In Conversation: Texas Isaiah and Gioncarlo Valentine on Being Seen
The photographers talk representation, tokenization, and the legacy of this "moment" for Black creatives.
By Stephanie Eckardt
October 26, 2020
Earlier this year, after photographing Janet Mock, Texas Isaiah became the first known transgender photographer to shoot a cover of Vogue. It's an increasingly common milestone, and to Texas Isaiah, an "actually very, very heartbreaking" one: "It touches on how much colonialism, transphobia, homophobia, anti-Blackness has affected us to the point where we can't even trace back to any of our ancestors who were interested in doing this work - who maybe did do this work, or had the desire to do this work, but didn't have any resources."
In the weeks after the issue published, Texas Isaiah acknowledged his "first-known" status just once. It's a conversation that needs to be had in-depth - like on an episode of Being Seen, a new podcast that explores cultural representations and their impact on the gay and queer Black male experience. (It's produced by Harley & Co. and sponsored by ViiV healthcare, a lead HIV treatment researcher.) In fact, the host, writer and activist Darnell Moore, created the podcast specifically as a space to have those conversations. The sixth episode, which airs on Tuesday, pairs Texas Isaiah with Gioncarlo Valentine, a photographer and writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, Vogue, and People. (The latter accompanied Joe Biden and Kamala Harris's first joint interview as running mates.)
Texas Isaiah's personal work has featured in exhibitions at the Hammer Museum and Fotografiska New York, and Valentine's has been collected by the Whitney Museum of Art. Both also take commissions, which means they've had to navigate a much more transactional sphere: editorial. For the first time in their careers, it's started to feel natural - closer to the way, perhaps, it is for photographers who are cis, white, straight men. The question, of course, is how long after the reckoning that began in May that will last. The pair reunited for a preview of sorts of their episode, which you find alongside their showcase of photographers representing a diversity of representation and identity, here.
I'm wondering about your experience as a Black photographer, a trans photographer, a gay photographer. Do the people who hire you seem to understand that there's more to you than just one of those things?
GV: At least in my experience, working in editorial capacities is the only time when that becomes a part of the conversation. Editors and publications oftentimes don’t have the intellect or the range to hire from a place of empathy or understanding, or have the concern for the lineage of a work or how a person sees. A lot of the time, it really does feel like we are hired—well, that I am hired—because now, it’s the moment to hire Black people. Like, Oh, he’s Black and he’s gay and he’s fat, so he checks off a couple boxes, let’s get him. Sometimes I’ll talk to the editor after a story comes out and they’ll be rude or short or unresponsive in some way, like they got what they needed and sent me on my way. All of those things just kind of create a tone of transaction, and I often really feel that in editorial exchanges.
But also, most of the time, with my editorial work, I’m shooting the same stuff that I would be shooting for free, the same way I would shoot my personal work, but I’m given access through a publication. So the pros tend to outweigh the cons in favor of accepting these problematic assignments. It isn’t ever really a thing that I’m being directly disrespected. The back-end tokenism I can tolerate at times, because I got my images. I had an excellent connection with the person I was photographing. This work will go down in my body of work historically, so I’m good. And in my personal work, there’s no room for that kind of thing. I don’t make images of people that I don’t love or have a tremendous respect for.
TI: In my experience, people are attempting to arrive at the understanding. And during that process, the ball is dropped in multiple ways. Because again, I think we’ve been taught to view one another as one singular thing, or one monolithic experience. I feel like I could speak for a lot of other Black photographers who are attempting to navigate that right now. I don’t really work with anyone I get that energy from, and even making a decision like that is risky. We have to create a life for ourselves. We have bills to pay. The editorial space I’ve found myself in since May is very small, and the pre-production side is so fast-paced that I don’t think there lends any time for intention and care. But I feel like some people are really truly trying. I truly love to work with people who have the capacity to grow, and who are open to it. I think that that’s where the labor is. I think what happens is it lands on the Black visual narrators a lot, and I don’t think that that’s our labor, at all. So I look forward to perhaps being a part of that conversation, and/or witnessing that from afar.
