The COVID-19 pandemic and racial reckoning both brought the treatment of Black people, in everyday life and across industries, to the forefront of people’s minds. More specifically, it became clear how difficult it was for young Black creatives to land jobs. As documented by the Economic Policy Institute, the unemployment rate for recent graduates ages 16-24 increased by 16%, going from from 8.4 percent to 24.4 in the year between spring 2019 and 2020. These numbers are even greater for Black people, which is why Polly Irungu, founder of Black Women Photographers, stepped in.
“I started Black Women Photographers last [July],” she tells ESSENCE. “It was my first time crowd sourcing of any sort but what I did that for is because I had conversations with photographers prior to even thinking about launching anything, just to get a sense of…what’d exactly they’d want in a community.” Since its launch in 2020, the database hosts over 600 photographers.
Additionally, according to a representative, Irungu’s work has assisted with women being amplified brands like Nasdaq, VSCO and Lightroom.
Though we live in a time of rapid innovation and a greater appreciation for Black creatives, photography remains an industry that is dominated by white men, and men in general. Therefore, Irungu prioritizes Black women in her efforts.
Irungu, a self-taught photographer who is also a Digital Content Editor at New York Public Radio (WYNC), began the resource as a COVID-19 fund (for which she raised $14,000) for Black women who had their work slowed by the pandemic. It also focused on being a safe space.
“It’s just a community,” Irungu says. “They know they have a safe space to talk to others who understand what they’re going through. We have a very active Slack…you know, we ask questions, [we have] a channel for venting, a channel for advice.”
Another one of the staples of Black Women Photographers is the virtual events, during which members of the network are able to ask prominent Black photographers about their work. Kennedi Carter, the youngest woman to shoot a British Vogue cover (featuring Beyoncé, no less) and J.D. Barnes, who has shot Essence covers with stars like Alicia Keys and Regina King, have been among the subjects. The events are powered by Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, making the software giant yet another major company that supports Irungu and her efforts. At the time of our interview, she had begun to forge relationships with Facebook and Instagram as well.
Overall, Irungu just wants to create and uplift Black women in an industry that needs our contributions. “You can share knowledge,” she says. “There’s room for all of us.”
Keep up with Polly Irungu by following Black Women Photographers here.