“I first picked up a camera in Oregon when I was battling depression after moving there from Kansas,” Polly Irungu remembers. “While trying to navigate the world of photography as a Black woman in a predominately white state, I had tried my best to find a community that looked like me that was also trying to navigate this space. I was longing for a community of Black women that I can turn to for advice and inspiration.” When she was an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, she started a Twitter list that would later become the seed for such a community.
Three years after creating the list, in July 2020, she launched Black Women Photographers with the goal of building a COVID-19 relief fund. It was her 26th birthday. In the end, she raised and distributed more than $14,000 to support Black women and non-binary photographers.
“After several conversations with Black women photographers based in the states and internationally, I realized that there was still a great need for an inclusive community free of gatekeeping,” Irungu explains. “There was a great need for a way for us to ask each other for advice on anything and everything related to photography’s business and marketing side.
“There was and is still a need for access to resources and opportunities. There was and is still a need for us to be hired. At the end of the day, all we want is equity. All we want is to leave this industry better than we found it. In a way, I am building that community that I wish I had when I first started pursuing photography as a career.”
This summer, Black Women Photographers celebrated their first anniversary, and to date, the community is 700 members strong. In celebration of BWP turning one year old, we asked Irungu a few questions about her ongoing work on behalf of the photo industry.
In your view, what’s the largest barrier for equality within the photo community in 2021, and what can those within the industry do to help dismantle it?
“Whew, I feel like this could make for a separate interview in itself. We’ve been fighting so many systematic issues that have existed longer than I have been alive. To dismantle white supremacy is something that I hope to see in my lifetime. It will take moving past conversations and turning words into action – real tangible action that doesn’t just happen for a moment in time but all the time.”
What does it mean to you to mark one year of BWP, and how will you be celebrating?
“What a year it has been. The momentum hasn’t slowed down since the launch. It has been incredible to witness the growth of the members and the impact BWP has had in such a short amount of time. I am celebrating the launch of the first annual Black Women Photographers Grant Fund in partnership with NikonUSA!”
What’s been your most memorable experience since founding Black Women Photographers?
“I could probably write a book filled with all of the memorable experiences I’ve had with BWP since launch. There are so many conversations from BWP’s series with notable Black photographers that I will never forget. From talking to Kennedi Carter, a few weeks before her history-making covers of Beyoncé for British Vogue to being endlessly inspired by the dynamic duo AB+DM, who have photographed dozens of our favorite covers over the course of a year.
“There are also conversations that never in a million years I thought I would have, such as the Q&A with Pete Souza and Amanda Lucidon, photographers who have documented incredible White House history. Then, other experiences have come from members of Black Women Photographers who have poured back into my cup in so many ways, from a surprise Zoom on New Year’s to showering me with gifts and kind testimonials on my birthday. I will never forget how that made me feel.”
Please tell us about a few of the Black women photographers who inspired you as an emerging photographer yourself.
“Oh, boy! I don’t know where to start. I’ve been inspired by Carrie Mae Weems, Audrey Woulard, L?lá Ákínmádé Åkerström, Danese Kenon, Akili Ramsess, Endia Beal, Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, and so many more.
“I am grateful to receive mentorship from Audrey and Lola. I know that no question is too small or too big to ask them, and they will always be there to support me and BWP. They have trailblazed the way for other emerging Black woman photographers and me to take up space in the most iconic way. To know them is an honor.”
Could you tell us about one of the photographers you’ve featured/interviewed for Black Women Photographers? What inspires you about her?
“We had a conversation with Endia Beal that blew me away. She is such a gifted storyteller. Her talk with BWP was awe-inspiring, and it gave me another spark to continue the work I am doing.”
What are your hopes for the future of the BWP community?
“I hope to continue building the community that now has over 700 photographers worldwide to continue providing free resources such as portfolio reviews with top editors and photo desks, educational training, and workshops. My next goal is to build a dynamic team that can help take some of this load off my plate. It has gotten so big that I can no longer wear all of the hats and maintain a healthy work/life balance.”
How can people get involved and support BWP in 2021-22?
“I hope that people can help support BWP with donations that will go towards operating and programming costs. In order for me to continue providing these free resources, I need the support of allies in the industry to help sustain this work. The work that I am doing doesn’t just benefit the photographers in the community, but also the photo and media industry at large. We are all made better by the work of this community. By the tireless work that I am doing. “If anyone would like to get involved, whether it’s by joining the community or partnering or supporting in other ways, I can be reached by email at [email protected]. Photographers can join BWP here.”
All photos by BWP community members.