The drama, layers and coherence of Delphine Diallo’s photography could lead you to believe the photos were meticulously planned and laboriously edited. But that’s not the case. The real effort goes into her own personal and spiritual growth, which Diallo says shapes all of her work, ‘Most of my shoots are intuitive and they can’t take too long. It’s like an experience… The spirituality I’m receiving is very high energy; when I feel it is disappearing, I stop. The entire work is based on a spiritual moment – I catch it.’
Diallo’s Bushwick studio and home – an inviting, art-filled space – feel like an extension of the woman. Wearing a plain white tank, skinny jeans and a backwards baseball cap, she looks perfectly comfortable in her own skin and spacious apartment. Classic hip hop plays in the background from Method Man’s I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By to De La Soul’s’ Stakes Is High.
As we discuss her art, particularly the photography catalogued in her photo book, The Gift, Diallo explains how themes of womanhood, racial diversity and spirituality came to be so central to her aim of ‘creating new icons’ and ‘spurring social change’ with images.
They are ready to be women.
Smiling, she shows me a photo of her aged 31 on an elephant in Botswana, ‘I love the fact that everyone was like, “This is retouched, right?”’ The legendary Peter Beard had invited her on the trip as a model and assistant. She praises Beard as a mentor who ‘gave me the strength to find who I was to become’ and inspired her to show a different view of womanhood than the one she saw expressed in his work. Diallo recalls, ‘I understood his vision of black women being among the most beautiful women in the world. “Living sculptures,” he called them… But, I was like, “I’m a woman and I don’t want to be just an object of phantasm for white men… Africa is not just full of living sculptures of black women. They are proud and strong and they are ready to be women.”’ Beard challenged her, ‘If you disagree, then show me.’ The photograph of her eleven-year-old Senegalese muse, Indi, is in homage to Beard.
The Botswana trip inspired her ‘to create a new vision of women through my own eyes’. Her perspective reflects women’s individual complexity, strength and vulnerability, as well as their diversity. Calm and reserved throughout our conversation, Diallo becomes animated when explaining the importance of showing the connection a woman has with her body, rather than simply reducing women to bodies. ‘When [will] people finally get inspired and respect their bodies differently? You have Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé, but I’d like women to express their own version of beauty in a man’s world. Instead of showing who you are superficially, show me who you are inside. Not just selfies.’
I make them classic. I am trying to make them timeless.
Diallo keeps her process simple and does not spend much time editing. For her iconic photo of I Echanteur at the Apollo Theatre, her direction was limited to, ‘Do what makes you feel strong’. Her approach is a reminder to the viewer that life, raw and unfiltered, is captivating enough.
Her work in black and white redefines what constitutes classic beauty in photography. ‘People ask what kind of collectors buy minority work. What do you mean by minority? Black representation? Mixed representation? The 70 per cent non-minority? [My] work as a photographer has been to create an icon based on an expression of beauty I felt was not being explored. I make them classic. I am trying to make them timeless.’
‘The Highness’ series composed entirely of women of African descent were collaborative projects that needed Diallo’s spontaneity, but required more forethought. She intentionally departs from her traditional black-and-white format for these images. She chanced upon the colour blue for a powerful photo in ‘The Highness’ series, that resonates with ‘this spiritual colour’, reminiscent of Krishna and Yemaya. Also part of the series is a fashion shoot of diverse women. The colour photo shows off the beauty of the gowns as well as the different skin tones and hair textures of the models.
Perhaps Diallo’s work feels so personal because she does not see her photos as artefacts, but as offerings to her muses. She says, ‘It’s even more than just a beautiful picture, I want to give them back what they give me.’
We are what we are seeing.
Although she doesn’t take herself too seriously, Diallo treasures her craft because she understands the power of images and ideas. She says, ‘We are what we are seeing. We are what we are reading… You have to re-appropriate yourself. If you’re training for a sport, training for vision, it’s the same thing. You gonna finally dig for your interest in life, not from magazines, not from TV. You are someone unique. Just go there for six months and you will discover who you are.’
Diallo’s trip to Montana to visit the Crow Nation was particularly important. She called the work ‘Vision’ because, like a messenger, she felt ‘I was there to bring back the vision… That was the call at the beginning of the work, to say: “You think you know. You don’t know.”’ She views storytelling with images of people from different backgrounds – in the United States and internationally – as both a calling and humbling reminder: ‘It was about stepping outside of my world to recognise that I wasn’t the centre of it.’