The renowned 25-year-old photographer talks about his most cherished objects, racial exclusion in fashion and photography and where the will to change must ultimately lie. “This ain’t really on us to figure out,” he says.
Photographer Tyler Mitchell holds a powerful position in the media world, and he knows it. “In photography, I represent a certain amount of market value,” he says. “I represent a certain amount of hiring power.”
His breakthrough, however, came only two years ago. Fresh out of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and 23 years old, he photographed Beyoncé for the cover of Vogue. It marked the first time an African-American had shot the Condé Nast title’s cover.
Though Mitchell would typically be traipsing across the world on a number of high-profile shoots, this summer he’s mostly staying at home in Brooklyn, sometimes going to Black Lives Matter protests when he’s not working. His most recent exhibition, I Can Make You Feel Good, surveyed the “Black utopia” he photographs and imagines.
It’s a pursuit he considers his life’s work: “to continue to promote and to basically fantasize and imagine the validity of our experience and our existence,” he says.
WSJ. spoke with Mitchell over the telephone about the arc of his life and style as seen through his favorite objects, how systemic racism might be dismantled in fashion and photography and why doing something can be better than trying to do everything.
What have you been shooting lately, amid coronavirus lockdowns and protests?
Day to day, I’m trying to be gentle with myself, especially because the last two years of my life have been super-involved in giving myself to this industry and working a lot and living on planes. But I have been thinking big-picture about the way we make images should and will need to be thrown out the window, basically entirely. Even when all this started, this global pandemic, there were so many magazines trying to convince me to do shoots over Zoom or over FaceTime. I realized that, for them, that’s born out of necessity, and it’s very reactionary. But [for me], as an image-maker, it feels too fast and furious. I think it’s important right now to stop, look, listen, consider the fact that the way we made images before all of this may not return. I’ve just been more interested in throwing every process that I’m used to out the window, restarting, considering what from the fringe will come into the fore.
What do you want to see changed going forward?
In 2016, we saw a huge shift. That was the year that three things that were huge happened. In September 2016, Moonlight was released theatrically, which was marketed as a small movie that was given a $1.5 million budget. That film went on to win best picture in 2017. In between that film coming out and winning best picture, President Trump was elected and inaugurated. About three weeks [after Moonlight], an album by Solange Knowles called A Seat at the Table came out. Those two artistic moments were big considerations for the world to rethink how Black folks existed in mainstream media. This urge to be at the table, to have a seat at the table and to be telling Black and queer stories at the fore and at the mainstream. Now we’re realizing, four years later, in 2020, we’re coming up to a new election with a global pandemic and essentially a racial crisis. A lot of the work that Black artists and Black cultural workers are doing, the ability for that to be considered mainstream or to receive accolades or to be operating on the highest level isn’t quite enough. There needs to be a bigger dismantling. We’ve come to grips with even more brutality against our bodies. Sending one Black model out onto the runway simply ain’t enough. We’ve taken some amazing steps since Trump has been elected, but how do we go further?
How do you see that change happening within the photography industry specifically?
It’s a good question. I think the biggest thing is right now we’re having a moment where we’re realizing this ain’t really on us to figure out. The way I make my images is a certain process; the way I evoke and make statements about the young Black men and women around me is a certain process, and those things are steadfast and true. This is my life’s work: to continue to promote and to basically fantasize and imagine the validity of our experience and our existence. I want to push that forward.
But that question ain’t really on us in terms of how to consider what the system should look like next. That really is about hiring power, about economics; it’s about a lot of bigger shit. That has to do with changes in folks’ office culture and how folks work.
Sure, it’s within my responsibility to push for Black and brown men and women and all types of folks that have not seen opportunities in those spaces to be hired as assistants, as set designers, as stylists. I have a choice over all that stuff. That pushes things forward, but it’s really incumbent on the system to be like, All right, we got to go out of our comfort zone. We’ve got to reach out to folks. We need different voices right now. It’s not because we want to be performative. It’s not because we want to receive a pat on the back from anyone. It’s because we actually need different voices to consider how we move forward, past people being brutalized and killed.
Since your Beyoncé cover shoot in 2018 as a 23-year-old, how would you characterize the arc of your career? What’s next?
Ah, yes, yes, a good question. I have had an extremely atypical experience—in a great way—with both the fashion industry and the larger systems of photography and image-making. There are so many people who have come before me who do not have these opportunities I have, who might have laid the groundwork but didn’t see the level of acceptance and success that I’ve seen from certain mainstream outlets and systems. I’ve basically been asked and allowed to make the work that I want to make, that promotes and uplifts and features my community of Black men and women.
Working with young people is important to my process and being open to other people’s ideas of what a good portrait might be. They have been denied in image-making prior. Fashion photographers would tell models exactly how they wanted to present them, where to put their arm, where exactly to put their finger, where to look, their eyes, how to stand. There was no conversation there for the model to bring their own ideas to a certain shoot or to bring their own ideas to [say], “Well, here’s how I want to look. I’m a human being as well.” That’s already subverting the history of how fashion images have been made before.
Also, the apparatus and system of, again, that hierarchy. There are these words that photographers use, like capture and subject, which I have a weird aversion to because I wouldn’t want to be “capturing” anyone, you know? I wouldn’t want to subjugate anyone to anything, because Black folks, we’ve already been made subjects historically.
As far as the Black Lives Matter protests, how do you view photography as potentially functioning as a tool of protest?
We’re living through images of the protests. We’re living through images of the pandemic. The image is paramount and has only become more paramount over the past 10 years. Frederick Douglass knew that in the 1800s when he was traveling [throughout] the East Coast collaborating with photo studios. Even he understood, in the 1800s, the importance of creating your own image and making that, disseminating that.
I think the questions we’re all asking ourselves right now are, What’s everything I can do? How can I save the world with what I do? But actually, the bigger thing to tell yourself is it really isn’t about doing everything right now. It’s about doing something. I keep telling people, “It wouldn’t be everything to donate, but it would be something; it wouldn’t be everything to do what you can in your immediate circle, but it would be something.”
What is it you’re doing in that space?
I’ve been considering what I can do. The main things that I’ve been doing are (a) I try and go out to the protests every day that I can when I’m not working; (b) you know, donating. Donating, protesting, considering and starting to team up with folks in the industry about what weight we have to actually pass down our knowledge to folks who sit outside of the industry and want to be inside. Having those conversations, mentoring people, giving people the power and the tools to enter the industry and change it.
I could be like, Well, here’s what I’ve been doing, if I want to show off my flag and wave my flag, but the bigger question actually is—this is why I love this moment—this is my life’s work, right? The pictures I make, the stories I tell, the films I make, the spaces I engage in, the context in which they exist. This has been my life’s work since I started photography and will continue to be my life’s work until the day I die.
Photo: OWEN SMITH-CLARK FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE