Naima Green is a Brooklyn-based photographer and educator whose work addresses the intersections of blackness, urban design, and the environment. I first met Naima as a participant in her series, Jewels from the Hinterland, last June. While I awkwardly posed for her camera in Prospect Park, it became immediately evident to me that Naima‘s scholarship and practice offered new opportunities for thinking about my own connection to nature and green spaces. As many black, brown, and indigenous communities continue to fight for the right to live in harmony with our earth, it seemed an especially important time to sit down with Naima to discuss her work which has been published in publications such as The Atlantic, SPOOK, and Harper’s Bazaar.
Jessica: We have had many off the record conversations about your photography so I’m happy we are finally speaking more formally. I want to start with Jewels from the Hinterland. How did this project begin?
Naima: Before my parents moved from my childhood home in Bronxville, New York last summer, I took a bunch of portraits of myself in our yard. I realized that green space has really transformed the way that I see the world. I feel as though so many messages and visualizations of black and brown people, especially media messages, are of concrete spaces. They’re aggressive. It’s suggestive of decay. It’s portrayed as always dangerous. It’s never bright and beautiful and lively and lush and growing. So, I think the origins of the project come down to me saying to myself “I want to see people like me in places where I feel comfortable, in places where I know other people feel comfortable.”
J: Now that you have been working on the series for three years, how are you feeling about the project? What has most surprised you about the process?
N: Now that the project has evolved, I don’t just want to see more people in these green spaces. I want to address this single narrative, the history of omission, the structural forces that inform this omission. I never would have called myself an activist – and I don’t know that I would or do now – but there definitely is a political act in the work. Structurally, no one wants to see black and brown bodies in growing lush green spaces or see the resilience and the livelihood and the humanity. People don’t want to see that.
I feel like 2015 was a big year for the work and for me. I went from having shot 35 people, in total, over the course of two years since starting in 2013 – I had to count as I was applying to different residencies – to a total of 70 people by December. Last July, I was talking to a writer and I was saying to him that I thought I was done. I was exhausted. I needed something new. And then I went and shot 35 more people [laughs].
J: How do you find your subjects?
N: In the beginning I reached out to people I was friends with or people I went to school with. I started with those folks who I knew would generally not say no to me, to this experiment. 2015 was the first year that I started shooting people that I had never met and after meeting these people I realize that we had so many connections.
J: Black Art New York is –
N: It’s wild!
J: It’s wild but also so small.
N: It’s so small. I’d be like “why haven’t I met you before?” 2015 was the year I started reaching out to people I didn’t know. I would find people online, or on Instagram. I had a whole folder of Jewel subjects just with screen shots of Instagram handles and stuff [laughs].
N: Yes. I’m thinking about aesthetics. I’m thinking about the work that someone is doing. The process is kind of creepy now that I think about it but it’s me conducting back end research. I shot a whole group of friends – you know Suhaly [Bautista- Carolina]?
J: Love Suhaly.
N: I asked Suhaly’s friend to introduce me to about five people and she said “yes of course!” Recently, the process has been like that and I’m always surprised when people say yes. If you had asked me a year ago, who I was interested in working with, that list would be full of people with a large social following but there was no real reason as to why I was interested in those people. Now, I feel like I’m being more intentional about who I’m inviting to participate and who is choosing to participate. I feel so good after every shoot because I’m working with people who are doing kick ass amazing work.
I also feel there has been a queering of the work. I wasn’t thinking explicitly about sexuality in the beginning of the project. I’d just been shooting my friends. But I’ve been in more spaces with queer black people so I’m also thinking about both blackness and queerness as being naturally expansive and broad and wide and vast and I’m making sure that nuance is expressed. That’s important too.
J: I think 2015 was a good year to think about your work within the context of larger conversations around urban design and the built environment. Last October, I attended Harvard’s Black in Design Conference. There was an array of folks from the design world present – architects, urban planners, preservationists. They were all thinking about the ways in which a black presence in design operates as a type of cultural intervention. And while the conversation was tremendous, timely, poignant, and relevant, one of the things that struck me was the absence of representatives from other artistic fields, like photography, that are in conversation with design at any given moment. At the same time, we’ve also been having an international conversation about the environment.
It’s interesting to consider Jewels alongside these occurrences because I’m always reminded of two things. First, most of the people in the world affected by changes in the environment are black and brown people. Second, reflecting on your earlier point about the way black people have been represented in this country visually, in a very concrete, sterile way, how that representation is a product of policy that is designed to keep people out or in, away from different things. This project forces the audience to think about the ways certain structural forces rob black and brown folks of their relationships to land that have always been sacred and natural. Perhaps explicitly, we aren’t reading Jewels as political but when it’s placed inside larger narratives about policy and the history of the built environment as an institution, it takes on a new meaning. I guess this is my long way of asking if any of this is informing how you are approaching the next phase of the project. Does this loom over the work for you?
