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What’s it like being a PoC artist today?

Photographer Emmanuel Olunkwa and Amandla Stenberg go head-to-head on the difficulties of being a ‘minority’ in the art and fashion worlds

LA-born, New York-based photographer Emmanuel Olunkwa’s work reads like a who’s who of the internet generation. Faces like fellow photographer Hobbes Ginsberg and actress Tallulah Willis populate his photos while Dazed cover star/best friend Amandla Stenberg is on call to discuss the visibility (or lack thereof) of minority groups in the art and fashion worlds. Connecting with most of his subjects through Facebook and Instagram, his relationships quickly transfer over to the ‘real world’. “If I photograph someone once I’ll end up photographing them a hundred times. I’m interested in the development and evolution of friendships and relationships,” he reveals.

All laid out on his Instagram feed, a self-described personal diary of his life and friends, 21-year-old Olunkwa is determined for people to push beyond the surface of his portraits. “I am obsessed with the aestheticization of life and composing a narrated body of work that embodies the ways in in which one can navigate and engage with various social media platforms.”

A passionate advocate for PoC, he says, “I am inspired by change and knowledge. I’m currently reading Ta-Nehisi’s Between the World and Me and it has validated and articulated so many experiences and worries as a person of colour that I often have to brush off. I refuse to be subjected to the fate of whatever labeling that is associated with the colour of my skin, I will be the author of my own book and write my own destiny – I will make my own choice.”

Going head-to-head with Stenberg on the topic, he explains, “I do not want to be framed as someone who takes pretty pictures nor do I want to be someone whose work  is only political. That’s why I chose to speak to someone who knows both me and my work who understands my struggles and why I don’t want to be susceptible to being one thing. Amandla understands how it’s hard to be more than one thing.”

“Having a ‘token’ person of colour or representation once in awhile is not enough” – Amandla Stenberg

Emmanuel Olunkwa: How do you think publications can better represent minority groups?

Amandla Stenberg: I honestly think there's a lot of power in letting people of colour be nuanced. It's crucial to talk about important issues – and it's also crucial to let people of colour be indulgent with their artwork. Let us be flawed characters. Let our work be messy. Having a "token" person of color or representation once in awhile is not enough.

Emmanuel Olunkwa: Exactly! Let us work through what it means to be us. But wouldn't that extend to the intersectionality of gender and sexuality?

Amandla Stenberg: Of course. That's another part of it – realising that minority groups are interconnected and that people are multidimensional. I feel like my race, gender, and sexuality are essential components of my identity and how I experience the world. That's why I feel like fresh representation is so important. I mean, as a gay person and a person of colour, do you feel like you have representation that doesn't disparage you?

Emmanuel Olunkwa: Not really. I'm often only compared to black artists. I feel like most people can't see past my complexion and I’ve had to deal with that insecurity. It's so interesting to see how well-informed you are in high school because I didn't realise how black I actually was until I got to college. I grew up in a predominantly white environment and have mostly been surrounded by white people and had never thought of it. I did not realise what my skin represented despite experiencing discrimination. I thought it was character-specific and did not exist beyond my person, which makes me feel some-type-of-way now.

Amandla Stenberg: I feel like I grew up aware of race but did try to make myself more white with the way I acted and dressed until high school. I think that’s the age where people start to define themselves. It’s so exciting to see so many teens of colour glo’ing up by becoming comfortable with their identities at younger and younger ages.

Emmanuel Olunkwa: I love being black now. I understand what my skin represents and the history it holds. I understand that my people are resilient and strong. At first I was resistant and denied myself the experience of being black but It's been a slow transition as an artist of colour, I feel like I have a responsibility to be knowledgeable in every capacity. I want to know how everything works and the history behind it so I do not misrepresent it.

Amandla Stenberg: What's interesting to me is how some people say blackness is a "trend." And I mean that applies to culture but also it becoming "cooler" to be black now. People have told me, "the only reason you feel more comfortable being black now is because it's trendy." And you know what, maybe it is. However, that doesn't make me being proud of my identity any less valid. It means there’s a movement of black pride and that’s really exciting.

Emmanuel Olunkwa: Girl, you didn't. Also, true – but check this: it might be "relevant" to be black now on a social media and cultural level but when it comes to corporate employment it doesn't seem to be so promising because of racism. But I'll just continue sipping my tea.

Amandla Stenberg: You’re spitting fire; that's so true.

“I’m often only compared to black artists. I feel like most people can’t see past my complexion and I’ve had to deal with that insecurity” – Emmanuel Olunkwa

Emmanuel Olunkwa: I just can't help but feel some type of way because while, sure, my white friends study gender and Africana studies, it doesn't make my struggle any more well-known or felt because they've yet to feel it. It's challenging when I feel compelled to actually express how racism plays a larger part in my life than I'd like to admit and everyone reads it as me being dramatic. But I'm actually nervous that – despite my knowledge and skill level – I'll be unable to get a job based on the colour of my skin.

Amandla Stenberg: But “slavery is over! Racism doesn't exist anymore!” What are you talking about?

Emmanuel Olunkwa: (laughs) exactly. “I don’t see colour. One of my best friends is black”. Experience lived and experience read are not the same thing. That’s the shit I’m tired of. I am not willfully ignorant of the pressures and stigmas that exist in the world but when I’m labeled against my will that’s when I take issue.

Amandla Stenberg: I get anxious about that too when it comes to acting and directing. It is so difficult to find roles with substance for women of colour, and to assert yourself in a field dominated by white men.

Emmanuel Olunkwa: Dude, don't get me started on fields dominated by white men. I experience that all of the time with the fashion and art worlds. Honestly, when you're like us it's better to risk it all putting yourself out there and pursuing your dreams.

Amandla Stenberg: That's true. The fact that it's challenging can actually feel really empowering.

“I get anxious when it comes to acting and directing. It is so difficult to find roles with substance for women of colour, and to assert yourself in a field dominated by white men” – Amandla Stenberg

Emmanuel Olunkwa: Wait, but also – likeability and appealing to a white audience are unusual to achieve as an artist of colour, but we both have carved out spaces to exist in our fields of choice. I could get so into this right now, should I go there? Can I go there?

Amandla Stenberg: Go there!

Emmanuel Olunkwa: I struggled to get into college because I lacked the motivation. My friends went off to school and I was left behind and had to figure out my shit. I got it together and I went to college scared, thinking I was unworthy of pursuing higher education and incapable of performing. However, I continued pushing and paving my way forward and started doing internships. This summer I was anticipating coming home and working hard and keeping the momentum going and nothing surfaced – no one got back to me – nothing...

And that's when I realised how hard it's going to be to get a job regardless of my skill-set and knowledge. At first I was busy moping around depressed trying to figure out whether I had grown or not and then I realised that I needed to start my own magazine and focus on projects that make me happy. I've only ever created a space and place for myself to exist in within whatever group I was in, in my professional and creative life. The whole point of this is to show you that you define your own destiny. And when you give someone else the keys to navigate your life that's when you don't amount to your full potential.

Amandla Stenberg: Wow! I'm really feeling everything you just said. That's such great advice and I'm really excited to see what you do because your talent is next level. I also feel that I really have to create my own projects – they don't exist for me yet.

Emmanuel Olunkwa: I mean, look at it this way: if we don't do it who's going to?

See more of Olunkwa’s work below. To find out more, click here