How much does the intention matter? If you know the people hiring you are tokenizing you, is it ever worth it to have the platform?
TI: It all depends. I remember with some images that I took for British Vogue, I had no idea that it was going to be on the cover. There were all these conversations around “first knowns,” and I only touched on it once. Why do I have to repeatedly tell people that being a first-known in any capacity is actually very, very heartbreaking? It touches on how much colonialism, transphobia, homophobia, anti-Blackness has affected us to the point where we can’t even trace back to any of our ancestors who were interested in doing this work—who maybe did do this work, or had the desire to do this work, but didn’t have any resources. It’s always juggling these things trying to ask ourselves, at the end of the day, is this worth it? And it may not be worth it, but I often find relief in some of the things that I have control over.
GV: To me, it’s not really worth it. I mean, if the work is serving me in the end, outside of the platform, I can do that. I can deal with a lot. The New York Times and the New Yorker have been the only platforms that I would have been able to deal with if that were the case. But when I’ve worked with certain publications, the experience has just been so holistically bad that it’s just never about the publication anymore. I have a list of subjects I’d really do a lot to work with, even if it were a really bad publication or rate. I would probably consider it, or just do it, but that’s pretty rare. And it’s rare when I’m hired by a publication because they paid attention to my work. There was one time I made a post on Instagram about photographing Dana Scruggs, and how that history felt connected to Dawoud Bey photographing Carrie Mae Weems. And months later, when Joanna Milter at the New Yorker hired me to photograph Reginald Dwayne Betts, she told me I got the gig specifically because of that post. I think that was the first time someone has made their intention that clear—like, We thought of you for this first, because of something that you put out into the world.
Texas Isaiah, do you feel like people now only associate you with the Vogue cover, or that they appreciate and think about your work holistically?
TI: I would hope the latter, but it’s kind of hard to gauge how people view you.
GV: I don’t think that about your work. And I don’t think that people think that about your works yet, and not because you don’t work in editorial enough. You have an extremely strong visual voice, so whenever I see you bring it to an editorial, I’m like, Oh yes, work. There are photographers who feel like their voice is defined in this editorial capacity, whereas your personal work is all I think about even when it is placed in an editorial. It’s like they took your personal work and put it there.
Do you feel like you have to approach editorials differently from your personal work? How much say do you get on the final selects?
TI: That’s always a hit or miss. I always submit what I love. That’s just something that I’ve learned. But it’s also really hard to determine because I sit with work for a massive amount of time, and in editorial, you’re not afforded that pleasure, so it’s just based off of intuition. Is this an image that the sitter will feel proud of? Is this an image that I love aesthetically? And I submit it, and sometimes my feelings can change, but that’s just part of the game, to be honest. I just spend a lot of time editing down, sitting with the work as much as I can—just really asking myself, is this something that I would like to be printed on paper, for the world to see?
How much do you feel like you have to consider where your work is situated? I’m thinking about Dario Calmese, the first Black photographer to shoot a Vanity Fair cover. His portrait of Viola Davis was a reference to The Scourged Back, which shows an escaped enslaved person’s scarred back. It’s a powerful image, but it came across very differently in the space of Vanity Fair. I saw some reactions like, “Of all of the images to reference…”
GV: I think there are very few Black publications that have budget, that pay their contributors, that make work I feel connected to or I respect. And this just wouldn’t be a problem if that were the case. I think if you work in an editorial capacity as a Black photographer, especially one that’s considerate of where your work lives and how you work and who you work with, you just have to submit to a certain degree. It’s really unpleasant most of the time, and that’s where the relationship with the editor, at least, comes into play. There is always a level of submission if you’d like to publish the work with a white supremacist publication, like all of them are. That is what their origin story is, their history. I don’t know the photographer, but I know that Vanity Fair just has an unbearable history of anti-Blackness. It’s complicated. The blame is difficult to place because there aren’t a lot of options for photographers to be able to work with people that they dream about working with, to have their work reach a larger viewership, to see their work in print, and to be able to live off of their work, without handing that work over to white people at some point in that journey. And when you do that, you just kind of got to hope for the best, and that’s just a disappointing thing to do.
