24 minutes with Micaiah Carter
& Mo Mfinanga
- Published January 14, 2019
Micaiah Carter, a 23-year-old Los Angeles and New York-based photographer, utilizes his work as a microphone for people who don’t feel like they have a voice. This champions an evolving representation of black people, which we discuss, along with the mobilization of art and why 'blackness' shouldn’t be a trend in 2019.
Mo: What's been new in your world, other than going to LA and shooting covers? [both laughing]
Micaiah: I've just been doing a lot of editorial work for the last couple of months. I did stuff for So It Goes, Sleek, and Paper magazine. They just recently gave me like 18-page spread editorial in their recent issue. I have something out in Billboard right now, and I have a short film coming out soon as well. There's a lot of things in the air that are kind of circulating, but I haven't really had time for personal work since it's all been for other people, so hopefully I have time to do some personal work [soon].
Mo: It's good to have consistent, commissioned work but the catch-22 can oftentimes be not being able to refresh your imagination.
Micaiah: Exactly! I feel like my work would become repetitive in a way that I wouldn't want it. You know, I guess for other people it's different from the outside-in, but for me as a photographer and artist, I need big emotional breaks in between projects so I have time to process the emotional aspects of everything because I'm a really emotional person since a lot of my work is triggered by emotions. So I think that me having space between would help be a stronger person. Because, for instance, there's one shoot that I did in October of 2017 that still resonates with me that I'm still posting photos from, because it was such a direct, personal shoot that wasn't related to any brands. I didn't have to focus on the details of this or that type of thing. I was allowed to focus on the feeling of what this could bring you. I would love to do more of that.
Micaiah: It's interesting, though, because brands want that but they really don't want that. They want to like sell their product, but they also want to tell a story. You're kind of finding this balance between advertising, especially even faster because everything's changing so rapidly.
Mo: But how do you find that balance while maintaining emotional integrity in your work?
Micaiah: I try to take control of at least what the vision will be. I wouldn't take a shot that I wouldn't want. I try to make it where I can combine my elements into [various] commercial works. The worst thing is having a client ask you to do something that doesn't look like your work. So I guess it's just finding that balance. Like, for example, I had did a collaboration with Adidas in Brooklyn Museum for black history month, and I shot eight portraits of eight different community catalyst in the Brooklyn area that are doing things in the black community. That was very interesting because I was able to do the lighting that I usually do, but have such a meaningful impact to the people in the shots—and the brand wasn't even a big component. They were kind of there just sponsoring and enhancing the photos, but I think projects like that really give me the emotional integrity with my work.
Mo: One of the things I've noticed in your work the past year is seeing black people captured in such a warm way. In my limited exposure to the history of photography, I've found a lot of prolific images of black people to be photographed in a grotesque way, for lack of a better term. So it's refreshing to see work like yours where that's not the case, which I assume is intentional.
Micaiah: Yeah, I was raised in Southern California in the Mojave Desert, so a lot of my lighting come from where I was raised at and in the way I saw light. That's why there's warmth in a lot of my photos. I try to emulate that whenever I can because in New York there’s no light. [chuckling] So it's kind of funny trying to find that balance between them both that really feels right and natural.
Mo: That's one thing that I didn't even really notice until you said that. In New York, there's not a lot of light or warmth, nor any elements that encourage that. You're forcing that out of the city.
Micaiah: When I started shooting primarily black people—who I've always shot—but I was working through my thesis and I was thinking about what I could do, and I started going back through my dad's [photo] archives who was 22 in the Vietnam War. So I looked at his scrapbooks because he always made scrapbooks of him and his friends when he came back from war. In Atlanta, he started this group to be a safe haven for people-of-color soldiers, queer soldiers, or soldiers from different religions. Because in the late '70s there weren’t many places where they could openly be themselves, especially after the war. He really influences the way that I look at how black people and how they were viewed in the context of how he views himself, his other friends and his other brothers. I thought that was very beautiful because I look at today and I see black people represented in a way that isn't pinpointed. There's always this culture phenomenon of black people; there isn't a frame on what it means to be black.
