Artist Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. on Making Work in the Margins

The photographer, who has shot the campaign for Telfar x Gap, a Janelle Monáe cover, and much more, discusses destroying the societal structures that be.

Collage featuring the works of artist Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.

You started off 2020 with a pretty major collaboration, photographing the campaign images for Telfar x Gap in January. Can you tell me more about that?

Telfar [Clemens] and I had seen one another at parties, and just as a fellow creative Black person to a fellow creative Black person, we would say hi to each other out of an unspoken respect. I remember when they did their Century 21 collaboration, and they were selling the bags for a significantly lower price than they usually are. I had gone to the pop-up, and that was actually the first time that I had met [Telfar creative director] Babak Radboy, who asked me to shoot the campaign. I said to Babak, “Girl, you know these bags don’t have the sensors on them?” As I was saying that to him, a friend of mine did end up taking one of the bags and we laughed about me saying something afterwards. I’m pretty sure Babak didn’t do anything about it when I told him; he welcomes chaos and things that other businesses maybe have more of an ego about.

GAP’s Paris storefront featuring photographs by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.

You shot these images in Paris, and they debuted in that city’s Gap storefront.

The images appeared in Paris, but we shot them in Florence.

What was that like?

It was very exciting. The only other time that I had been to Florence was in 2016, for something related to NYU’s campus there. My hotel at that time was in the same area as where we did this Telfar shoot. There was a dinner on the first night, and a show to debut the collection the following afternoon. The dinner experience was something that they wanted to have in celebration of themselves and this moment in Florence, and the larger creative community they are part of. All of the clothes that you see in the photographs, they are clothes from the fall 2020 Telfar show, but the images were used on the side of the Gap to announce their collaboration.

How much time did you have to shoot?

I had a full two days. I shot during the preparations for the dinner, during the fittings with all of the creatives. They were pretty clear that they didn’t want the images to be a look book, even though I think the images do have a look book feel to them. My look straddles documentary and theater—and I guess that is somewhere between look book and candid.

Is it that I desire to see Jesus bend, to witness them at odds or in question? Jesus loves me, but I believe that Jesus is in process too (2018). Photograph by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.

When do you feel the most connected to your work? Is it after you’ve created it, or once you’ve shared it via Instagram, or when it debuts in a Paris storefront?

I think that dissonance only comes about when I work in an editorial capacity, and I don’t work as editorially as often as I work for myself. And usually when I do have that feeling, I just don’t share the image from that editorial thing. I try to only share things that I’m proud of which reflect me, or an experience I’m satisfied with. When I was making the Telfar images, it was an isolating experience. Seeing those images on the side of the Gap, that’s just something that I could never have asked for. That’s never really been a goal of mine, to participate commercially in such a large-scale way, but it was really beautiful to see the work that I did for the brand that I also have a lot of respect for, seen there. As an artist, you have to be the primary defender of your work, in addition to being the primary author of it. So when I put something out, it really is because I’m interested in sharing with folks. But if it didn’t land with people for aesthetic concerns, I don’t care so much about that.

Janelle Monáe photographed by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. for the cover of King Kong Magazine, September 2018.

The last time we worked on something was actually for W—you shot some really beautiful images of Ato Blankson Wood, who starred in Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play. When we got the images back, there were some that included an anonymous pair of hands holding Ato’s head. My team asked, “Whose hands are those? And why are they there?” I found myself unable to explain the purpose of this aesthetic choice beyond that it made me look twice at the photograph. How would you explain your choice to include extra, sometimes strange, details in your pictures?

Working with the margins at first grew out of a political positioning, recognizing that the margin is an important way to read the center. And what’s held at the margin—there’s a lot of power there, because it isn’t fully included. So, in the instance of the Ato portrait, I was using it fairly metaphorically. As with any tool that you employ, it begins to take on a life of its own and it reveals things that you hadn’t necessarily planned for. But I think above all, tucking things into the margins of the photograph allows me to indicate that there is something beyond the focus, or the purported focus, of this image. And that’s often why a lot of the people in my pictures aren’t really looking at the camera as well, because that sense of eye contact really grounds the photograph and grounds the viewer’s connection with the photograph in the individual. The individual, for me, is as important in the image as the space is. In order to equate them, I often have to downplay the importance of the individual, because that’s typically what people are rushing to.

Keep that one metaphorical (2018). Photograph by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.

A well commanded army tucked at the corner of his lips (2019). Photograph by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.

Many of my favorite photographers have such a strong voice that, regardless of what they’re shooting, whether it’s Janelle Monáe for the cover of King Kong, or a personal project, you can place images from either shoot next to one another and see the conversation they’re having about that artist. I do see a lot of consistency in your work. Do you actively try and achieve this consistency?

