"Truth Translated into Images" / Photographer Laylah Amatullah Barrayn on Struggle, Self-Acceptance, Becoming Whole, and Truth



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{image: © Laylah Amatullah Barrayn/ Kauthar-Harlem, 116th Street}

“Truth Translated into Images”/ Laylah Amatullah Barrayn
by Kameelah Rasheed (Intern, The Liberator Magazine)

“One of those books would be asha bandele's The Prisoner's Wife. I think my life changed when I read that book, I've never experienced that degree of honesty. It mirrored my struggle with self-acceptance, becoming whole and acclimated with the truth. It is a beautiful, liberating story. I'd love to have those elements of truth translated in my images. I've been focusing on portraits over the past couple of years. I've been enjoying the process of composing with my subject, helping them tell their story through a photograph simultaneously while allowing me to expand my philosophy and practice of composing. Portraits really uncover so much for a photographer.”
—Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

I came to know of Laylah back in 2007. I was an aspiring photographer in California and had flown out to Brooklyn to the opening of a group show I was in at the Brooklyn Artist Gym. Somehow, I stumbled onto her work online and excitedly emailed her samples of my work and asked for some guidance. I was nothing more than an enthusiastic stranger on the other side of country—on the other side of an virtual wall, but she did not hesitate to have a phone conversation with me about my work. I finally made the move to New York City in 2010 and Laylah has been a critical force in encouraging me to take more risks as a photographer.

Laylah is a self-taught photographer, essayist, educator, cyclist, former dance, and food enthusiast.

In her giving nature, she was eager to discuss her photography, upcoming projects, inspirations, and words of wisdom through an email interview with us:

Liberator Magazine: Who is Laylah Amatullah Barrayn? Where did you grow up? What are your folks like? Where did you go to school?



Laylah Amatullah Barrayn: The more I venture into adulthood; the more I'm paying attention and learning who I am. The things I am discovering are fascinating. I love the freedom that I realize is my birthright, I don't think many people are aware of their freedom. We subscribe to what is popular as opposed to our natural inclinations at the expense of our authentic and happiness. The process of growing is hard, at times, but it is a beautiful struggle, as they say.

I grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a small neighborhood, known for its notorious hardness and crime. So, some of the first lessons on negotiation and communication unfortunately involved violence as a means. But living with that helps you to understand that there are other options and those other options you come to appreciate in earnest. I went to NYC public schools all my life. I graduated from Martin Luther King, Jr. High school near Lincoln Center, the "famed" LaGuardia High School, the Alvin Ailey dance studios, there in high school is where I experienced so much of the performing arts, but not photography.

Both my mother and father were quiet and temperamental people. They were minimalists and took pleasure in "the simpler things of life," such as family, music, art and food. My mother used to like to bake when I was a child. As you move outward, my surrounding family is where you get more texture and animation in the personalities.

LM: From your biography, you discussed how you received your first official assignment in 1997 to shoot the Million Woman March at the age of 17. Can you talk more about that experience? Who gave you the assignment? Were you apprehensive? What did you attempt to capture? What did you learn about yourself as a photographer? What about this experience made you want to continue photography?

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn: My mother used her camera a lot. For some reason, she felt it was very important to document the family as they visited us. If it wasn't for her pictures, we wouldn't have many memories of our family where quite a few unfortunately passed away within close intervals of each other. I suppose, as any child would do, I took this important documentary for granted. I didn't realize the enormity of documenting one's family, especially as African Americans, until later.

I received my first assignment from a small publication [in] upstate New York to document the Million Woman March in Philadelphia. It was one of the first times where I felt powerful and that I was able to have some type of effect in that I could share this moment. I wanted to get myself and other people thinking, to offer some exposure. I didn't even realize how tremendous the march would be until I got there and felt that energy and love; it was amazing!

I had a point-and-shoot camera, film, and was so careful as to what I composed. It was a very different experience because you had a limited amount of opportunities to capture these moments. Back then I was a very fastidious but spontaneous photographer. The positive reaction I received when I shared my pictures made me want to share even more. I felt as if I made a real offering.

LM: Many people know you as a photographer; however you began as a dancer, are an accomplished writer, and now also an elementary teacher. How do these other elements of your being influence your photographic work?

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn: I think being in these different spaces spark my creativity. They provide ideas of what to explore and document. Connecting with people in different circumstances gives me different ideas on how to compose: some situations are fast; some are fragile. I've been able to really understand that because an element is at the forefront of a situation that doesn't mean that it is the most important element to consider. I've learned to investigate and understand.