Micaiah: For me, I wanted to take those stereotype, take those persecutions that were on African-Americans, and kind of rework them into saying that this is something—through history—that we we collectively bring together with our culture. It's just about making it seem beautiful versus a thing that is less wanted, especially with darker skin, because I realize that in the black community colorism is a really big thing because the lighter the skin the more better you're treated. So I try to have this color palette that allows all these types of beautiful, brown types of skin to glow. Fashion photography does this thing where they cast African models and they make their skin darker than what it is. It's like this fetish-tation or this aesthetic missile in Black that I kind of want to take away and make it its own. Just make it like normal. In , I don't think blackness should feel like a "trend".
Micaiah: I remember during my thesis talks while I was injecting the whole ‘70s inspiration into my work, and some of teachers didn't like it. I had this one professor say it was trendy and I realized why he said it was trendy—because Black Lives Matter was in the limelight, so it was interesting to see that he would see this as a trend. So that's what directed me to want to do more and more, and show that this isn't a trend. These are people's lives; these people exist. So I wanted to combine different elements from the past and present to show where we are right now, because there's nothing really like that right now in terms of like capturing the present. People always want to find what they missed in the past, but we should focus on the now. By having a new representation of black men and black women, we can shift not only how my nieces and nephew see themselves, but also how their teacher sees them.
Micaiah: I didn't know about any black photographers that were doing the things that I would want to do until my senior year of college. In Parsons, there was only one black teacher at the time. Going to college brought up a lot of identity issues in me, like figuring out if I can do work about my old self. Is it going to be trendy? It took me a while to think that this doesn't even matter. I just jumped in on the basis of my gut and it worked. People understood what I was saying with my work and I was really happy during my thesis show at Milk. I don't know if you've seen this photo, but I took this photo of a guy wearing his durag and a girl was tying his durag back, and there was smoke in the photo.
Mo: I think I have.
Micaiah: So that was the photo at my thesis show. And then I had a book called 95/48. It's still going to come out, but it talks about the contrast between my dad and his friends and what they were trying to do back in the ‘70s and what we're trying to do now. I mean, this is kind off tangent, but my mom used to always get Oprah Magazine and Oprah had editorials in there and I was intrigued by these otherworldly things in fashion because these bodies were able to create these really unique, other-worldly experiences, but I didn't see a lot of black models. And I didn't realize that until I got to college. So that's why I want to take elements from fashion, from those other-worldly things, and create these like themes that you haven't really seen black bodies in. I want to make something timeless, something that can stand the test of times and make the viewer wonder when this was taken.
Mo: Advertising dictates the commercial atmosphere behind photography, which is interesting because you're never sold the present. You're usually sold the future or the past. So I think, by nature, the viewer and creator are automatically conditioned to attach a timeline to the media they consume. It’s always more favorable to look at the past, whether visually, conceptually, or both. It's interesting to see you force yourself to think and create presently. Was that always a thought or was that something that materialized in college or recently?
Micaiah: It materialized. It took me a while to see my work as the foundation for what I want to create. The research I do now is very specific, though. Like, I'll focus on textures that I want to use, a specific pose, or something like that. I'll go back into archives of Viviane Sassen. Recently, I've been I've been interested in film a lot more. So I've been unpacking that a lot. A few my favorites have been Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Gregory Crewdson. Their work, to me, kind of speaks to what I want to do now, because their work feels timeless and it feels like you don't know where it's at because it has a feeling. I think now with my work, I tend to lean towards that versus looking back in the past or to regurgitate new emotions if it's not personal. Like for my dad, I reached back into his own personal archives which is why it's impacted my work so directly.
Mo: I'm assuming that you go back and forth between shooting digitally and film correct?
Mo: So within that, how do you know that you're capturing that feeling when you're not able to see the result of that in real time, especially with film?
