Today I'm really happy to bring you this interview with artist, documentary photographer, writer and youth educator, Kameelah Rasheed. Along with participating in several groups exhibitions across the US and having her photography and writing featured in a number of print and online publications, Kameelah is also the co-founder of Mambu Badu, a photography collective for emerging female photographers of African descent.
Here, Kameelah discusses her ambitions, the challenge of perfectionism and the power of storytelling. I am super inspired by this driven woman!
What's your passion?
Telling stories through photographs … and helping others find an opportunity to tell their stories. I am a curious lady. I am passionate about uncovering the intricacies of my life and the life of others.
Also, I love reading, digging through archives, finding obscure stories, and nature walks.
What inspires you to do the work you do?
When I was younger, I was a nerd. Actually, I still am. But when I was younger, I was an unconfident nerd and would get lost in my own stories that I'd never share. For me storytelling – democratic, open, love-inspired storytelling – is about providing a space for so-called "outcasts" to share. And beyond "providing" a space, nurturing an environment where all stories are considered valuable. I am in the community of storytelling because everyone has a story, but unfortunately not everyone has a chance to tell their story. I like photographs because they tell a story, but also leave a space for the audience to have a dialogue – to recreate an entirely new narrative based on the trajectory of their own experiences.
What has been your greatest obstacle/challenge?
Perfectionism. I hold myself to unusually high standards which means sometimes it's hard for me to get work done or I am constantly wondering why I am not "better." I am a trained historian and high school teacher with a public policy background who writes and photographs. I don't have formal training in the arts or writing and as such sometimes I see gaps in my work – technical (how do I get the perfect lighting?) and professional (how do I write an artist statement?!) – that overwhelm me at times.
How have you dealt with/overcome it?
Prayer, sabr (patience), and confidence. I am starting to believe that I am good at what I do. Confidence is magical and restorative. When I started believing that I was good at my craft, even with incomprehensible space to grow, I began to take more risks to push my work, to be critiqued, and to just be out there.
A special friend also sent me this video – Ira Glass on Storytelling:
"And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn't as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short, you know, and some of us can admit that to ourselves and some of us are a little less able to admit that to ourselves … Everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you're going through it right now, if you're just getting out of that phase or if you're just starting off and you're entering into that phase, you've got to know it's totally normal and the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work."
What has your greatest achievement been?
I am not sure if I've had it yet, but if I had to pick, I'd say having my photographs and writing published as well as exhibited while balancing an 80-hour-a-week job as a high school teacher in Brooklyn. Somehow I am finding time to work on my craft and I thank God that I've had the opportunity to find a balance between my passions of teaching and storytelling.
Where will you be in 10 years?
InshaAllah, alive. To be honest, I am not sure where I will be. I just know that somehow it will include photography, mobile teaching, libraries and journalism. As I dream, it would look something like documenting syncretic spiritual communities throughout the diaspora, hosting 4 week long mobile arts programs for youth, and building small local libraries.
How does Africa inspire you?
The first time I went to Africa was also the first time I left the state of California. I lived in Cape Town, South Africa as an exchange student then Johannesburg, South Africa as an Amy Biehl Fulbright Scholar.
The one thing (among many) that fascinated me about South Africa was the geography – literally the space and the ways that once-private space is made public, the way that once-non-Black space is reappropriated, and the intricate patterns people form on the streets while queueing for taxis or selling fruits. Some people say it is chaotic but there is something beautiful about it. A lot of folks talk about the overt beauty of Africa – the faces, the animals, the colors; however, I am more inspired and intrigued by finding the beauty in the seemingly chaotic and banal. I continue to look for that which goes unnoticed and disregarded.
And...I am looking to collaborate across borders (imagined or otherwise) and genres.
Anything we should look out for in the coming weeks/months/year?
- My essay, "Lines of Bad Grammar" is published in the book I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim, which will be released on May 2nd.
- I am heading to Johannesburg and Durban in late April to work on a photography project around spatial politics and youth.
- Wrapping up a text-based project around the commodification of virginity.
- I am a co-founder of Mambu Badu, a photography collective that seeks to find, expose, and nurture emerging female photographers of African descent. Our PDF magazine will be launched in April and our physical exhibit will open in the Washington, D.C. in late summer.
- Interning for Liberator Magazine and I am organizing interviews with amazing artists based in NY.
All images copyright and courtesy of Kameelah Rasheed. Except for bottom on-set photo from the film, Black Swan Theory, all photographs taken in Johannesburg