Portraitist Charlee Black Reflects On Community

Charlee Black

Community building through portraiture.

Words by Charlee Black. Edited by Sasha-Gay.


Early beginnings

I’m a 24 year old portrait photographer based in the Midwest. I have been shooting since I was little [when] my mom use to buy me little disposable 2 packs cameras. It was my bi-weekly treat. I’d shoot my dogs or plants and shit. She would develop them and we’d pick up another pack. I was given my first dslr in middle school, which was crummy hand me down Nikon with a kit lens that got me through high school. I was lucky enough to purchase another camera right after graduation along with some gear. Maybe it’s being raised by a single mom, or just being frugal but gear or whatever isn’t big for me. I always felt gear can be an excuse. I can make whatever work. Your girl is crafty!

Charlee Black came into fruition late 2016, early 2017. I was taking portraits professionally, but I didn’t create the work that I love and respect until Charlee Black [the brand and studio] was in full bloom. All I had was my gear, laptop and an extra bedroom with foam board. You have all the tools you need. Don’t ever think you need to be out here spending tons of money and being in some studio. I’ve been there and trust me you have to be good on your own. Don’t think having those things magically make you a pro.

Choosing a creative path with portraiture

Two or three years ago I underwent some rebranding and really shooting the content I enjoy. I finally decided this when I was working a job that made me miserable. While I had jobs, I always did photography part-time. During the peak of my hatred for this job I couldn’t shoot for about 3 months and I hit the biggest wall that I have hit in years. I was so unhappy and I felt that I didn’t have a purpose. I picked up a camera after those 3 months and for me that was it! Photography is my first true love. I realized that what keeps me sane is creating and when I can’t do that I feel lost.
My dad always says ‘when it’s your passion it doesn’t feel like work.’ I never feel like I’m working. No matter how stressful or chaotic a shoot set can be, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

A photographer once said he really enjoyed shooting architecture because he liked that buildings didn’t change. I remember reading that quote and thinking ‘bullshit’. I enjoy shooting portraits because people are constantly changing and expressing emotion. I like how someone can lower that wall that we all walk around with. That feeling of vulnerability on both ends is amazing. The subject is letting me see them: raw and unbiased, and I get to take an unbiased look at them. I appreciate that.


I had a solid village of strong women raising me, so I have always been adamant about representing, and creating communities amongst women. I was raised by a strong mother, aunt, cousins and other female figures. I feel that resonates in my work. I shoot women from powerful angles that, up until some years ago, was how men have been historically portrayed. Fuck that! I want to only see strong ass women in my work.

I believe a community is what you make it; kind of like family. To create a family, whether business connections or people you trust to confide in. It is important as an artist, as a creator. In the age of social media, it’s easy to think you have to do everything on your own when truth is that’s absolutely not the case. Find your people and make a community for yourself. I have taken the time do so this past year and it’s something I’m extremely thankful for. The hands series was really inspired by women in my life who have passed on I have lost my mother and my aunt Losing two of the biggest figures in my life really messed with me but remember that those people don’t ever eae you they are always there guiding you and speaking to you.

In a broader sense, I have never thought about my contribution to photography. However, I think it’s monumental as a queer black woman to be as forthcoming and open as possible. It’s funny because we are in the year of the woman, right? All these top photo and camera brands are trying to create space for female photographers, and its like just NOW? In 2018 ? I’m ready for black women creatives, especially photographers, to get shine and praise. Our stories are just as important than all the men in the room, and the five (white) female photographers in the room as well.

— Charlee Black