Based in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, contemporary photographer Deana Lawson captures her subjects as they are. Her interest in the medium came at an early age, after taking inspiration from family photo albums. Weaved into all of her art pieces is one clear goal—to portray the inherent beauty of Black life.
As Deana Lawson evolved as an artist from the 2000’s, she accumulated several awards for her work. In 2020, she was the first photographer selected for the renowned Hugo Boss Prize, and in 2022, she received the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize. Today, Lawson teaches at Princeton University as the inaugural Dorothy Krauklis ’78 Professor of Visual Arts.
In early 2022, Lawson’s first museum survey traveled to the High Museum in Atlanta, where I first encountered her art.
While most of Deana Lawson’s works are meticulously staged, they create a sense of togetherness–a family found between strangers. In the exhibit, they commanded a powerful presence, confronting the audience without the influence of outside prejudice.
One particular work expressed a diverse array of messages in itself: “Assemblage” (2021). This mass collage depicted small intimacies of Black life–family snapshots, places, and milestones. I wondered how they related not only to each other, but to universal experiences.
Another piece, “Mohawk Correctional Facility: Jazmin & Family” (2012-2014), captured documentary-style depictions of Lawson’s cousin, partner, and daughter. The piece imparts the persistence of familial love within the prison system, as the child grows older in each successive photograph. In a broader context, Lawson pays homage to those who strove for hope in the correctional institution.
Throughout her works, Deana Lawson channels everyday life in order for the audience to recognize the innate value of Black experiences. She dismantles racial stereotypes by photographing her subjects as real human beings; every portrait preserves the dynamic nature of Black culture.
Before exiting the exhibit, I was met with a corkboard plastered with handwritten notes. A title, “Wonder, Imagine, Respond,” asked visitors to leave responses to Lawson’s work.
After looking through Lawson’s lens, I admired the lack of labels. Many of her subjects gazed directly into the camera, a resolute refusal to be categorized. I resolved that I would maintain the same outlook for myself. I won’t allow others to determine my character through stereotypes. Although I have no need to prove myself, I should always maintain a self-assurance in my identity, in all aspects.
A question from Deana Lawson is one with endless possibilities of answers: “When you see a picture, it stays with you… How can that change the idea of oneself and the idea of one’s community?”
Her question inspires me as I create my own community, especially through my school club, Active Minds. Our chapter strives to defy the negative stigma and stereotypes surrounding those who suffer from mental illness, with a focus on BIPOC struggles. Through raising awareness, I look to remove myself and others from the preconceptions based on our identities. Above all, I know that my labels do not create me.