Harlem-born, Paris-based photographer and filmmaker Joshua Woods speaks to CL Mayers about his artistic practice, the difference between Harlem and Paris, and what he has learned as an African-American in Europe
When I ring Joshua Woods, he’s reading A Creative Convening by Kerry James Marshall, having just moved house. He describes the book to me as a collation of “a number of Black intellectuals talking about Kerry James Marshall’s work in relation to the Black space; creating Black space, and how to challenge things in the 21st century”. His choice of reading comes as no surprise considering Woods’ introspective thoughts in recent years; trying to understand what it means to be a Black photographer and to showcase Black experiences on a world-stage, whose lens is too often focused on its trials and tribulations. “I look at it as me contributing to the positive outlook, or the positive role of what Black culture does and plays into society.”
The Harlem-born, Paris-based photographer and filmmaker highlights the stories of his subjects in signature ground-spice hues with a radiating warmth. He focuses on the lives, cultures and histories of Black people across the African diaspora, seizing moments that help to shape the more representative future he not only imagines but is actively crafting. He’s photographed the likes of Assa Traore and Melvin Mcnair, artists from Kelsey Lu to Skepta, and most recently shot a 12-page story entitled Les Gentilhommes for the Autumn/Winter 2020 issue of AnOther Magazine.
Here, Woods discusses his artistic practice, the difference between Harlem and Paris, and what he has learned as an African-American in Europe.
CL Mayers: When did you first pick up your camera? Was your photography career intentional or something you sort of fell into?
Joshua Woods: One of my buddies, Rog Walker, photographed Solange’s wedding. Another good buddy of mine, Andre Wagner, is like a Gordon Parks and he documents Black culture. Those were my two counterparts and we would just hang out and take photographs of each other. I came from that little crew, which sparked my interest in pursuing the medium. I started photographing outside of fashion shows and then I started shooting backstage for a few years. Then I hit a ceiling and decided to focus on looking inwards, more so than looking outwards for photographs. That’s when I started tapping into myself, what I wanted to say and what I want people to think about my work.
“I look at [my job as a photographer] as me contributing to the positive outlook, or the positive role of what Black culture has to do and plays into society” – Joshua Woods
CLM: What do you want to say? What do you feel like your job is as a photographer?
JW: I have been really examining what it means to be a Black photographer. What it means to showcase the Black experience. I look at it as me contributing to the positive outlook, or the positive role of what Black culture has to do and plays into society. Whether that is shooting Aaron Phillips, who is the first Black, transgender, and disabled model. Or shooting the Stonewall Inn crew, who started the gay rights movement of the 70s and hearing some of their stories. Going to Africa, Senegal, and photographing everyday life and reality there. Photographing Melvin McNair, a hero, a Black hero. My work has definitely covered a lot of ground and individuals who are bucking the system and who are doing things unconventionally. I think that has been important for me to capture in my work.
CLM: In an Instagram post, you spoke about Harlem, your hometown, as more than a geographical location but a way of mind. I would love for you to unpick that for me.
JW: Harlem has such a rich history, you know? When you think about Josephine Baker, the Harlem Renaissance and all of the arts and culture. The poets, the Langston Hughes of the world who broke through. I think about the Malcom Xs and Adam Clayton Powells. Even the drug dealers [like] Bumpy Johnson and the people who walked the boulevards and who protested for Black lives to be relevant and important to the world, and to be contributing factors. I carry that with me, in what I do and the ethos in what I do. I think about it on those many levels. [I think about] James Baldwin and how he moved to France, to Nice. I think about my trip to Paris and living here as sort of my hero’s journey. Kind of following in his footsteps and the footsteps of the many individuals who came from Harlem and who represent the frame of mind of what Harlem is and what that means.
CLM: What was Harlem like growing up in your era? What had a lasting impact?
JW: I grew up with a strong sense of community and I think that helped me develop my own community when it comes to my friends, peers and bringing other people around into my world. It was tough, there was a lot of peer pressure to be the flyest. There was a dress-code and clothing was like an armour. I had to be fly and I had to be fresh, so that’s what sparked my curiosity in relation to fashion and wanting to be a part of the fashion community.
