In its Roman and Greek roots, persona refers to one’s ability to "sound through" (personō) and one’s face or appearance (prósōpon), the mask that one wears to denote a social role. Personas are, according to the Jungian psychologist Robert A. Johnson, a form of “psychological clothing.”
In the fall of 2019, I travelled from Brooklyn, NY, to New Orleans, LA, with the intent to propose a photo essay to a magazine about a free fashion school set up by Assemble for MONA in the upper Ninth Ward. The goal was to use the article to address the broader issue of inequality and education in the United States. While the magazine did not run the story, I was taken by the individuals attracted to the school: a diverse array of fashion enthusiasts and aspiring designers, aged 16 to 40, who gravitated towards fashion design despite the lack of resources in the city to support such an interest.
Many of the individuals I met were already designing their own clothing and using fashion to express the various gradients of their selves. We began to co-create pictures together on the school’s construction site. Our conversations about identity, class, race, and representation shaped this collaboration. Style and surface became mediums for my collaborators and I to treat the photographic image as a malleable space within which to project fictions: fictions about who they are, and who they wish to be.
Images of people of color were virtually absent in representational channels during my youth; this is why I turned my camera on myself during my adolescence, later pursuing my studies in photography. But exclusion is not the only tactic by which the bodies of people of color and their likenesses can become decorporealized and depersonalized. Just as in ancient Rome, a person was defined through domination, as someone who owned other human beings (thus relegating disenfranchised persons who were "owned" to the status of objects), the ancient practice of appropriation still occurs in today's image economy. The personas of people of color are often appropriated by other personas – corporate identities, luxury fashion brands, and wealthy philanthropists – to lend an air of “authenticity” to their images of themselves, based on the accumulation of power, capital, and privilege.
For this reason, my collaborators and I often referred to the sole purpose of this series to create images "for us and by us.” Like the urban fabric of New Orleans, the space of photographic representation and the construction of identity are approached in this project as contested sites of cultural hegemony, as spaces for deconstruction and reclamation. To confront the shadowy history of representation requires that we actively confront these ruins and build up new stories and new selves. This representational project is an attempt to make sounds through masks and personas that express the many facets of our being, using the tools that we have at our disposal.