In the middle of a busy photoshoot, Hanna Wondmagegn paused to look around the room. She had transformed a classroom at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she was a student at the time, into a studio, pulling together whatever lighting equipment she could rent and setting up a white sheet as her backdrop. In that moment, she saw the people who’d brought her here: women of color leading the way in their respective fields, from the arts to the sciences and far beyond.
She’d pitched the idea in a Panera Bread while chatting with Ruth Samuel, who was then the Editor-in-Chief of The Bridge, an online community for women and non-binary people of color at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University: a 21 Under 21 photo series, inspired by spreads in magazines like Forbes and Vogue. Samuel conducted the interviews, and Wondmagegn photographed each of the women during scheduled time slots.
The Bridge invited all the women to bring objects of personal significance to the photoshoot; Patsy Maldonado Montesinos brought a framed photograph, and Verenisse Ponce-Soria brought a rose. Caitlyn Kumi selected a fan, and Leslie Acosta Padilla chose a rosary. Aditi Adhikari brought a necklace; Elayna Lyndsey Locklear, the Bible. One of Wondmagegn’s favorite photographs is a portrait of Veda Appannagouda Patil, a peacock’s feather behind her ear.
At the time of the session, these women had already made their mark on campus, but in many ways, they were just getting started. In conversation with Samuel, Tsion Elizabeth Coulter explained that she plans to create an organization offering computer science education to young people in Ethiopia. Leslie Acosta Padilla hopes to become a pediatric neurosurgeon. Vaishnavi Siripurapu has a passion for reproductive health, with plans to become an obstetrician or gynecologist.
Maya Tapanga Carter hopes to inspire young women of color to enter the photojournalism field. Elizabeth Teresita Howard founded Black Arts Theatre Company and intends to build a performing arts center serving underdeveloped neighborhoods. De’Ivyion Emonne Drew creates sculptures inspired by ancient African civilizations, whose contributions to art history have been left out of textbooks and curricula.
“I wanted to celebrate women of color doing great work who were recognized in different communities and circles on campus, but weren’t getting the larger recognition for their work on the greater campus and Chapel Hill community,” the photographer says. “I was hoping it would be a continuous series every year that would celebrate the often unrecognized, underappreciated, and unpaid burdens that many women of color do at predominately white spaces.”
Like many college and university campuses in the United States, UNC-Chapel Hill has a complicated legacy that’s intertwined with the larger history of slavery and systemic racism throughout the country. For more than a hundred years, an eight-foot-tall Confederate statue known as “Silent Sam” stood at the main entrance of the university–a symbol of that painful history and what remained of it.
On her first day of classes as a first-year student, Natalie Rose-Ying Gauger, one of the 21 Under 21, attended a protest over its presence. It was one of many demonstrations held throughout the decades before the statue was ultimately toppled in 2018. That same year, the university’s Chancellor officially apologized for the history of slavery at the school, from its founding until the end of the Civil War. Since 2005, another monument has stood on campus–the Unsung Founders Memorial–devoted to the people of color, enslaved and free, who built it.
Wondmagegn happened to be a student at Chapel Hill the year of the Chancellor’s apology; she graduated in 2021. In 2020, the same year Black Lives Matter became the largest movement in our nation’s history, she was the visual content creator at The Bridge. The pandemic hit just a few weeks after the 21 Under 21 photoshoot, so there hasn’t yet been another edition. But today’s students–at Chapel Hill and far beyond–can look to these pictures and find their own accomplishments recognized and their dreams valued. Perhaps in the near future, another young woman will pick up the torch Wondmagegn and Samuel left for her.
The photographer still remembers what it felt like to be in that classroom with so many women she admired. “Each person had a specific time slot to arrive and then they could leave, which is what I expected to happen,” she tells me. “But a lot of the women decided to just stay, hang out, meet, and talk to each other. All these amazing women who had shattered glass ceilings across a wide array of issues and spaces were all in this room together. I could feel the energy. It was very powerful and moving.”
Hanna Wondmagegn is a member of Black Women Photographers, a global community bringing together Black women and non-binary photographers. To learn more about Black Women Photographers, visit their website, and follow along on Instagram at @blackwomenphotographers. You can follow Wondmagegn on Instagram at @hannawonphoto, and you can follow The Bridge at @thebridgenc.