Photo credit: Kreshonna Keane
Polly Irungu launched his organization, Black women photographers, in 2020 as a way to foster community for a group she felt was often ignored. Initially beginning as a COVID-19 fundraiser that raised $14,000 for black women whose work had slowed due to the pandemic, Irungu, who at the time was working as a staff writer at New York Public Radio ( WNYC), decided to create a real platform; she was tired of these creatives being passed over for paid opportunities. BWP has become a solo project she has invested herself in amid the civil unrest and the COVID pandemic that have been major parts of 2020.
“The pandemic was that own crisis and then, as people also said, racial reckoning was another crisis,” Irungu told Okayplayer. “Police brutality was a crisis in itself, it’s like we have a pandemic within a pandemic.”
During a call from her home in Oklahoma, Polly said she knows she has to create what she calls “a safe space.” Under Irungu’s leadership, BWP has become a solid resource for creatives to turn to for mentorship and access to paid work. BWP also has a database of over 1,000 black women and non-binary photographers spanning over 30 states and 50 countries around the world – resources Irungu has for the community include regular workshops, trainings and portfolio reviews.
In nearly two years, black women photographers have shown what happens when untapped talent is given the opportunity to blossom. Since its inception, BWP has worked with VSCO, Getty Images, Nasdaq, etc. Most recently, she received a $50,000 grant from Nikon. Irungu says $40,000 is for projects and $10,000 will be used for equipment for 12 members within the BWP. Last April, Irungu ventured into the art space for her latest project. Next to Hi-ARTSan art incubator in New York, she co-curated a “Center Focus” exhibition featuring works by emerging and critically acclaimed photographers Myesha Evon Gardner, Eliana Carter, Andrea K. Castillo, Poochie Collins, Maria J. Hackett , Ashli Owens, and Edolia Stroud.
The partnership came to fruition after Irungu began having conversations with galleries and museums. Hi-ARTS and Polly began planning the exhibit in January. She admits she battled through an episode of COVID-19 in the preliminary stages, but despite that, the show officially debuted on April 11. “After having intentional conversations that helped, shaped and informed our approach with this, they came up with the name ‘Center Focus,’ Polly said. She mentions that she felt the title defined what she was doing with it. BWP – centering and showing people the genius of black women photographers.
Gardner, a renowned photographer, loaned two of her works for “Center Focus”. Many of her photographs are intimate portraits highlighting moments experienced by black women. “A lot of my work is kind of like an interpretation of how I see myself or parts of myself in relation to other black women in my life,” she says on a Zoom call from her apartment. of Bedford Stuyvesant. “I think through body study and self-portraiture, it’s important for me to explore and question the deep complexities of what it means to be a black woman and the role of a black woman in the society.”
jaquea waiting for love is one of the selections that Gardner decided to include in the exhibition. In it, one of her close friends, Jaquea, who is pregnant, stands gingerly in a corner. She says the image is from a set of photos that were meant to be of a maternity shoot, but instead an image turned into a timeless portrait. Another photograph in the “Center Focus” exhibition Exhale (2017) by Andrea K. Castillo, a Belizean-American artist and entrepreneur, presents a striking sunset. His other works, Tradition (2016) and Up and Away (2018) highlight Castillo’s love of travel, each of his photographs also highlights his affinity for capturing simple moments.
Hi-ARTS Executive Director Aaron L. McKinney said he was honored to partner with BWP for their inaugural exhibition and that the incubator hopes to set the bar for future BWP exhibitions and partnerships. “These phenomenal artists share the joy, beauty and struggle of black women in a way that is welcoming while celebrating the uniqueness of our community,” McKinney said.
Irungu aims to break down more barriers within the photography community – she will also continue to create an avenue for BWP to take over. Additionally, she says she hopes future grants and partnerships will allow her to continue hiring black female photographers beyond performance times of the year like Black History Month.
“It’s not too often that we get invited into these spaces, so I’m forever grateful to the amazing team at Hi-ARTS for believing in my work and the work of BWP,” Polly added.
Center Focus, a public exhibition is taking place at Hi-ARTS located in New York until April 29th.