No. There is a way I see that is undeniable, and a lot of my images do have a consistency that you’re speaking to. I often work with people inside of their homes, even though a lot of the images that I’ve made recently are of people outside. Most of the recent ones haven’t really used any added, artificial light, either. Oftentimes, working with available light, especially if I’m continuing photos with people inside, means working with shadows and working with darkness a lot more often. So I think that I approach every assignment in every work that I make with an effort to forefront what is foundational to that person’s experience and what are their tools for fortifying themselves in that moment. I arrive at things thinking, “How can I visualize power? How can I visualize intimacy? How can I visualize warmth?” How can I do those things without exploiting this relationship or the environment that I have access to? How can I present these things in a way that is respectful and that is still engaging? Those are questions that I bring to each thing I do.

You’re approaching your work with consistent questions, not necessarily with consistent visual tools or tricks.

Yeah, I pretty much arrive at everything with the same questions around respect, power, and warmth. I did a commission for the Public Art Fund where I made a photograph for them that is not of people. It is more of a landscape image, but it references a landscape that has multiple uses for individuals. Even in the way I rendered that landscape, there is an abstraction to it. There is still an interest in privacy.

Do you have moments when you’re working in editorial spheres and you are being challenged to abandon the aesthetic choices that were the same choices that attracted the client in the first place? For instance, if they’re saying, “No, we want them to look directly at the camera,” or, “Why are you doing that thing in the margins?” How do you stay confident about that?

I actually run into this every time I’ve worked editorially. I try to also view editorial work as a challenge to think about the history of the publication that has commissioned me. Who are the people that they often work with? What do those photographs look like? And I try to get into the headspace of the editors, the editorial leadership of that publication. A friend gave me a piece of advice when I was asked to photograph Rujeko Hockley for Cultured magazine: “You should make a photograph of her that shows what you think of her.” It was a very simple suggestion, but what I took from it was that I should try not to be as elusive or ambiguous as I would choose to be in my own work. Then I can begin to make something that feels honorific but that also feels like it’s part of me. Now, before I agree to an assignment, I talk to editors about what sense they have of my work, because that’s how I’m going to make the work, and if that approach isn’t interesting to you or isn’t what you want, you should go to somebody else. And I’m totally fine passing up jobs. I say no to things all the time. So if it’s not the right fit, it’s just not the right fit but, for instance, this last thing that I did for the New Yorker—

Oh, I wanted to talk about that!

I was a bit confused on how I would approach this sort of assignment. And I was also startled that the New Yorker had even asked me to make these pictures, because I hadn’t worked for them in two years. And I have never photographed a dancer before, but I also have encouraged editors to hire me for things that they may not immediately think of me for. So when I got to the park to scout locations for the shoot, I had spent some time with two places in particular. And when I was walking to the entrance of the park to meet Jamar Roberts, I saw this other place that was shrouded in darkness, but the light was hitting the stone really crazy. And I was like, “Oh, that could be really interesting.” Where my practice is going in relation to these ideas of withholding is working more significantly with darkness and a lot of dark negative space. That was the first location that we photographed, and I was immediately satisfied by those images because it complemented the article’s sense of mourning.

I’m willing to go back to an editor, talk to them about it and I’m always willing to defend the choices that I made, including the choices that maybe weren’t the right ones. If it was shit, if I think it was shit, I’ma tell them, “Hey, this is shitty. I didn’t like how this was approached.” But if I believe in it and I believe in how it tells the story, then I have no problem advocating for myself. But if somebody else doesn’t see it, I’m not going to spend too much energy on it because that is the responsibility of the editor’s imagination. This happens to me in exhibitions too, with group shows: People who ask me to participate under a specific guise. And then, I offer them something and they’re like, “Huh, why this?”

Jamar Roberts photographed by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. for The New Yorker, June 2020.

Especially over the last few months, with the Black Lives Matter movement becoming a headline across media outlets again, I’ve seen the photography community band together, using its resources to do some concrete good. People are shifting their Instagram content from their own work to helping others, BIPOC photographers are sharing resources, and there are print sales like Reframing the Future, and Miciah Carter’s project, See in Black. I’m wondering what the last few months have been like for you, especially on social media and seeing both real allyship and some that’s performative.

Something that I shared with a friend of mine, Gioncarlo Valentine, feels relevant. We had a conversation over Instagram Live about a month and a half ago. Gioncarlo, as somebody who takes up a lot of public space on his own Instagram and who writes for various outlets as well, is not only showing up in private and showing up among his trusted people, but trusts himself to show up in public as well. He trusts that public voice, because it’s a tool, one that should not dull. So in terms of Instagram and social media, they don’t feel like spaces that are any more intense right now than they usually are. Instagram is a space for cultivating information, a space for sharing resources, a space for encouraging action. Those are all things that we should welcome. When I do need to be quiet, sometimes I need to not talk to my friends, so that means not engaging with these extended friendships or these extended casual relationships on the internet. That’s a fine thing to do, too. I don’t talk to my mom every day. Some days, I really just need to be alone to orient. What is my work in this current moment? Not all of the work benefits this movement or is in mind of this movement—some of it is just, “How do I need to take care of myself today?”, which abstractly is related to this movement, but directly, it’s just related to me. So I don’t think about this moment as being overwhelming. I think about it as just being another critical one within this ongoing struggle for liberation of Black people and demanding a standard of living for all people which includes, at the least, being able to live.

