"Representation isn't enough," photographer June Canedo begins. "It's so important, but I'm starting to understand it just isn't enough. We also need to know that those images we're seeing of people of colour and Southern culture aren't just coming from some white dude who isn't from there." Growing up in rural Brazil, and then in South Carolina as the child of immigrants, June says she didn't have photographer role models with backgrounds like hers. "I want to ensure that I'm inspiring other people of color," she says.
June is in Austin when we speak (her Southern accent stronger than when she's home in Brooklyn, where she also shoots fashion photography). She's driving around the South with her partner Blake Myers (also a photographer) documenting black and Latino rodeos along the Mississippi River and out west into Texas. "There have always been black cowboys," she says, "But it's often left out of history."
This week, June's first London solo show opens at The Printspace gallery, as part of the Independent Photography Festival. The gallery will show 11 life-size prints from her 2015 portrait series of women at Black Bike Week, an annual motorcycle gathering in her South Carolina hometown of Myrtle Beach. Black Bike Week happens each spring, June explains, in the week directly following the resort town's Harley-Davidson Week — known locally as "White Bike Week." "It's very segregated," June says. "It's South Carolina." But on the trips she's taken home since childhood, she has noticed one shift. "More women are riding now," she says. "Growing up, when I saw women on bikes, they'd usually be on the back, their little skirts flying up. Now they're riding."
Was it your decision to show your prints at life size, or the gallery's? That's kind of amazing.
It was both. I guess it was because the images show something that you don't usually see. My thing has always been that, being of colour, we're often portrayed in sad situations. It's hard to find images of people of colour enjoying themselves and doing things that are associated with white culture. Historically, America has used photography to place or keep people of colour in certain positions. I'm very aware of that.
Why did you decide to shoot Black Bike Week in 2015 specifically?
I only started taking photos about three years ago and I always go back to where I'm from — either Brazil or South Carolina. This was one of the first projects I did after Brazilian Girls [portraits of women on Brazil's beaches]. It's funny because people are super interested in them now. Years ago, no one was interested. It's fascinating watching this very specific culture of images — and this acceptance of people of colour and our cultures — spreading on Instagram and in real life. It's wild to watch the change! Honestly, it's because people of colour are now in positions where we can afford technology and equipment and programs like Photoshop and apply that back to our own cultures. That's breeding a lot of beautiful imagery.
What's your style when you're shooting documentary photos? How much do you talk to your subjects?
The camera is secondary in my interactions with people. I always approach someone conversationally. I'm like, 'Oh my god, you look so amazing! Where did you get that belt? Holy shit!' Then, if the vibe is there, I ask to take a photo. I keep my camera on my back until I have permission. Everyone in my photos is looking directly at the camera because I have a rapport with them before I take the image. I like that they give me a part of themselves. The image is through my lens, at the end of the day, but I don't want to inflict myself.
What kinds of conversations did you have with the women at Black Bike Week? What drew them to the culture?
It's tradition. This week has been happening since long before me. When I was growing up in Myrtle Beach, Black Bike Week was at the height of its existence. It was really poppin'. Every year, people like Snoop Dogg and DMX would come through. It was wild and kind of lawless. Then slowly, through a combination of people being able to afford to travel elsewhere and increased policing, it's become more PG. It's really calmed down. And the young kids aren't as interested in it anymore, so it's kind of a dying culture. I mostly spoke with the women about that change.
What made you want to focus solely on the women of Black Bike Week?
Back in the day, women were really mostly riding on the back of bikes. I remember that very specifically, because their outfits were so amazing. I'd see that on the way to school in the mornings, they'd be a gang in front of a stoplight, and all you could see was their bodies. They were always on the back. But when I've gone back in the last few years, a lot of women are riding their own bikes, and they're in their own all-female crews.
Has their style changed, too?
Early-00s style is definitely still a thing. That era was the height of Black Bike Week, and because young people aren't as interested now, all of these people that were there ten years ago are still attending, they're just older. It still looks very much like early Ashanti music videos.
How do the residents of Myrtle Beach respond to the two bike weeks?
Myrtle Beach loves Harley-Davidson Week because it brings money to the town. But Myrtle Beach is so racist; Black Bike Week is not embraced. A lot of white people talk shit about how horrible it is. It's the Deep South. It's still so stuck.
As you said, your projects often come back to where you're from and tackle questions about identity. How conscious is that? And how do you balance that with editorial work?
I sometimes hate to admit this, but I do love fashion photography and shooting editorial projects. But me going back to Brazil or South Carolina is about reconnecting with what I'm really interested in — my culture, what I know. I'm really focused on making sure that my projects, at least for the next few months, are all based on Southern culture. I haven't given enough time to making the most of the access I have to amazing stuff. The best way to document that culture is by being from there and knowing it already. It's so important to not only see those images but also know that that image is coming from someone who got out of the South or poverty or shit circumstances. For me, growing up, not only was there no representation in magazines, but also, if there ever was, the images were made by white dudes. It would have been really special to me to see a beautiful image of someone of color, and to know that that picture was taken by someone who was from there and became successful.
I love reading your outspoken captions about representation on Instagram.
I mean, I'm Brazilian! My mum is one of 14. If you don't speak up, you're never going to get heard and nothing will get fixed. The internet is just another platform to be myself.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography June Canedo