bunnen Collection of Photography” through Feb. 2. The exhibition contains about 120 prints that includes works by regional, national and international photographers.

Also, Spelman College recently presented the nationally-touring photo exhibition, “Posing Beauty in African American Culture”, featuring more than 75 photographs by leading and amateur photographers.

Although there were earlier successful black women photographers, their visibility was much lower than their male counterparts. Jobs and exhibit space was not as readily available as that for male photographers.

While on assignments,Jones and others would often get looks of surprise from people. “Wow, you’re the first black woman photographer I’ve ever seen,” she said of the comments.

“The challenge is getting recognition.” said Jones. She said stylists and photo editors often want to go with photographers with whom they’re comfortable or someone who has already built a reputation “and a lot times those people don’t look like us.”

It started with a small exhibit by nine women and later morphed into the larger collective, whose name “Sistagraphy” was coined by Atlanta photographer Susan Ross, who is known for her work chronicling black Atlanta life.

There are more than 50 women in the collective. They include hobbyists, professionals and those just starting to pursue that interest. They range in age from their 20s to 60s.

Founder shelia turner, who prefers lower case, is a professional photographer who splits her time between Atlanta and Charlotte where she is an adjunct photography professor at the Art Institute of Charlotte. She remembers pulling together eight other women in 1993 with a clear goal of showing the diversity in the field of photographer. “Although we all look alike, we don’t photograph the same things.” she said.

turner, for instance, did a lot of early work for music labels and celebrity-oriented jobs. She later drifted into documentary and narrative studies and community projects.

The women also wanted to show their work publicly. “I didn’t think enough of us were exhibiting our work,” she said. “I thought I had something to say and in my work was a message.”

The collective was “a safe space for us to definitely talk about things that were easy and not so easy,” she said. “It brought a few of us to a higher level.”

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