Multimedia journalist, digital editor, and self-taught photographer Polly Irungu is the founder of Black Women Photographers (BWP), a global community and online database of Black women and non-binary photographers. Polly is also a Digital Content Editor at New York Public Radio managing social media for WNYC and PRX’s ‘The Takeaway’, a national NPR show. www.pollyirungu.com. Follow BWP on Twitter: @BlkWomenPhoto and Instagram: @blackwomenphotographers.
What do you create?
I create communities. I create advice, workshops, and I’m really interested in thought provoking conversations that help with my professional development and personal growth. I create tweets and Facebook posts, and Instagram posts for work and also for Black women photographers on social.
Why do you create?
I’m originally from Nairobi, Kenya, but I grew up in Topeka and Lawrence, Kansas. After my freshman year in high school, we relocated to Oregon. I was in a state of culture shock. I didn’t know much about the state and had just learned not only that it was predominately white but about its racist past.
I was very depressed my first year in Oregon. My third year of high school was my first time picking up a camera. It was the guidance of my high school counselors at the time. The reason why I started creating then was I needed something to really just dig myself out of this hole that I was in. I needed to really just make the best of my situation. I don’t know what else I would be doing, I don’t know where I’d be, I don’t even know if I’d still be here.
Who is your audience?
I create work for myself, mainly. I recognize that my audience isn’t just Black people, it’s a global mix. I think that’s because of my background, all the different places I’ve lived, and all the different communities and people I interact with in my work. So it’s a very global audience. But I definitely create for myself. That’s the beauty of art. You put it out in the world and you never know the reception, you never know what forms it will take, and how it will be perceived. And that’s why I love it.
Why did you create Black Women Photographers?
Back when I was in Oregon, I didn’t know any other Black photographers or Black women photographers. I needed that community and it got to a point where I was like, you know what they say: keep waiting for a seat at the table or you could build the table and make some seats for yourself. I was very much inspired by different communities already existing before me, but I was feeling like there was still a void.
I made this Twitter called Black Women Photographers. I needed that inspiration. Then, when I started reaching out to bloggers, I was like oh, I have over 400 people on this list! I really wanted to be intentional about the space that I was creating. It’s not just about me, obviously. My path is not the same as the next Black woman’s path, so I really wanted to understand what their experiences were and how they were feeling and whatnot.
There’s definitely still a void this for the industry at large. It’s still a white male dominated industry. And there’s still excuses being made that we can’t find any, we can’t hire. I was just tired of all of that. Unfortunately, I’d hear from photographers that even prior to the pandemic, they were not being hired and so of course the pandemic just made that worse. I had no idea how much work it would entail, or what it’ll do and what it’ll become but now [the community has] formed into its own its own thing. But that’s really why I started it: as that resource for the industry.
What have been the benefits of such a community and network so far?
It has been well received. I launched it with 100 photographers, now there’s over 600 in all corners of the world now. It’s really beautiful to see how they show up for themselves. And having these Black women photographers hired. I used the hashtag #hireblackwomenphotographers from the start because that’s really the goal: to hire us. There’s only so much that exposure or whatever can get you. I want money in our pockets. It’s really just creating those opportunities where I can, whether I’m working with brands or a social collaboration or whatever.
I’m also starting to see some of these photographers feel more empowered in a way that they haven’t been before. They are just more confident with their skills and abilities. I think this is in part because they see what other women are doing, and feel inspired by them. Also the different events and workshops we’ve been hosting regularly for the past few years have gotten the attention of (photo editors at brands), and they started to offer their time and resources to this community for free. They’re making these contacts and relationships with editors at the Washington Post or Reuters or Bloomberg. That’s huge.
What have been some of the challenges?
It is a lot of work. I’ve been doing events consistently every month for almost a year now. Even just posting on social media, responding to emails, sending emails. I’m constantly pitching these brands publications, like here’s a credible database with lots of Black women photographers you can check out. It’s a lot of work.
How do you balance creating with the rest of your life?
This past year, you know, I put my own aspirations like photography on the backburner. I’ve only done like two projects. Anytime I wasn’t working my 9-5, I was working on this. So for me I’m just trying to find more balance in everything. I’ve kind of slowed down on the events. We just announced a month- long webinar series that’s in partnership with this other organization, The Everyday Project, that is just once a week. I was like okay that’s doable. I’m trying to remind myself to create that balance. I’m in this for the long haul and so I need to make sure I am not burning out, I’m not overly exhausted, that I’m taking care of myself so that I can continue doing this work.
What is your favorite creation by a Black person, and why?
I’m inspired by Renetta Cherlise (@renatacherlise). She built Black Archives. It’s just an incredible, really invaluable resource, because so much of our history, Black American history, has been erased or whitewashed or whatever. And so having her preserve and document that Black people have contributed to this country but also globally, I think that’s just incredible and so I’m very much inspired by her and her team’s work.
Any advice for new creators?
I feel like people say this time and time again and it kind of feels somewhat cliche, but it’s something that I’ve really come to really understand that for my own life is so true: trust your journey. For me the phrase, “what is for you is for you,” like, oh my goodness, I can’t say that enough; it is so true. Everybody has their own journey. I just kept my head down, did the work, and here I am. Everything will work itself out, it really will. I think people just need to trust in that process for themselves. Keep showing up for yourself and doing the work and people will take notice. Now I’m dreaming so much bigger for myself and for others. I really feel like I can do anything now and that’s just the energy I’m trying to give others.
What are your current or future projects you’d like to plug?
Visit the Black Woman Photographers page. I’m really proud of this site and updated monthly, and I’ve been doing some cool things like spotlights on the site as well and those pieces are really good