I AM WOMAN: Expressions of Black Womanhood in America is a showcase of the indomitable Spirit of Black Womanhood weaving through generations as cord of strength and wisdom.
Forget the world.
I AM WOMAN is a declaration of existence – without permission.
Everyone is aware of their outward image. Many people spend their lives enhancing their shadow while neglecting their substance. The narratives within I AM WOMAN span five centuries of a powerfully consistent perspective. Despite habitual abuse, neglect, sexual violence, human trafficking, and a stifling minimum of economic opportunities, Black Women have continuously elevated themselves and grown in excellence.
Who Do you say you are?
I AM WOMAN: Expressions of Black Womanhood in America is a triumphant response to centuries of oppression, neglect, and abuse. It’s a tribute to the women in America who are not seen, heard, honored, or appreciated, yet are always relied upon to support every layer of society. This collection of images and words is an expression of how Black Women in America see themselves. Who they believe they are as individuals in private, in public, as a community, and as givers and receivers of ancestral grace.
Comprised of portraits, poetry, essays, and speeches, I AM WOMAN reaches back to Isabel de Olvera who swore an affidavit in 1600 declaring her freedom from marriage and slavery to the deeply inspiring inauguration of Kamala Harris as the first Afro-Asian and Woman Vice President of the United States of America 2021.
Photographed, compiled, and edited by LaShawnda Jones, I AM WOMAN: Expressions of Black Womanhood in America weaves together contributions from Women across the United States throughout the country’s history.
With contributions from dozens of women
One book, several formats
Behind the Scenes
We are who we are.
About LaShawnda Jones
LaShawnda Jones is an independent author, photographer and publisher for Harvest Life. Her work focuses on women, spiritual growth, and social justice. She has published several books exploring the impact of childhood sexual trauma in adulthood as well as the challenges and joys of applying principles of faith in all her interactions. She has a B.A in Political Science and French and a M.A. in International Affairs. She has studied in France and Poland in addition to missionary training in New York City and Israel.
LaShawnda Is a member of the RAINN Speaker’s Bureau and is available for speaking engagements nationally. She is also available for photography assignments. Her creative work can be viewed at Harvest-Life.org.
I take a lot of pictures. Especially since I got a digital camera. Even more so since I started buying 125GB memory cards. And I save everything. I just did a quick scan of my image catalog and I have at least 152,000 images on my mobile drive. That doesn’t include anything on my desktop, laptop, phone or tablet – possibly another 10,000 combined on those.
Before 2009, all my photography was on film. I was all about snapshots. Being artsy wasn’t a priority. I wanted to capture moments. Around that year, I purchase my first digital camera, perhaps an Olympus with zoom. It could hold a couple hundred images on the memory at a time. Much more capacity than film, but not enough when you want to photograph everything.
In 2011, I invested in my first DSL, a Sony A33. I knew I wanted to eventually become a paid professional photographer so I had to get serious about my gear and skills. Practicing with different lenses, prime and zoom, in different settings for varying purposes allowed me to get extremely comfortable with being in the background and observing life from a pensive compositional view point.
Over the years, I’ve photographed vacations, visits, weddings, births, funerals, corporate, community and social events and nearly all of my travel. Nature has been my true love, however, trying to capture light in an image, the way it moves over a scene, changing the mood and color, is fascinating. The moon in all its stages is mesmerizing. Great shots of the sun are illusive. As are images that do the stars any justice. Then there are trees that I stalked through their seasonal cycles. Every spring in New York City, saw me searching out budding tulips as well. And over the last couple of years, I’ve been improving my skills with self-portraiture.
In 2018, I felt I was ready for an upgrade and ready to start hiring myself out for photography work. I purchased my Sony A7iii and beefed up my gear kit significantly. I had already been the unofficial official photographer for my group’s legal conferences and other events at work for about seven years. And by that time, I had been photographing demonstrations for social justice (against police brutality and state-sanctioned murder) for nearly four years. I had quite a portfolio, all I needed to do was cull and focus the work.
Focusing on my strong suits, however, is difficult when I enjoy doing everything, and perhaps my best work isn’t necessarily the most financially lucrative. See social justice photography. Or satisfying. I’ve had friends tell me that some of the images I took of their weddings and receptions were better than the photos they paid a premium for. But who wants to be a full-time wedding photographer? I don’t mind the occasional wedding, but that’s a lot on a regular basis.
Over the last year, I’ve been hyper-focused on upskilling. At the beginning of the second week of January 2019, I had just returned home from two weeks in Egypt and Ethiopia. Perhaps about 3200 photos were taken on that trip. While I was there, I knew I was documenting for collections and art, meaning, I wanted to create artwork from the images and do some travel writing as well. One of my investments that year had been a Sony 12-24mm wide lens, an upgrade from my Rokinon 12-16mm. It was purchased for my real estate photography, but I love it for travel, nature and portraiture.