How often do you say no to the people trying to hire you, whom you’re skeptical of?
TI: Oh, I say no all the time. When I step outside of my house, there are so many things that me and others have to experience. And so I’m going to make sure that I have full control over what I am a part of. If it is not something that is suitable for me, then I’m going to say no. It’s a very important boundary, and it’s a very difficult boundary to establish and to sustain. But something I’ve realized as well is that I’m not the right photographer for every project, and that makes saying no easier. It also provides me the opportunity to perhaps pass the story on to somebody else that I think is maybe a better visual narrator for it.
GV: There are a lot of photographers that I know right now that have a lot of integrity, and there are photographers that I know who will literally get a job at the Starbucks down the block before they sit up here and play around. There’s a really particular group that’s making their way to a more ethical way of working, that’s really not centered around money or profligacy or attention, and that went a lot into how I thought about this project. Saying no to jobs has gotten easier for me, because people have come correct more often than not, and it feels like they respect my work. I don’t think that somebody would be like, Hey, can you photograph Donald Trump? For the most part, when jobs come to me, they are people of color. They are people of color who I respect. But you can only make so many decisions based off of money. There’s a lot I wouldn’t do.
Have you gotten more job offers since the protests began in May?
GV: Sadly. [Laughs.]
TI: Oh, the nonconsensual visibility. [Laughs.] It was very nonconsensual. It was happening in the editorial world, but it was also very much happening in the art world. And it was just overwhelming because personally, for me, I don’t really need an apology. I just need people to really do that work, to really sit down and think about like, alright [Sighs.] It’s 150 years of not working with Black photographers or editors or stylists. How can we approach this later down the line? How can we establish a better research system on finding more Black photographers? Asking those types of very important questions, and not just existing within a moment. I think it was very overwhelming for a lot of Black artists to be tagged in all these stories, not knowing who these people are, and never seeing their names again. It’s extremely, extremely exhausting. And I feel like, yes—a lot of people have gotten a lot more job opportunities, and I think that’s a really great thing. But I would love for that to continue.
GV: When this stuff started, I had written a piece for Insider that was essentially an update to a piece that I wrote in 2017 about the importance of Black people telling particular stories in this moment, and honestly in all moments. And that, along with a few stories for some publications, just turned into this kind of landslide of disingenuous things. And you know, listen. I’m grateful for people who genuinely did not know who I was, discovered the work, liked it, and stayed around. But I think there was an onslaught of people who very clearly knew my work but didn’t respect it, who followed me in that moment. Editors at all of the publications who have never hired me, who have had my work in front of their desks, who have had emails from me, who have talked about me, who have never gestured toward me in any way, shape, or form, were following me and DMing and replying and commenting.
I think there are a lot of people who just have a lot more tact and grace than I do, and I don’t desire to have their level of tact and grace at all. That’s not something I’m working on, or something I’m ever going to point myself toward. I remember. I have a nasty memory. [Laughs.] I’m grateful to be working—I would never say otherwise. But I hate how often I’ve heard my friends and my peers say, I just hope this moment lasts. I just hope it keeps coming. Whiteness just has such a nasty history, in every medium that you can imagine, of being like, Oh, there’s Black people over there, and then throwing jobs at the Black people and then being like Okay, that’s enough. We still have to manage and survive and have careers where people are not hiring us, and how do we do that when the spotlight on us goes off?
I’ve heard the argument that it isn’t that people are suddenly waking up to Black talent—it’s that the Black talent is too good, and too determined, to ignore. What are your thoughts on that theory?
GV: I think that that point is ahistorical and a bit reductive. In reality, there is no period in our history since Black people have held a camera at all, even in the amateur sense, when there weren’t powerful images being made by Black people. It was that they were being ignored and not considered. It wasn’t because the talent now has risen to a particular height. I would imagine there are far more talented photographers in the last, like, four generations than both of us combined, and to say that feels like it doesn’t do enough to indict whiteness for its very intentional refusal to engage us. We’re not just so good that we can’t be ignored. There were always people who were too good to be ignored, and who white people somehow managed to ignore.