Photographer Adrienne D. Williams grew up in the white suburbs of metro Detroit where she often felt like an outsider. She loved skater culture but never felt comfortable enough to get on a deck herself. Instead, she grew up on the periphery, taking photographs to feel like a part of the scene while still maintaining her distance.
“I photographed the culture. I worked in skateboard shops. I built skateboards,” says Williams. “I was like the only black girl in the mall who knew how to build a skateboard deck but I was too scared to get on it.”
Looking back, Williams realizes that her fear of getting on a skateboard stemmed from being that only black girl who knew how to build a deck. Skateboarding culture is often explicitly packaged and presented for young, white boys. Black and brown female skaters like Jazzmen Chavez and Adrianne Sloboh, whom Williams has photographed, weren’t as visible when she was growing up.
Williams’s tendency towards photography persisted, even as money didn’t. With only a little over a hundred dollars to her name and a newly shaved head, she moved to LA looking for opportunities. But, once again, she found herself on the peripheries of culture. It seemed like everyone in L.A. had dubbed themselves “a photographer” and Williams couldn’t quite find her footing, especially as a female photographer.
“I just noticed the lack of women of color in certain popular photographers’ Instagram feeds,” says Williams. “They featured all of these amazing beautiful babes but I was like where are the women that look like me? It’s kind of like the fear that I had as a kid and skateboarding, coming into the scene where everybody’s doing it.”
She woke up on New Year’s morning and decided to commit to an idea that had been floating in her mind for some time. MS. RPRSNTD, a four-day photo show that has since evolved into an “intersectional response to exclusion.” The aim is to depict skater girls of color since no one else does—symptomatic of the larger disregard for black and brown women visibility in media.
MS. RPRSNTD’s first public event, held at Space 1520 in Los Angeles, featured action shots—gleeful women of color flipping boards and executing tricks with mastery—as well as portraits of prominent female skaters. One photo shows two little girls of color wearing bright pink knee and elbow pads and helmets; they sit on skateboards, smiling wide.
“I’m doing this project so these girls don’t have to miss out like I did,” says Williams. “Because of my own fear.”
Williams recognizes the importance of her project in the current social and political climate as well. “I’m not necessarily the one to be on the front lines at a march but I have talent and I have a skill and there’s stuff that I can do to kind of help offset this negative energy,” says Williams. “I need to dust my camera off and really try to make a difference with photography.”
She is also very intentional in her disregard to visually satisfy the viewer—or cater to the male gaze. Williams’s focus is more on the beauty of the subjects in a setting that they innately control and define. When Williams shoots these photographs, she seeks to create a sense of trust in a welcoming environment.
“When I started the project, I was doing it to compare myself to a male photographer so it wasn’t the right reason to do it,” says Williams. “It wasn’t about the women...until this year when I really sat down with what’s going on with the world, with politics and culture and society.”
Williams’s point of view stands in a landscape that barely allows women behind the lens. According to The National Museum of Women in the Arts, from 2007-2013 only 27 percent of the major photo exhibitions staged at nearly 70 institutions in the U.S. were centered around women artists. In the field of photojournalism, it’s the work of male photographers that often gets praised and critically lauded. Meanwhile, many women still struggle to book jobs.
This dynamic facilitates few opportunities to ask the necessary question that needs to be asked in photography: “How should we look at women?”
The work of photographer Desilu Muñoz tries to answer this question, by capturing the personalities and stories of her subjects authentically—in part by photographing her friends and people she has grown up, whose lives she has witnessed.
Muñoz says she searches for that moment when her subjects feel comfortable and “show what they’re really like” in a way that’s genuine—not staged for male comfort or desire.
“It really helps not to pose them or make them seem like super girly or anything like that,” says Muñoz. “It’s different from what we see in so many magazines.”
At “backyard gigs” and other events she started shooting as a teenager, Muñoz noticed that she was often the only young woman of color taking photos. Through social media and zine-making, she’s been able to connect with other female photographers of color—a rare and coveted experience in an art form that is primarily resigned to white male ways of viewing.
This bond is often replicated in the women Muñoz photographs—both photographer and subject are hyper aware that they “can create something different together.”
The main difference is perhaps the most obvious one: across subjects and landscapes, Muñoz and Williams don’t rely solely on physicality, a cornerstone of the male gaze. In both their work, the women are presented holistically with an intention to subvert their place as “outliers.” A personal connection to the women in the photographs has proved crucial in executing this.
Williams felt like an instant kindred to skateboarder Sloboh when the two first connected over Instagram, their aesthetics aligning over how Sloboh skated to classic rock and old-school hip hop. Sloboh noticed a photograph Williams took of a friend and thought it was “badass” to see a black female photographer taking control of the narrative. Both women shared the formative experience of not seeing herself in the skater community.
“In my friend group it was just white teenage boys and I was the black female with braids in her hair and I always stuck out,”says Sloboh.
But in MS. RPRSNTD, women of color are the majority. The portraits of WOC on skate decks are energetic, confident, vibrant. They’re purposefully different from the usually over-sexualized images seen on most skate decks that cater to straight men and boys.
That sexualized image is precisely what Williams hopes to complicate.
“When people walk in and see the skateboard decks, I really want them to be like, oh shit there’s a black girl on this skate deck,” says Williams. “And she is gorgeous; she is not bent over, she’s not in squat position, she’s not looking back at it… but she’s still a babe, wow, I’ve never seen this before. And then I want them to go, well, why haven’t I seen this before? Wait a minute, whoa, what the fuck. I want people to question the context of skate culture.”
From her part of the underground, Muñoz hopes that the context continues to shift, so that her work can be considered simply as that of a photographer and not just a tokenized woman of color photographer. While she’s “so happy and proud to see women of color getting their shine,” she says she hopes that conversations about contemporary photography continue to evolve.
“But I know right now it does and we need to be heard and seen.”
Eva Recinos is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in LA Weekly, VICE, Hyperallergic, Latina, Refinery29, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and others. She is less than five feet tall.