Black identity is too often associated with pain—which is why capturing carefree moments is often an act of resistance.
African Americans may make history every day, but it’s during Black History Month that the U.S. comes together to celebrate Black people for their long-running contributions to society. What began as Negro History Week in February 1926 has become a month-long, national observance of Black accomplishments in fields like politics, the arts, education, and sports.
Every February, Barack Obama earns continued praise for his achievement as America’s first Black president, Harriet Tubman is applauded for her role in helping enslaved people escape to freedom, and Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered for educational and reflective speeches about racial equality and his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.
In celebrating Black leaders and vanguards to society, a running theme can’t be overlooked: We acknowledge them today because of the oppression and racism they overcame to become the first in their respective fields.
But, while the Black identity has been historically tethered to pain, in 2022, the Black identity is untroubled and relaxed. Today, peace takes precedence over suffering.
The Origins of Black Joy
Black people began labeling the intentional act of living an effervescent existence as “Black joy” during the mid-2010s. And, in the years since, Black happiness, peace, and ease have become the goal when life becomes too much.
But, make no mistake, Black joy isn’t new—we’ve found ways to celebrate through music, fashion, the arts, food, and the like for centuries.
Black joy has been celebrated on TV shows like Living Single; in renditions of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a.k.a. the Black National Anthem; on holidays like Juneteenth; and through social media phenomena like the humorous ribbings and cultural musings of Black Twitter.
Community and camaraderie keep us joyous in spite of the pain, which is why there’s power in choosing to dance and laugh and love—and power in showing those states of being. Art, in its many forms, unites us.
So, how can more artists today properly showcase the full Black existence? Read on to understand—and learn how to represent—the resistance that comes with embracing the positive.
What Is Black Joy and Why Is It Important to Showcase?
The practice of Black joy is the conscious choice made by Black people to choose happiness despite living in a racist world. It’s choosing to not carry the pain of our past—slavery, prejudice—with us every day of our lives like excess weight.
To understand what Black joy is, is to also understand what it isn’t—a denial that centuries of racism hasn’t affected every aspect of our existence.
That’s why Black joy is, at its heart, an act of rebellion. Black Americans are well aware of how conscious and unconscious bias plays a role in how they’re perceived every day. So, to be authentically carefree is a large-scale proclamation that they, too, deserve jubilation in life.
Prioritizing joy over giving in to dehumanization has been a long-standing practice in the Black community. There was joy during the days of enslavement, joy during the Civil Rights Era, joy during the HIV/AIDS crisis, and joy when cases of police brutality from the 1990s on soared.
The documentation of being celebratory in Black communities found a new life in the 2010s thanks to the internet. The Black Joy Project, founded by New York City-based educator and creative Kleaver Cruz in 2015, began as a candid photo-and-portrait series on Instagram that captured Black people of all ages grinning at the camera. Eight years later, The Black Joy Project now hosts events and talks centered on joy and wellness, and will be adapted into a book in 2023.
Chance the Rapper popularized the hashtag #BlackBoyJoy—first founded by journalist Danielle Young—in 2016 and encouraged Black men to show their playful sides online.
Instagram and TikTok have popularized trends like “Black girl/Black boy luxury” and “rich auntie” and communities like “Black self-care” and “Black wellness,” showing that Black people are in love with making sure their comfort comes first in life.
How to Capture Black Joy in Photography and Film
Seeing Black people as joyful and thriving is no longer a foreign concept—it’s our reality because we say it is.
Photographers like Carrie Mae Weems gave the world Black women with toothy grins in her 1981-82 series Family Pictures and Stories. James Van Der Zee caught Black New Yorkers in their out-on-the-town best and in love at weddings. And, Gordon Parks caught the quiet moments doing hair at home and bonding with neighbors.
How can photographers and videographers today capture Black joy in their visual projects? Follow in the footsteps of artists like Tyler Mitchell and Adrienne Waheed with these tips:
1. Shoot with the Intent of Showcasing a Genuinely Carefree Scene
To successfully reflect peace, joy, and ease in your visual project, the motive behind it needs to be clear. Black subjects within your work need to know that the happiness they’re experiencing is genuine in order for your audience to believe it later.
In an original project, playing music that puts everyone in a good mood, getting to know the subjects and what makes them smile, and maintaining a playful spirit while shooting are ways to inject joy into a visual project.
Adrienne Waheed, the photographer and author of the photo book Black Joy and Resistance, shot her photos by inserting herself into the moment.
She recalled in a 2020 interview with i-D that she first “immersed” herself in the environment, then photographed what she was drawn to.
“There are always images happening everywhere, but you gotta feel something to create a great image,” she said. “When I allow myself to feel beyond what I see, that’s when I feel like my third eye is at work . . . I have to be authentic and trustworthy in order for [my subjects] to trust me with their image.”
2. Choose Settings That Evoke a Sense of Relaxation
Culture plays a larger role in choosing the right photo setting for a project centering on Black joy. While happiness can be felt anywhere, it’s often associated with Black cultural touchstones like a family cookout, the beauty salon or barbershop, or the church—sacred spaces where Black Americans gather to feel at ease, where we feel loved and safe.
Outside of locations important to the culture, relaxation can be felt at home, in parks, at the movies and museums, and at social events amongst friends and neighbors.
Cultural touchstones like the beauty salon, the barbershop, and the church are sacred since they are traditional community places where Black people feel loved and safe. Images via hurricanehank and violent_strings.
3. Shoot Subjects with Joyful Expressions
Expressions convey a world of emotion. Open-mouthed smiles, exposed teeth, and crinkled eyes mid-laugh are a few poses that indicate that a person is genuinely happy. Successfully communicating that same happiness with Black people isn’t as easy, unfortunately, due to unconscious bias.
According to research conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2019, not only do white Americans tend to perceive Black faces as angrier, but they can’t tell if a Black person is fake-smiling or not.
This isn’t the fault of the subject, it’s indicative of the work that non-Black people must do for themselves. Your job as the artist behind the camera is to showcase a Black subject’s true happiness, no matter how it appears to others.
Images via Martin Novak, Riccardo Mayer, Monkey Business Images, PinkCoffee Studio, JLco Julia Amaral, and Rawpixel.com.
4. Seek and Execute Joyful Actions
In the case of Black subjects, joyful moments don’t have to be “big” to make sure others understand that they’re happy—that’s when the work begins to cater to a solely non-Black gaze. Instead, the goal is to show that Black people have layers to them, that happiness looks different on everyone.
For some, it looks like the sun shining on their face or time with a good book. For others, it looks like hitting a home run or dancing with friends.
As an artist with creative direction, go for a variety of images—both big, energetic scenes and quieter moments of simplicity.
Images via Mark Nazh, Rocketclips, Inc., Your files, fizkes, insta_photos, Agarianna76, Monkey Business Images, AS photostudio, Ollyy, and AS photostudio.
The concept of Black joy has only just arrived for some people, but many of us have long held onto its existence. Choosing to be happy in a world that says we shouldn’t be is a power that no prejudice can take away.
To rebel against what’s expected of us by embracing a carefree existence will continue to fuel our community—and seeing that in art, media, and real life, will never not be powerful.
Cover image via oneinchpunch.