Micaiah: I guess it's about the vibes on set. I usually love to play music and music has always been a big impact for how people interact with the camera. But I realized that I love shooting on film a lot more than digital. Granted, digital is more for commercial work. With film, I realized people really slow down because they're in the present so they'll make a face that they wouldn't normally make. I love having limitations and I feel like those limitations can create more emotion and feelings because you're trying to evoke something that you can't really see.
Mo: Yeah, and it introduces a lot of trust. The subject knows that you can't see what's being taken it so they're trying harder to make sure that you're getting the shot you want, which in turns makes them fundamentally invested.
Micaiah: Yeah, exactly. For example, I just shot an entire editorial on film for this magazine called Nataal. They're this online African diasporic type magazine, partnered with Red Hook Labs. It was interesting to shoot it completely on film because I feel like we were able to really slow down. I also realized that my post-work kind of changed. My dad was a computer tech after he went to Vietnam, so I was hooked into computers at birth basically, which let me later in life navigate around Photoshop and similar programs in middle school.
Micaiah: So I didn't really have my own color palette until college, but speaking on that, I was just thinking about how I would edit the colors differently on film versus the digital ones. I kind of made it so that it kind of all blends together now, but when I first started to want to combine digital and film. I was kind of curious to see how they would live with each other. I'd usually always crop my photos to 4 by 5 just because I like that that size format.
Mo: What's an example of a shoot where you knew that you probably wouldn't have gotten those images unless you shot it on film, disregarding the obvious visual characteristics, but more so focusing on the energy or the trust?
Micaiah: I guess there's two [types of] moments. One moment is when I shot Quincy Brown—P. Diddy's son. It was funny because he loves film, so when I brought my medium format he was cool and happy about it. So [maybe] his energy would've been different if I pulled out a digital camera. Another time I shot film that I really appreciated was for Wonderland. I'm really grateful I shot Zazie Beets from Atlanta on film because we got to have a conversation about the emotion she was giving me in the photos versus smaller things that sometimes models worry about.
Mo: Something you mentioned earlier that I'm curious about is growing up and not seeing that many examples of black artists. At least for me, growing up in a black-Muslim household, there was never any indication of anyone pursuing visual arts, so I'm curious about how you decided to stick with arts when you discovered it through your dad.
Micaiah: My dad is 70 and my mom is 63. So because they had kids in previous marriages, they took a different approach for me. Throughout my whole childhood and growing up in a working family class home, I did everything they wanted me to do. I took piano lessons, I did acting; I did all these different types of things. I never wanted to really get into anything technical because I was really bad at math, which discouraged me. My parents didn't understand why I was always on the computer and during my high school years I used to have a Tumblr.
Modern Social Norms
Mo: How do you facilitate conversations with artists for shoots that aren't for a brand?
Micaiah: It depends. Sometimes I'll reach out to agents for new faces that need new work. I try to make a treatment per se of poses and different moods that I want to evoke. Sometimes I'll free write and write a little poem to go with the kind of mood I'm trying to set up for everything. I haven't had the time to set up personal work in a while, though. This is my third day off in four weeks but I have some ideas of where I want to go next, which deals with intimacy and personal relationships—something that I lack which I'd like to explore.
Mo: Is that within your work or personal life?
Micaiah: It's weird because with my work I've never shot anything that deals with sex explicitly. I don't know why. Maybe because I still feel innocent in a way. [both laughing] I feel like I haven't experienced a lot in my personal life besides a motherly and familial type of love. I think once that other type of love happens my work might change.
Mo: It's interesting because I've seen so many naked self portraits of photographers and I don't know when or if I'll ever get to that area of vulnerability with my work. It takes a certain calibre of intimacy in oneself to allow that.
Micaiah: Take for example Nan Goldin and what she's been through. She photographed a lot of her friends on drugs and opioids and I don't know how recent ago she did this, but she did a photo series about her being on opioids which was interesting because it was so real, which is what her other body of work embodies as well. I love seeing herself in her work. She would take these portraits and they would only be shared in the vicinity that she wanted them to be. I experiment a lot with my work, but I wish there was a way to release it.