CLM: I also read that you grew up nearby Le Petit Senegal in Harlem. This obviously inspired your trip to Senegal and for me personally, that trip produced some of your most instantly recognisable images. What was that experience like for you as an African-American?
JW: I felt an instant relief in Senegal – not feeling the pressures of the suppressive system in America. It was fulfilling, my spirit was so filled and I became super balanced. It opened my eyes up to seeing how the rest of the world has this tainted image of what Senegal and the rest of Africa is. It was full of so much culture. I got to see Orchestra Baobab perform at this German, sort-of consulate. I moseyed in to see what was happening and there was a drum and jazz band playing. They announced that orchestra Baobab would be coming on next and I instantly started crying tears of joy because I had just found out about them and they were the soundtrack to my whole trip. So to actually be listening to their music in the motherland, being surprised, and just stumbling on them haphazardly … I cried. It was a moment of complete joy and it completely changed my whole way of looking at life, and my perspective on Black life and culture.
“I felt an instant relief in Senegal – not feeling the pressures of the suppressive system in America. It was fulfilling, my spirit was so filled and I became super balanced” – Joshua Woods
CLM: You’re living in Paris now, and you kind of spoke on it a little bit early, the histories of Harlem and Paris. Generally, a lot of Black Americans, especially those from Harlem of that era, who sought freedom in France and Paris in particular. You recently shot Melvin McNair who’s been living in Normandy, and I was wondering how you feel about your own journey?
JW: My mum would tell me throughout the protesting and the George Floyd movement, make sure I take care of my wellbeing. There was a month that went by last year, around September or August, and it was just killing after killing of Black boys. I was just like, “I gotta get out of here because this is no way for me to live.” So definitely, in relation to Melvin, I mean, I didn’t hijack a plane to get to France but I definitely took quick action and quick measures to move really swift.
CLM: I have a few American friends who have moved over to Europe permanently and we landed on this interesting point about the romanticising of Europe, but also the necessity of romanticising at times. The necessity of hope and the dream of an escape.
JW: I spoke to art students at La Sorbonne and they were asking me what I think the difference is between living in America and coming here to France. It’s been a more reflective time and there has been more time for me to see what exactly is taking place here. I got asked to shoot Assa Traoré who is like the Angela Davis of France. Everyone is leaning on her voice; I’ve seen grown men hold on to every one of her words with tears coming out of their eyes because this woman has so much force and power. I got asked to photograph her and the young Black activists in Paris. I came here from experiences of fashion week and I really didn’t know about the corrupt system and the racism here in Paris. I had a different view of it. So when I got to photograph all of these individuals and I was able to see and be a part of the Black lives change movement here in France, it really opened my eyes. It was a reminder that being Black, you’re mistreated anywhere you go around the world. It doesn’t matter where you are at. It has definitely been an interesting journey to say the least.
CLM You’ve also been engaging in a lot more film and I was wondering what we should be expecting from you in the coming months and near future?
JW: I’ve always been hugely inspired by film and I made an experimental jazz film with this jazz band from the lower east side of New York called The Onyx Collective. They collaborate with Kelsey Lu and have done shows at the Guggenheim and the MoMA. We made a really cool experimental jazz film, which is something that I have always wanted to do. I have definitely wanted to explore the medium as an extension of my photography and I am planning on working on some longer length films and exploring the Black experience. I want to drive home my point of making more books and making more photo books about seeing Black joy and seeing different elements of Black lives.
Hair: Yann Turchi at Bryant Artists using GHD. Make-up: Aurore Gibrien at Bryant Artists using DIOR. Models: Najib Abdi and Alexis Tiem at The Claw and Abokor Moussa. Casting: Molly Ledoux. Set design: Kaduri Elyashar. Photographic assistant: Clovis Bataille. Styling assistant: Christelle Owona Nisin. Printing: Photo Lab NYC. Production: Kitten Production. Special thanks to Arthur Kar, Fanny Latour-Lambert and La Chope des Artistes.