How Polly Irungu Created a Space for Black Women Photographers

To read about the other culture transitions for February, return to the list here.

It all started with a Twitter list and a love of photography. Polly Irungu, a 28-year-old photographer and photo editor, noticed a need for community among other Black women trying to find their way in the publishing industry. And she wanted to hire them.

In July 2020, Irungu launched Black Women Photos, an online directory of about 100 Black female photographers, compiled from a Twitter list she began building years earlier while a student at the University of Oregon. Irungu was tired of hearing excuses from editors and brands who often claimed they couldn’t hire new or established photographers from different backgrounds because they didn’t know where to look.

“My goal at the time was to just be a one-stop shop to find people and hire us,” she said. “And then, how can I find a community too? I was feeling very lonely, and the craft is already so isolated because it’s just a freelance job.”

Black Women Photographers - a global community and database of Black women and non-binary photographers - has grown to over 1,500 members in over 60 countries.

Kreshonna Keane for HuffPost

Black Women Photographers – a global community and database of Black women and non-binary photographers – has grown to over 1,500 members in over 60 countries.

Journalists from marginalized groups have long spoken out against the lack of diversity in the industry. A Pew Research Center A survey of 12,000 journalists found that most say their newsrooms do not have enough racial diversity. Conversations about media diversity have been on the rise since the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Irungu managed to provide one part of a solution.

“There are too many organizations out there now, including my own, doing the work to help diversify and bring equity in this industry,” Irungu said. “There’s no legitimate excuse that I can think of that an editor or an organization, a brand, whatever, shouldn’t have a Rolodex of different creatives they can turn to. There is no reason.”

Today, Black Women Photographers – a global community and database of Black women and non-binary photographers – has grown to over 1,500 members in over 60 countries. Black Women Photographers offers free educational workshops, photo events, in-person and virtual meetings, and portfolio reviews with editors at established news organizations. In 2020, Irungu started a COVID relief fund for the organization, which raised $14,000 to help photographers out of work due to the pandemic. In just over two years, Black Women Photographers has been able to give over $150,000 in grants. The group is also partnering with organizations, such as Live Nation Urban, to help hire more Black female photographers for music events.

“All these brands, all these people, all these editors, all these organizations paid attention and were able to change many, many, lives, including mine,” said she

Polly Irungu

Kreshonna Keane for HuffPost

Polly Irungu

The work of the organization has already affected the careers and skills of many photographers: A photographer in London got the opportunity to go to Copenhagen to talk about her work for a major photo editing brand; a photographer from Chicago couldn’t do a gig, so she referred him to another photographer in the organization; a student graded an assignment after a portfolio review with the New York Times; another London photographer shared a progress report of sorts with the group, describing how her technique, lighting and composition had improved over the past six years.

“Those are the kinds of things that really give me chills because, again, this is all just something I did on a whim,” Irungu said.

Irungu is self-taught, DC-based photographer born in Nairobi, Kenya. Growing up, she moved around because of her father’s work, living in Topeka, Kansas, and Little Rock, Arkansas. In high school, she worked at McDonald’s to save money for a camera and laptop. Her brother was her go-to model, and they spent many weekends practicing photography in different lighting with different techniques. In addition, she photographed concerts and sports matches to challenge her skills and to obtain dynamic photographs of performers and athletes in action.

In her senior year, she got her first big break helping a friend’s cousin at the Grammys. Her mom thought of her photography as a hobby, so she didn’t take the gig seriously. That moment was a big turning point; Irungu remembers that the photos weren’t great, but the experience convinced her to take her skills seriously. That attitude helped her mother get on board as well.

In high school, Irungu worked at McDonald's to save money for a camera and laptop.

Kreshonna Keane for HuffPost

In high school, Irungu worked at McDonald’s to save money for a camera and laptop.

Irungu is inspired by her mum, the eldest of 12 siblings, and then two photographers: an award-winning Nigerian photographer Lola Akinmade Åkerströmauthor with a academy of photography and storytelling. Then yes Audrey WoolardChicago-based Nikon ambassador specializing in children’s portraiture.

Of course, she is also inspired by the work of her peers and members of her organization. We talked at length about one of the best photos of 2022: Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson with her daughter Leila at her confirmation hearing. The IS photo Sarahbeth Maney, photography fellow at the New York Times; that angle and that approach of a Black daughter who respected her mother, was extremely powerful.

“Seeing that photo and the pride on the daughter’s face and just the pride I had knowing that it was done by a Black woman,” she said. “That’s a photo that I know will be in the history books and will be seen for generations to come. Whether Sarahbeth realizes it or not, she has inspired so many to tell those stories that are in front of them, whether they are historical moments or not.”

Irungu has also taken on assignments to document moments in history. One of Irungu’s last assignments was the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. She shot the passage of the crowd – and relied on the best rules she follows in her work: listen first, respect your subjects and photograph them “in their truest light”.

“I think I’ve been able to move across America a few times after being able – within my work as a journalist or in my work as a photographer – to be able to understand people and talk to people and lead do with them. more empathy,” she said. “I never want to overreach or cause harm in anything I do.”

Since the organization’s inception, Irungu’s work with Black Women Photographers has always been more of a passion project. She worked full-time during the organization’s growth: as a photo editor for WeTransfer and as a social media editor at WNYC’s The Takeaway. In July, he was tapped as a photo editor for the White House, processing, editing and captioning images for the office of the vice president.

“It was an eye-opener and a great experience to learn from a real pro in the game,” Irungu said of Lawrence Jackson, the official White House photographer for Vice President Kamala Harris. “It was a blessing to be here and learn from one of the best there is.”

Irungu has a few volunteers who help her run the site and schedule events, but it’s mostly a one-woman show behind the scenes. As a result, she didn’t have much time to spend on leisure shoots (although the weekend after our interview, was scheduled for a very special shoot: Her mom asked for a photo shoot for her 60th birthday).

Now, Irungu and the organization are hosting more events in person.

Kreshonna Keane for HuffPost

“For me, it’s always just about passing on what I know and inspiring someone along the way because I’ve been taught and inspired by someone else.”

Last year, Black Women Photographers held their first exhibition in New York in partnership with Hi-Arts, a non-profit for artists. Since then, the members have curated their own exhibition in Los Angeles titled “Our Black Experience: Stories From Black Women Photographers”. In February, the exhibition was launched in New York City at Galerie Kitsuné, featuring New York-based photographers.

“For many photographers, they are rarely shown in a gallery or exhibition. Hopefully the goal is to have your work live across a social media platform,” she said. “It’s a beautiful feeling to see it on a wall, to see it in someone else’s house, to see it anywhere and really, I feel like it gives a good boost of confidence and can be a catalyst, a driving, is the highlight of someone’s career as well. That’s what I hope these exhibitions can be for the photographers.”

Irungu hopes that the organization will continue to expand, with more brands hiring and collaborating with the photographers in the database. She is not done helping others and hopes to continue building community within the organization.

“For me, it’s always just about sharing what I know and really inspiring someone,” she said, “because I was taught and inspired by someone else.”

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