Mo: What do you find is the responsibly of your work right now?
Micaiah: I feel like the responsibility for me is to be transparent. I think transparency is being honest with the subject and the intention of the styling. Along with the other things I said before, my work deals with blackness but I'm also a human so I don't want to be boxed in this world. Even for my mom, they appreciate what I do but you never want to be boxed in because you can never leave that area. I don't want to use Tyler Perry as an example, but I'll use him as one. [both laughing] He probably can't do a Steven Spielberg type of movie, if that makes sense.
Mo: It makes sense. You work so hard to mold a certain language, either visually or contextually, so you can either continue perfecting it or decide to do something different. I feel like that's usually the catalyst between boxing yourself in and doing something inventive. But even if you feel like you're taking the route of perfecting something, people might get tired of it. For example, the language behind Petra Collins' work has allowed it to become empowering and identifiable but how much of that allows her to do something new without people reacting indifferently?
Micaiah: Yeah, maybe the subject matter would be the same, but as you said, the approach would be totally different. Sometimes I'll get really stressed out by photography and joke with my friends that I'll quit photography in five years and do something completely different, which is a lie. But I feel like that sometimes because I want to see what it's like to not be a photographer. Even for me, the people I love to photograph the most are the people who don't know that I'm a photographer at first. I think those photos and relationships are outstanding.
Mo: I've thought about that, too. In this context, if you're a photographer and have garnered a certain parameter of clients and work, and decide to leave and do something completely different, I don't know if this industry is forgiving enough to come back to it, especially with how fast everything moves.
Micaiah: Have you heard of Carrie Mae Weems?
Mo: No, who is that?
Micaiah: She's an artist who did this series back in the day about racial work. She took a commercial pause mid way through her career and she recently came back to shoot Mary J Blige for the cover of W Magazine. But I get what you're saying completely, especially now. Back then these artists could make a foundation and it could stick. But now because things blow like the wind, you have to be all-in all the time.
Mo: Exactly. If a great photographer like Zoë Ghertner stopped shooting right now and she said she'll be back in five years, who knows where she'd land in that future climate of photography. Something to note about you saying we have to be all-in all the time, it's scary to not know if the path we're taking will prematurely fatigue us.
Mo: Have you found yourself able to identify if someone wants to use your work as a commercialised framework of black people instead of an empowering foundation?
Micaiah: Sometimes. It's impossible to know all the times. It's getting better now because they're having people of color in these in-between positions. It's always going to be white people having to have inclusion; people at the boards will try to have urban sections for all these brands to cater towards that. Not all the time it happens, but I can tell when it does usually. It'll be them getting me to do something because they don't have access to my friends, or access to getting a white photographer to shoot something in Bed-Stuy being comfortable. It depends on when you can bring it up, but it’s there and obvious sometimes. I think everybody is trying to make a checklist and you can notice if it's not genuine.
Mo: Even if you find yourself in those situations, do you try to educate the client towards a more ethical viewpoint?
Micaiah: Yeah, because the whole thing is a collaboration. For editorial, I try to make selects that serve the subject the best without feeding into an ulterior motive. And I'm glad that editorial clients are using black photographers to photograph subjects that culturally align with them.
Mo: What do you find the purpose of your work to be right now?
Micaiah: I feel like my work is to be a voice for the people who feel like they don't have a voice, or feel like they're underrepresented.
Where can we follow you?
- Website and Instagram
Last thing you googled?
- Native Son
What's your unwritten rule?
To always trust your gut no matter what.
What happened in the last dream you had?
I honestly can't remember the last dream I had.
What does working with you feel like?
- I try to keep things very low stress and positive energy throughout.
What question do you hate getting asked?
- What's next?
What are your most used apps?
Twitter and Instagram.
- Samuel Bradley
“People want the original, don't they?”