LM: How does your spirituality influence your work, if at all?

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn: I think spirituality affects my photography in that I am always aware to do right by the people I photograph, to respect and honor them. There has been a controversy with Islam and photography. Some Muslims feel it is prohibited to draw, take pictures or carve statues. It comes from when people would carve statues and worship the statues. It is not my intention to have my photography represent anything divine, so I don't subscribe to this prohibition.


{© Laylah Amatullah Barrayn/ Adore}

LM: You are a self-taught photographer. What are some the advantages of this? Have you experienced any drawbacks? Do you have formal training in any other visual arts fields?

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn: My first SLR camera was such an enigma; I broke it and had to get another one! I think as long as you are learning and diligent in learning all the facets of your craft, whether you are in school or shadowing a more accomplished photographer, as long as you have that drive and curiosity, you should come along fine. When I was learning I was always out and about, meeting people, going to openings, talking to the workers in the different labs, I was just out there and eventually I became recognized as part of a photography community in NYC. I really loved my path as a self-taught photographer, the mistakes I've made were so very fortifying as well as the connections. I would think one of the drawbacks would be that you don’t have as much free access to post-production equipment as a student might have.


{© Laylah Amatullah Barrayn/ Dexter Wembley}

LM: Many of the people who have known you for quite some time or been in your presence for a few moments know that you are quite humble and have a large heart. You have accomplished a great deal at a young age. How have you remained grounded and humbled? What are you looking forward to doing next?

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn: I don't know how to answer that question. I guess since everything I do is just a part of my regular, everyday life, I don't take them as accomplishments. I love to give because so much was given to me. It is such an awesome feeling to give someone something. I don't think we pay attention to the bliss we, ourselves, feel when we are the givers; it's luscious. I want more so that I can give more. That is what I am looking forward to next, as well as curating more shows!



LM: In your career as a photographer and writer, of what are you most proud?

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn: I'm just so grateful that I've been able to travel around the world and bring those experiences back. I feel like I've inspired my own imagination as well at that of many of my family and friends. I've had interesting moments like having lunch with Miriam Makeba in Morocco and writing about my favorite jazz musician, Roy Hargrove, for Vibe magazine. I loved that my photography have been exhibited nationally and published in books. I think I'm most proud of the fact that I'm still on this wonderful journey; I'm still here!


{© Laylah Amatullah Barrayn/ Astou a chez moi 2000}


{© Laylah Amatullah Barrayn/ Junior Mance, Ge-ology, Jose James 2008 / Digital Photograph}

LM: Often times, photographers are asked about what photographers have influenced them; however, I am interested in what writers and music have influenced your photography. Are there any albums or books that speak to the core of what you do as a photographer?

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn: One of those books would be asha bandele's The Prisoner's Wife. I think my life changed when I read that book; I've never experienced that degree of honesty. It mirrored my struggle with self-acceptance, becoming whole and acclimated with the truth. It is a beautiful, liberating story. I'd love to have those elements of truth translated in my images. I've been focusing on portraits over the past couple of years. I've been enjoying the process of composing with my subject, helping them tell their story through a photograph simultaneously while allowing me to expand my philosophy and practice of composing. Portraits really uncover so much for a photographer.

LM: Finally, what advice would you give to emerging photographers, particularly women of color?

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn: I think it is very important to be in tune with yourself, so much so that you hear your intuition clearly. This will help you as you navigate. You'll come across many people, some who are sincere and others who do not have your best interest at heart. You'll need to recognize these people. You will need to trust and work with other photographers, curators, publishers, etc., but it is important to know yourself in order to have the maximum benefits.

There is something Audre Lorde said that is 10,000% true. She said: "If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive." Allowing others to validate you can be so dangerous. I can't stress it enough. People make all types of assumptions, unfortunately, [and] if they're assuming that you are not able, beautiful, worthy, educated enough, whatever AND they have the ability to make decisions based on their assumptions, it places people who are actually worthy at a disadvantage. I say all that to say: at all times believe in yourself and most importantly, define yourself.

LM: Anything else you'd like to share?

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn: I'm crazily excited about my next solo show opening in September 2011 at Skylight Gallery, I'd love everyone to check it out! I can't wait. And, thank you for this interview! Peace.

See more of her work at thinklove.carbonmade.com. Read her food blog thedistinguishedbelly.blogspot.com.