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© Cheriss May

As part of this year’s Emerging Photography Awards, Feature Shoot is offering two major exhibition opportunities to up-and-coming photographers of all genres working across the world. Three to five photographers will show their work at the renowned FORMAT21 Festival, the UK’s leading international contemporary festival of photography, and ten photographers will be selected to be part of a group poster run in select locations around East London.

This year’s esteemed panel of judges includes prominent photographers, photo editors, photo directors, curators, and more. We were honored to have a chance to interview one of our judges, Cheriss May, about her experiences in photography, education, and advocacy and the places where they intersect.

Beyond her career as a leading editorial and portrait photographer Cheriss May is also the current President of Women Photojournalists of Washington, an organization fostering success for women in photojournalism and educating the public about the role of women in the field. She’s also an adjunct professor at her alma mater, Howard University, where she teaches visual communications. Read on to learn more about May’s work and her hopes for the future of the industry.

Please tell us about your role at Women Photojournalists of Washington. How did you get involved, and what has been the most rewarding experience you’ve had so far as President?

“My time as president of Women Photojournalists of Washington, also known as, WPOW, was truly a natural progression of my advocacy for inclusive storytelling. WPOW supports women, and those who identify as women, in visual journalism. This industry is traditionally, and heavily white males. I first joined the organization to connect with the community, share my voice, and get support for my work and aspirations as a photojournalist. 

“What I’ve enjoyed most is advocating for and seeing more diverse voices and stories come to the forefront. I’m hopeful in this moment as I’ve seen the needle move, but there’s still much work to be done. My term as President ends this year, but I will continue my advocacy. 

“I started an initiative at WPOW to connect with and support visual journalists of color; that will continue. I have accepted a position on the Board of Directors for Focus on the Story, an organization whose mission is to support and encourage visual storytellers of diverse backgrounds, address critical issues, bridge cultural gaps, and spark social change.”

In your career as a photographer, what has been one of the highlights? Any experiences you’ll never forget? 

“That’s a tough one. There have been many highlights and pivotal moments. I’ll say the time I was commissioned by the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art to photograph Maya Angelou for her portrait unveiling at the National Gallery of Art. I grew up reading her poetry, inspired by her words, and to now be in her intimate space documenting this historical moment, which was her last public appearance before she passed. It was a surreal day. 

“I got to have a conversation, hold her hands, tell her how honored I was to meet her. To have her say it was her pleasure and honor to meet me, we celebrated her birthday after the event, she sang, recited poetry — I still get goosebumps and will never forget that day.”

What do you predict for the future of photojournalism? Any movements or trends brewing?

This year there has been a national reckoning on racial and social injustice. There have been uprisings and marches for Black lives in communities across the country in the midst of the global  Covid-19 pandemic. There has been a trend to hire Black photographers across the industry — to hear our voices. I don’t know if this is just at this moment while emotions are high, or if it’s something that will continue in the future.”

You’re also a professor at Howard University. What inspires you most about the rising generation of photographers, and what have you learned from your time teaching? 

“I am definitely inspired. My students know how to and are not afraid to use their voice. Their stories are powerful, and they know how to harness the power of social media to connect to people. I’ve learned to first listen. Then to give just enough direction and guidance to put them on the path to take the lead to tell their own stories in their own voice.”

Might you tell us about one of your students’ work and a project that has inspired you recently? 

“In our last assignment for the semester, they were instructed to tell their ‘Covid story’— what this pandemic has taught them. One of my students beautifully told her story in a humorous, yet tasteful way. This semester has been challenging — not meeting in person, students spread out across the country, and the isolation. In the midst of these challenges, the exhaustion — a trying, heavy time of loss and destruction, she found a way to tell a story of hope.”

What’s the number one lesson you hope to impart on your students?

“To not be afraid to use their voices and tell their stories.”

What excites you most about working in photography in 2020 (and beyond)?

“I love telling those stories of hidden heroes. Stories of marginalized people and issues, that are untold. I’m working on a couple of projects that I can’t wait to share!”

The last year has brought with it a reckoning for the photo industry, where racism and discrimination are still pervasive. What has it been like for you to witness this moment? What moments have given you hope for the industry? 

“This moment has been a long time coming. There’s been this frantic movement to hire and seek out Black and diverse voices. Some of it has been disingenuous ‘window dressing.’ There’s still so much work to be done. I love to see inclusive storytelling. It’s beautiful to see photographers of color commissioned for magazine covers, portraits, and assignments, that we weren’t considered for in the past. Advocation to include our voices, to lead the conversation, and to share our views and perspectives. My hope is in the genuine initiatives to make real, systemic changes that will last beyond this moment.”

What kind of work will you be looking for in this year’s Feature Shoot Emerging Photography Awards?

“This year has been a year of the pivot. I look forward to fresh perspectives that challenge the status quo. Images that connect to change and hope beyond this challenging year.”

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