Tony D White TheBlkGze My Peoples

Tony D White

Tony D White aka Fox Smoulder responds to our My Peoples brief.

Share an image and commentary in response to these Jazzy Jeff lyrics:

My people who were made to endure
My peoples all shapes and colours
My peoples got more peoples with them
That’s more peoples, more sisters and brothers

My people stay strong as an ox
My peoples will never fail
My peoples will always remain
Remain with a story to tell

Tony responds

Tell us about the backstory to your chosen image.

This GIF is from an on-going project of mine with the working title “Higher Self, Higher Powers.” We shot this at Egg Studios in East Williamsburg in July, 2021. I had been talking with my friend, Jamie Lee, who is the first subject in the series, about this concept for months. I’m really into narrative sequences, and I wanted to do something to visualize magic powers emanating out of Black folks’ – mostly Black queer folks’ – hands, and I wanted to shoot it in a style reminiscent of magic girl anime transformation sequences. I was also drawing from fighting games in “attract mode,” where the characters exhibit their roster of moves and special attacks.

Jamie got into her dream PhD program in Chicago some time around spring last year, and in typical fashion, we kept putting the shoot off, underestimating how quickly the time would pass us by, until about two weeks before her move. Actually, this shoot was the day before Jamie’s birthday, too. So, there were a lot of things about this shoot that didn’t turn out the way I’d originally envisaged it – from the colour scheme to some plot elements – I had to make concessions.

There was an issue with the hairdresser who was supposed to lock her hair that morning before the shoot. And I’m not Tyler Perry, so I care quite a bit about making sure that if I’m photographing a black femme, they feel supported and good about the appearance of their hair. We were lucky to have another friend present with some hair gel, and so I asked her to put Jamie’s hair in space buns. It was a chaotic communal effort. Once we got settled in the studio, though, we had the most amazing fun, playing with the handheld mini LED lights and finding poses to articulate the anime “magic girl” influence.

Tell us why you chose to make the image and why you chose to share it with us.

One of the things I was wrestling with, from conceptualizing this as a project to shooting it, was my hesitancy about putting “magic” in the scene with a Black person because I have a general apathy about depicting Black people as possessing exceptional ability and strength. I don’t know how much space it leaves for our humanity.

But my comfortability with that subject ultimately winds up being super dependent on whose gaze it is. And if we’re talking about images, it really depends on the gaze of the photographer and of the image’s intended audience. I am responsible for this image, the ideas it puts forward and all its unintended consequences. So, the Black Gaze seemed the perfect place to share this with first, because the right audience can hold complexity about this image and about the lyrics that you asked me to respond to:

“My people stay strong as an ox
My peoples will never fail”

My knee jerk reaction is resistance to that line, because for a good amount of the time that blackness is equated with strength, it feels dehumanizing to me or at least insincere. It reminds me of platitudes from politicians who feign interest in black communities and saccharine slogans from the Black capitalist class, like “Black Girl Magic,” that fixate on Black achievement and can leave us wanting a bit more depth, or inclusivity perhaps.

I’m not very interested in being one of the talented tenth. My first thought often when I hear stuff like this is “actually, we are fragile” and we often have to fight to be seen that way. But getting beyond that initial reaction, both things are obviously true and necessary depictions. We are deserving of our fragility AND depictions of us as strong and resilient are affirming and help “keep us in the world,” as my friend Jamie might say.

Tell us what this image says about, ‘My people’.

Part of what was behind making this image for Jamie and me was the conversation about black queer folk, particularly Black trans women, standing their ground against targeted violence and fighting back – “changing the narrative,” as TS Madison said. Part of it was to pay homage to one of my best friends, a Black trans woman who is incredibly resilient and has triumphed over much pain and adversity in the last year.

It’s incredible to reflect on where she is now and the brilliant, abundant things that are coming to her now. I just wanted to celebrate that and remind her of her own divine brilliance with a depiction of her higher self, the Jamie who is always the greatest wit in the room, ever playful and always loving and holding space for her friends’ inner emotional lives. Sometimes, my people, my friends, need the reminder of how special they are, “my peoples all shapes and colours.” We shouldn’t have to endure but we do.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

On the technique involved in creating the image, the effect of the magic glowing orbs in Jamie’s hands is captured completely in camera, on the film negative itself, with the use of two different effects filters in front of the lens. In terms of the concept for the image and the capturing process, it was really important to me that the effect be done in camera and not in post in order to give credence to the idea that this is a “real” credible depiction of a heightened being.

About Tony D White

Tony D White aka Fox Smoulder, is a black non-binary New York based experimental surrealist photographer and visual storyteller. Choosing to forgo the traditional institutional route to arts education and presentation, Tony first began experimenting with digital photography in 2014 by taking pictures of family and friends, after leaving an undergraduate course of study in sociology at Princeton University.

View more of Tony’s work on his website. You can also connect with his on Instagram and Twitter.

Take part in the My Peoples Project

The project is open to Black photographers of all ages, genders and genres.