N: I don’t know if I ever told you this but my undergraduate degree is in Urban Studies.
J: Yes, I knew that.
N: I have been thinking about the built environment and design and sociology and the intersection of those things since I was in college. The first name that comes to mind as I think about your statement is Robert Moses, the man who tried to destroy The Bronx by building the expressway. In this example, you have to ask where the consideration is. Who was thinking about those people?
Interestingly, the proposal I was working on this morning was about a design class for my students. I want to fold digital arts into larger design curriculum where we think about things such as landscape architecture and interior design. If I’m trying to make these connections to the world – I’m talking about for my students – we need to be out in the world. We need to see the buildings we’re studying. We need to talk to people about how they function. They need to know what a mixed-use building is. They need to know what that means for people, what it means for the city.
To that end, my goal for the series is to maintain focus on both areas – on the creative individuals but equally the green space. It is equally about parks. It is equally about design. For example, you can’t really live around Prospect Park without having money. So where are the parks around affordable housing? There are many layers to this. Why is affordable housing designed the way it is designed? Why are affordable houses designed for surveillance? Why are they designed to feel like enclosed, inward facing, controlled environments? Why is the green space a patch of grass the size of my hand?
J: Even the language – the urban versus the suburban – conjures certain images in my head you know? When I think of the urban, I immediately think grey. I think concrete. I think poor Black people. Unfairly so. I think of Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto. When I think of the suburban, I think of Portlandia, someone watering their lawn, happy white people jogging down the street. I mean, one of the courses I most enjoyed in college was titled Black Urban Studies –
N: I love that it’s Black Urban Studies.
J: Exactly. Point proven right? The first piece of literature we read in this class was Ann Petry’s The Street. Have you read it?
N: No, I haven’t.
J: It’s a superb novel from the Harlem Renaissance era about a little boy and his mother living in Harlem and everything that happens on the street. It becomes a sort of metaphor for this cold, dank place – even as Harlem is becoming the Mecca of Black America. The Mecca: this place where people are having fish fries and infamous rent parties in their apartments but outside on the street contending with pollution and lack of services like trash collection.
N: Oh, absolutely.
J: I’m thinking about all of that. Your series Go South, for example, which has a different focus than Jewels, also encourages a reckoning. Urban spaces don’t look the way they look because we decided that.
N: And now, in New York especially, they are realizing that so much public housing was constructed near the water, land that the city now wants to invest in and make money from. But I want to tell you this story. Last year, I was describing Jewels to a white man and he asked me how I planned to combat the visualizations of slavery. Clearly he hadn’t seen the work. But what’s more is – I mean, that ‘s the first thing that comes to his mind? Black people and land and slavery? And this is a well-educated man who went to Columbia with me! So my photography also becomes a way of saying that we are in these green spaces for leisure. We are in these spaces to play. To play!
J: Is it fair to say that you are most interested in using portraiture as the primary way to have the conversations about the environment or do you find yourself approaching the craft from multiple techniques? What’s the emphasis for you right now?
N: The emphasis has always been the land, the built environment, and people. Recently, when I’m not thinking about Jewels from the Hinterland, I’m thinking about spaces completely devoid of people. I went to Brazil last September and the photographs from that trip are about the colors of the city, the textures. You feel the presence of people. But I’m not interested in say, street photography where I’m out on the street thinking solely about how people are navigating the space. I’m out on the street looking around or above or below the people.
My photography is about people and green space working together. To start my research, for Jewels, I spent time thinking about Seydou Keita’s work with backdrops. What does nature look like as a backdrop but what does it look like as something more interactive? As space that I’m lying in, that I’m touching, a space that’s cradling me.
J: Is it fair for political and social concerns to take precedent over the aesthetic considerations of your photography?
N: I think aesthetics are of an incredibly high value. That’s why I’m so careful about whoparticipates in the project. It is first an aesthetic matter. If I’m not inspired by the way you carry yourself in the world then I am not going to want to make an image with you. But the reason I am making this work is because of the social and the political. It is because of the climate, because of the trauma, because I didn’t know how to process those conversations. I still don’t know how to process the trauma that happens to the black body sometimes. I wouldn’t be making work without certain conditions however; it’s hard for me to separate the aesthetic from the political. They are both of equal importance. I’m making images to be seen certainly, so I have to be careful when considering what the image looks like and how it might be read by viewers but the work wouldn’t exist without my responses and reactions to contemporary culture.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jessica Lynne is co-editor of ARTS.BLACK
Learn more about Naima’s work here.