photographer brandon stanciell is dismantling stereotypes of black masculinity
His new series, '37 Niggas,' is a self-exploration into his own blackness.
Photo by Brandon Stanciell
What would you say if you saw a group of 37 shirtless black men standing together in a field? This is the question that 25-year-old Los Angeles-based photographer Brandon Stanciell posed when contemplating what to name his latest photography series. Stanciell eventually settled on 37 Niggas, a provocative but what he considers a fitting name for a project he hopes will change the way society looks at black men and black masculinity.
The series features portraits of 37 shirtless Black men adorned with tiny white flowers tucked behind their ears and in their hair. In each image the men, who were either cast from Instagram or are friends of Stanciell, appear in front of a black, red, and green fabric backdrop, which replicates the image of the Pan-African flag, an iconic symbol of African unity. Stanciell’s staging of this scene was purposeful — he “wanted people to see how different and vast our blackness is.”
Blackness is at the center of 37 Niggas which he plans to develop further over the next few months. In the following interview, Stanciell explains how his own exploration into blackness and the negative images shown of black men inspired this series and sparked a desire in him to further dismantle what he considers to be a monolithic and toxic idea of black men and black masculinity.
What’s the meaning behind your series 37 Niggas?
37 Niggas, for me, was and is a self exploration into my own blackness and being a Black man as a whole. I wanted to understand why I felt uncomfortable in my own skin growing up, and I wanted to see if there were other Black men out there too that may have felt the same way. I also wanted to challenge the way Black men are constantly seen in society.
What inspired the name?
I tried to imagine what someone would say if they saw 37 Black men shirtless in a field together. Obviously, with its historical background, the use of the word 'Nigga' has been known to be taboo. But we continue to use it to this day and even within our own community. I wanted to take something that has kind of always had a negative connotation towards it and associate it with something positive, while also challenging the way society sees black men as a whole. I do not believe that the black man is simply defined by the color of his skin, but how he chooses to carry himself within his community.
Why stage the models shirtless with flowers?
The flowers are a signature of mine from when I first began shooting my portrait series Thinker of Tender Thoughts and The Man Who Loved Flowers. I wanted to show the continuing theme of challenging masculinity with the use of flowers in my work. They say flowers are for girls but why not for boys too? With the men shirtless, they appear naked or vulnerable. I wanted them to be seen for who they really were and not clothed behind something or hiding behind anything. I also asked them to bring something of significance to them, whether it being a rook or a record, something that complimented them as a person.
What pressures have you yourself experienced as a black male artist?
With being a black male artist you question whether or not this is the path rightly chosen. Growing up I didn't see many black men or learn about black men who took photos or who were artists. Only those in music and in sports and it sort of messes with your psyche. You start to think that you won't be successful if you’re not one or the other.
Who are some of your biggest inspirations?
Deana Lawson for sure has to be one of my biggest inspirations. I feel like with her being an identical twin and me being an identical, we sort of relate in some weird way. Her use of light and composition is something I admire the most about her work. Also Kerry James Marshall. For some reason when I saw his work in person for the first time it sparked such a fire in me. I just really admire seeing black people creating beautiful work that is authentic and has meaning and I aim to inspire other individuals as they did me.
What other stories are you interested in telling about the black male experience?
I interviewed each person that participated in this project and asked them what it felt like being black in today’s society. I want people in and outside of our community to see how Black men are living today and what issues they may have faced growing up to make them who they are today.
What else do you have in the works for 37 Niggas?
I plan on having a portrait show at the end of January 2019. The actual date and location are still TBD! I also plan on doing the same concept, but in New York and do an art show our there as well. I think it'd be beautiful to see the contrast between black men and their experiences on the east coast and black men and their experiences on the west coast.