On ice (2018). Photograph by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.

I do think that white people feel overwhelmed, and that’s actually the problem. The implication, then, is that you’re feeling overwhelmed because you’re not typically confronting this discriminatory part of yourself. Knowing that, it’s interesting to consider that it’s not any more overwhelming for you than it might be if you were pressured as a Black artist to speak about this.

There’s no pressure, no pressure to speak. When you allow yourself the energy to educate folks around how their actions are harmful—especially because we need to hear it from the direct source about how it’s harmful in order to move forward—the overall tone ends up being sorrowful. But when you are working intra-communally, there is a lot more balance. So when I’m talking to other Black people, we’re going to battle each other, and we’re going to collect each other as necessary. We’re going to hold each other accountable, but we’re also going to celebrate one another. We’re going to cook for each other and care for one another and we’re going to be gentle with each other. When I’m sharing things online or I’m speaking up online, that’s out of a responsibility to myself and it’s also out of a responsibility for the people that I love and care for. And that is not something that I feel pressure from white people to describe. In fact, I find that a lot of the time, I’m talking to other Black people in the things that I’m sharing. When I’m talking to white people directly, I say that directly. I don’t feel any pressure from white people to do anything. I’m actually, as I said earlier, more than okay having someone know I’m not going to speak on this and maybe redirecting them elsewhere.

I’m really grateful to work for myself. I’m represented by a gallery and the director of it is a white woman. We speak intermittently, but our relationship is rooted in how she can be a support to me and what it is that I need for my practice. It still is a one-to-one thing. Whereas somewhere like W is employed under this larger corporate umbrella. There’s a lot under the surface there. There’s a poison that feeds into the foundation of the way that all of these companies work. There’s a lot of work to do to suck it out, but I would really be more comfortable with allowing these companies to fail and be replaced by something more substantive and more accountable. Something that, at its core, at its foundation, is already thinking about ideas of expansion and how we can actually be useful to our constituency as opposed to feeling like this is a phase that needs to be done. White people are going to be tired the second that it’s time to go back into the office. White people are going to go back to their business of being inattentive, lacking discipline, lacking focus. It’ll happen all over again. Something large will happen, and then it’ll be like, “Wow, where are the black people?”

The conversation, especially in the media industry, becomes even more complicated when you realize that as white people, when we, for example, report on Juneteenth, a Black holiday, we’re somehow benefitting monetarily from people reading our story online. In that sense, the coverage of Juneteenth is somehow putting money in the pockets of white people.

I enjoyed when Juneteenth was a thing that people just celebrated amongst themselves. I really don’t like holidays at all, but for those people who did celebrate Juneteenth more actively, it felt really almost gaslighting to see various institutions cover the holiday. To get a notification on the phone from Apple News saying, “Hey, it’s Juneteenth. Happy Juneteenth,” is bizarre when this has been a thing for so long that other people didn’t recognize.

I’ll end here: much of the reason why Toni Morrison ended up winning the Nobel Peace Prize, in addition to her work, is because a lot of Black people were campaigning for her to win the Nobel Peace Prize and were campaigning for the institution to recognize her as someone who was deserving of it. So then eventually, she gets it. I was thinking about the way that you honor somebody like Toni Morrison who has spent her entire career thinking through the condition of Blackness in its variety. The way that you honor someone like Toni Morrison is actually through destruction. It isn’t through giving an award, giving a prize, giving these material benefits but it actually is in destroying things as we currently understand them. It is really nice to be recognized for your work. It’s really nice to have a moment of peace around your work, and to be taken off of your feet a bit because of all of the work that you’ve done—and Toni Morrison also very thoroughly enjoyed a party, and she very thoroughly enjoyed celebration and very thoroughly enjoyed gifts. So she definitely accepted the Nobel Peace Prize with tremendous honor. But I think Black people really throw a wrench into pretty much all means of doing anything, that it isn’t enough to just give someone an award. It needs to be met with structural impact, structural change. It has to be a complete structural revision, but they have to be destroyed first, in order for something to be made of it.

Not yet titled (After Live, Laugh, Love) (2020). Photograph by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.

I end each interview by asking: what are you most proud of so far in your career?

I’m most proud of the way that I practice photography. What is greater than the greatest achievement, for me, is the way that I photograph people: it’s rooted in respect for people, rooted in wanting to see that person across varying stages of dignity and not simply within the aspirational stage of it, wanting to actually see a space no matter how messy or neat, and offer it a plane.

Related: Ato Blankson-Wood Unpacks the “Power and Pain” of Slave Play