Polly Irungu launched her organization, Black Women Photographers, in 2020 as a way of fostering a community for a group she felt was often ignored. Initially starting as a COVID-19 fundraiser that raised $14,000 for Black women whose work had slowed down due to the pandemic, Irungu, who was working as an editor at New York Public Radio (WNYC) at the time, decided to create an actual platform; she grew tired of these creatives being passed over for paid opportunities. BWP became a solo project she poured into amid the civil unrest and COVID pandemic that made up significant parts of 2020.
“The pandemic was this own crisis and then, as people also said, the racial reckoning was another crisis,” Irungu told Okayplayer. “The police brutality was a crisis in itself so it’s like we had a pandemic within a pandemic.”
Over a call from her home in Oklahoma, Polly said she knew she needed to create what she calls “a safe space.” Under Irungu’s leadership, BWP became a strong resource that creatives can turn to for mentorship and access to paid work. BWP also has a database of over 1,000 Black women and non-binary photographers spanning over 30 states and 50 countries throughout the globe — resources Irungu has available for the community include regular workshops, trainings, and portfolio reviews.
In nearly two years Black Women Photographers have shown what happens when untapped talent is given opportunities to flourish. Since its inception, BWP has worked with VSCO, Getty Images, Nasdaq, and more. Most recently she received $50,000 in grant funding from Nikon. Irungu says $40,000 is for projects and $10,000 will be used for equipment for 12 members within BWP. This April, Irungu ventured into the art space for her latest project. Alongside Hi-ARTS, an art incubator in New York City, she co-curated an exhibit “Center Focus” featuring works by emerging and critically acclaimed photographers Myesha Evon Gardner, Eliana Carter, Andrea K. Castillo, Poochie Collins, Maria J. Hackett, Ashli Owens, and Edolia Stroud.
The partnership came to fruition after Irungu began having conversations with galleries and museums. Hi-ARTS and Polly began planning the exhibit in January. She admits she fought through a bout of COVID-19 in the preliminary stages, but despite that, the show officially debuted on April 11. “After having intentional conversations that helped, shaped, and informed our approach with this they came up with the name ‘Center Focus,’” Polly said. She mentions that she felt the title defines what she’s been doing with BWP – centering and showing people the brilliance of Black women photographers.
Gardner, an esteemed photographer lent two of her works for “Center Focus.” Many of her photographs are intimate portraits emphasizing moments experienced by Black women. “A lot of my work is kind of like an interpretation of just how I see myself or parts of myself in relation to other Black women in my life,” she says over a Zoom call from her Bedford Stuyvesant apartment. “I think that through body study and self-reflecting portraiture it’s important for me to study and question the profound complexities of what it means to be a Black woman and the role of a Black woman in society.”
jaquea expecting love is one of the selections Gardner decided to include in the exhibit. In it, a close friend of hers, Jaquea, who is pregnant is delicately standing in a corner. She says the image came from a set of photos that were supposed to be a maternity shoot, but instead one image turned into a timeless portrait. Another photograph in the “Center Focus” exhibit Exhale (2017) by Andrea K. Castillo a Belizean-American artist and entrepreneur features a striking sunset. Her other works, Tradition (2016) and Up And Away (2018) point to Castillo’s love for travel, each of her photographs also emphasizes her affinity for capturing simple moments.
Hi-ARTS Executive Director Aaron L. McKinney said he is honored to partner with BWP on their inaugural exhibition and that the incubator hopes to set the bar for future BWP exhibitions and partnerships. “These phenomenal artists share the joy, beauty, and struggle of Black women in a way that welcomes all while celebrating the uniqueness singular to our community,” McKinney said.
Irungu aims to break more barriers within the photography community – she also will continue creating an avenue for BWP to take up space. Additionally, she says she’s hopeful that future grants and partnerships will allow her to keep getting Black women photographers hired beyond performative times of the year like Black History Month.
“It is not too often that we are invited to these spaces, so I am forever grateful for the incredible team at Hi-ARTS for believing in my work and the work of BWP,” Polly added.
Center Focus, a public exhibit runs at Hi-ARTS located in New York City through April 29.