Jewels From The Hinterland: A Conversation on Black and Brown Bodies in Nature with Photographer Naima Green

Interview by Lauren Ash | Photography by Naima Green

I have to admit; this conversation is one of the most powerful features we have had on Black Girl In Om thus far. The work that Brooklyn-based photographer Naima Green is engaged with is deeply important for all of us as human beings on a planet that shows signs of dis-ease, but particularly for black and brown people. My hope is that in encountering Green's touching work, more of us will be moved to think about the role of representation and accessibility in art, environment/place/space, and environmental activism. Read on, and be sure to follow Green's journey on Instagram @naimagreen and on her website www.naimagreen.com.

LA: Your Jewels from the Hinterland series is a focus of yours at the moment, yes? Can you please share your vision with this project, as well as some of the ways you see it manifesting?

NG: The series began in photographic form in 2013 as a way to visualize and process my personal experience. Three years and 50+ portraits later, I absolutely want this project to be a book. Fragments of the work, collections of six portraits or less, have been shown in galleries in New York, D.C., and Martha’s Vineyard but the entire series has never been seen together. I have not even seen all of the work together because I am still shooting and do not start my postproduction process until late fall working through the winter.

LA: When I look at the images from your Jewels from the Hinterland series, I sense that your intention is to honor and exalt people of color, in particular black folk. Most of the portraits convey individuals staring directly at the camera. At the same time, each individual seems to share the focus with the environment; almost blending with the greenery behind them. In one image, light and shadows dance off of the individual's skin making her appear like the bush she is next to. In another, the individual's skin tone and dress almost makes her fade into the plants that she is comfortably residing in. Can you speak a bit more about your approach when selecting individuals to be a part of your series, as well as your approach when selecting where they will be photographed? What is your artistic intent to communicate with these images?

I absolutely seek to celebrate and honor the beauty and power of Black people. I also try not to limit myself in my own definition of Blackness. Those who participate identify themselves as belonging to the African Diaspora, and there is a beautiful range within that. I have photographed people who identify as: Cuban and Jewish, Jamaican, Black, Dominican, African American, Antiguan, Puerto Rican, Nigerian, and the list goes on. This project seeks to be expansive in its visualizations of Black and Browness and that is not limited to one particular place. When asking individuals to participate I am drawn to their sense craft, their aesthetic — people who I find to be visually stunning — and those who might support my intentions behind the series.

While honoring participants, I also am recognizing the place, the city, green space, all of it. Green spaces in New York vary. There are two approaches when selecting a location for a shoot. I try my best to collaborate with participants in a space that is convenient for them, such as a park or community garden they spend time in. However, I also have a list of parks and green spaces, and want to shoot across all boroughs. With all things, there is a negotiation that happens.

LA: Do you consider yourself an environmental advocate or even activist? If so, how?

If believing that all people should have access to and feel both comfortable and safe in green spaces makes me an advocate, then perhaps I am. We need green spaces in cities. We need a break in the hard architecture, in the stone, brick and metal. We need to see and experience natural growth. Fortunately, green space and the urban landscape are no longer talked about as binaries, but there is not a wide discussion around communities of color and green spaces in New York.

LA: Would you consider your work womanist?

NG: In her collection of essays “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens,” Alice Walker explores what it means to be a womanist. She describes a womanist as “a black feminist or a feminist of color;” a woman who is not separatist across gender but committed to the “survival and wholeness of an entire people, male and female.”

Yes, this work, my work, is womanist.

LA: How did you come to embrace the term hinterland and why do you feel it is important to define it for those who engage with your work?

Let me first define the project: Jewels from the Hinterland is a photo-based series that investigates questions of place, belonging, and perceived cultural identity within the African Diaspora. I have made, and continue to make, portraits of creative individuals in and around New York City, where figures anchor overgrown fields with abstract forms and vibrant colors. Those who choose to participate are creatives who find comfort in verdant environments. As nature grows around the individuals, so does the city landscape, like a continuous grid. In these photographs are city dwellers who identify with natural green spaces, regions where Black and Brown urbanites are not expected to inhabit. Our hinterlands.

So what is a hinterland?

ˈhin(t)ərˌland/ (noun) 1. The often uncharted areas beyond a coastal district or a river's banks 2. An area lying beyond what is visible or known.

For me, this twofold definition is seamless. I felt like my experience growing up in and around green spaces was never seen or expressed in the media. So, for me, my life was lived in a hinterland. Places that those in our community knew about that were very real and legitimate for us. But on a larger national consciousness, felt like an uncharted area. The beauty of this project is the ability to unify the participants through place and green spaces even though we all have incredibly different lived experiences and histories.

There are dominant and pervasive narratives that suggest Black and Brown bodies can only exist in hard, concrete, urban environments. I seek to add to the narrative by documenting growth in lush environments; and by showing the evolution of Brown bodies in green spaces, which was traditionally limited to depictions of work. I ask my participants to confront these ideas, the viewer, and the camera by gazing directly back at me. This gaze explores the nuances of ownership, confrontation and belonging.

LA: What contemporary artists of color, not necessarily photographers, do you consider to be playing and exploring the same topics you are?

NG: When I started shooting I was deeply inspired by the aesthetics of Deana Lawson. I have been revisiting her work this year. After viewing Kehinde Wiley’s retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum I see parallels between his use of floral motifs and the way he re-imagines the art historical canon with Black and Brown figures.

LA: How does your work relate to self-care and self-love? Both as a process for you, as the photographer, as well as for the work you're creating for other people of color to interact with?

Blackness is constantly being contested. Whether it is Army bans on hairstyles, children murdered, or teenagers being assaulted at pool parties — Blackness is often, if not always, challenged. Art making is my way to process that contestation and confront it. I have to create a tension, a rub, and a resistance to institutional messages.

As I have shared and discussed the work with wider audiences, it has been wonderful and daunting for me to talk with people who have never seen what I am creating. Someone said, “we never see Black girls in flouncy dresses on swings” when referring to my photograph of Aja Monet. While I make these images primarily for myself and communities of color, it is important for many types of people to see these photographs. However, in talking about self-care, it is not my job to teach everyone that Blackness exists in this way. I can create and visualize, but the onus is on the individual to see, research and be present with the work. 

LA: Thank you, Naima. I am deeply honored to be a part of your vision and to witness your work unfold.