In the summer of 2018, I began working on a photography project called I AM WOMAN. I had a vision for the images as I took them, but I didn’t have the skill to create the end result. That didn’t stop me. Somehow I knew I would learn what I needed to know in order to accomplish my vision. That’s the primary reason I don’t delete my photos. As I review the images I took in 2018 of nearly seventy women, I’ve realized that what stood out to me at the point of the shoot, and even during the initial reviews, are not necessarily the same things standing out to me as I edit for my photobook. As I’ve learned to use Lightroom, Photoshop, Microsoft ICE and Topaz Labs effectively to enhance my photography I’ve learned that even dull and dreary images can be fantastic elements for a composited image. That knowledge has kept me from mass purging.
For example, one of my gleeful moments in editing I AM WOMAN, is the final composition of Lyn’s image. One thing I’ve been adamant about for this project was that the women come as they are. I wasn’t interested in glamor shots or over-stylized images. That being said, looking through the images while trying to build a cohesive collection for a book, many were uninspiring. So I looked for ways I could enhance the image without altering the appearance of the woman. During one of those exercises last month, Lyn’s final happened.
Lyn was photographed in Columbus Circle in the center of Manhattan. Neither of us were interested in representing Columbus at all. Even less so in a work about Black Women in America. I had already had several shoots in Central Park and the one before Lyn was in front of the Time Warner building shops. A great thing about NYC is the great many backgrounds you can get within the span of a block. We tried to focus on the JOY and GLORY on the pedestal of the monument. Though this is one of my favorite images for its simplicity, it didn’t seem to speak to others.
More than two years after the image was taken my skills caught up to my vision. Lyn’s word is Resilient. Stone is a good representation of resiliency, but how much better is a Sphinx than a monument Columbus? The Sphinx image was taken during my last visit to The Met Museum in 2019. I had the idea of merging, compositing and juxtaposing images, but I couldn’t figure out how to put images together to make them look like one.
Well, technology also caught up to my vision. My first photo project was a calendar in 2004. I hired a photographer and photo-editor. For my second calendar a couple of years later, I tried my hand at editing some images in Photoshop. I was hopeless. The task seemed impossible as a lot of the work required a steady hand to remove objects and trim around pixelated edges. Now with a click or two and some close touch-ups elements are easily isolated. Just like that, I can go beyond my initial vision without alternating the presentation of the Woman or subject.
It also helped when I realized I don’t have to follow any rules, only my imagination. Therefore, I can create whatever flows from my thoughts and present it in whatever way pleases me.
I have never sought to be perfect in anything. I only seek to be present and do what I can with what I have. What I’ve learned is what I have increases over time, as does my effective use of my skills and resources.
This project has been my heart focus for a couple of years now. When it first came to mind, I had no idea how I was going to achieve a cohesive product because my thoughts for it were/are all over the place.
Despite very sound advice to focus on one theme, idea, pattern and font to carry throughout the project, I don’t think, create or interact like that. I’ve photographed over fifty women in six states at different stages of their lives from completely different backgrounds. The one thing they were all asked was: What word would you use to describe your womanhood? (My theme.) From that we went about trying to portray each woman and her word in an image. (Completely different styles all around.) Aside from the question and their interest, very few had much in common. So as I edit these images, my primary goal is to make each one stand on its own and hopefully, as individuals they can be a collective together. That’s an overall hope for my life as well.
In 2018, I hosted a number of mini photo shoots for women interested in free photos and possibly being part of my final project titled, I AM Woman. The portrait sessions took place in New York City, Chicago, Gary, Milwaukee and Phoenix. The various backdrops include skyscrapers, water, desert, green parks, and museums.
Though I wanted interesting backgrounds, the backdrops were not a focus or priority. The locations were chosen for convenience and diversity. New York sort of lead the charge here as I held about six sessions around town. One was a practice shoot with a former co-worker in Central Park North. My second practice shoot took place at a women’s conference in Harlem. The third shoot was someone else’s photo project that I asked to join in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Permission was granted to tag alongside her photographer for my own shots and I offered to share my work with her for her project. After this, I scheduled my own sessions and accepted whoever showed up. Battery Park, Central Park, Columbus Circle – the City is certainly a huge part of I AM Woman.
Meeting in open, well-populated landmark locations seemed to work well. All the women were, for the most part, comfortable and almost immediately at ease.
In Milwaukee, the meet happened at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The landmark architecture of the Burke Brise Soleil, designed by Santiago Calvatrava, had to be the backdrop for this Great City on a Great Lake.
At the end of the shoots, I didn’t think I had done such a good job capturing the building. It was blurry and cut off in a lot shots. In others, the angles were unattractive. Again, since the building wasn’t my priority, I went about selecting the images of the women that best represented how they saw themselves.
Luckily, I don’t really delete my digital images. Years ago, I decided to keep everything I shoot with the belief that what I don’t like today will be amazing to me tomorrow. Because of this, editing the images for I AM Woman is exposing a great deal of possibilities by blending images I would normally do nothing with into images that need a bit of umph! I stitched four such photos together that didn’t work by themselves to get a great final image that will be the background of one of my portraits from that day in the final cut.
These were shot with my Sony A7iii and Rokonon 14mm wide lens; composited with Microsoft ICE; color and cropping were done in Lightroom; removals and smoothing done in Photoshop; and final finishes were done in Topaz Labs Impression. What do you think?