Laylah Amatullah Barrayn has been a photographer focusing on documentary photojournalism for over 20 years. Having her work featured on major platforms like The New York Times, National Geographic, NPR, Vox, and Vogue has given her the opportunity to capture and amplify stories that otherwise could get lost between the cracks. Most recently, she’s captured the experiences of organizers, communities, and essential workers enduring the brunt of this time of COVID-19 and protests demanding justice.
Photographs became her way of recording personal and family identities to understand who she was at a cultural level. Living in a household where the family and neighborhood friends would gather, her mother would take pictures of all the people who came through her home. As her family perished, these pictures became a way for her sister to get to know the meaningful people she didn’t get to meet. This is when Barrayn understood how the photograph was a tool of memory, documenting, witnessing, and proof.
Being a spectator to the transformational effects of cocaine on the diasporic neighborhoods of Brownsville, Brooklyn in the ‘80s, she began recording and documenting her neighborhood as she was growing up. By 1997, she was assigned to photograph the Million Woman March for a local paper. Getting to document and publish this allowed her to discuss her experiences and engage with others curious about the story. “It was a really big thing to have my work amplified in that way,” Barrayn told BELatina.
Amplifying Black presence
Inspired by Deborah Willis’ photography and curation, she aims to heighten the visibility of Black photographers by having their works recognized and included in larger conversations. She expressed how prominent the absence of Black photographers is within the canon. “Black Americans have been engaging in photography since its inception, but that hasn’t been recorded or engaged at any level,” she explains.
As a result of this commitment, she published a book that highlights the work of 118 women photographers of African descent. “With that book came lots of programming, articles, engagement with the media, an assurance to let them know that this community exists, that we’re creating work, and we’re responding to the world through photography,” she expressed. The publication allowed her to do work internationally and discuss the African continent through panel discussions in Europe. It’s also allowed Barrayn to connect with more Black female photographers and create a network of exposure.
In the time of social distancing, she continues to promote this importance virtually. Expressing the importance of using her platform to share experiences and work, she’s participated in panel discussions to talk about the importance of Black photographers being the ones to tell the stories of these recent uprisings.
Capturing Black voices in Minneapolis
Commissioned to capture the communities protesting in cities the Twin Cities and New York City during the ongoing fights for justice, Barrayn described her experience as one that was heavy and emotive. These cities under martial law left the folks in these towns and herself exhausted with concern and anger. “It’s frustrating because it’s the same struggle for humanity and recognition. It’s the same conversation we would’ve had with our ancestors.”
The weight of the movement meant recognizing she wouldn’t be able to work in the midst of the protests, so instead she resorted to photographing the stories around it.
“I knew being in the middle of it was not the best way for me to help because I was extremely sensitive. I did know there are stories around it that I can share and collaborate on. Speaking to organizers, community folks, politicians helped me get a nuance of what was happening in these cities, both in St. Paul and Minneapolis.”
What aids her in this process of capturing such powerful and intimate portraits is the respect for the individual’s agency and space. “When people want to share, I’m always grateful and honored that they do. I take that responsibility seriously because I know that what I do with that story is going to go out there and be influential in some way. I need to be presenting it in an authentic, accurate way.”
Paving the way
When she covered the Minneapolis protests, communities talked to her about all the instances racism shows up, the police escalations that haven’t been expressed on national news, the white supremacist groups in the state, the police cases against individuals that have been mentally ill, and the inequalities with housing and education.
“There are so many nuanced stories about the ways racism and white supremacy show up in our lives on a daily and personal level. We also need to talk about the history of how we got here,” she says.
Through visuals and photography, she manages to tell the stories of the communities of color that aren’t being seen. Due to the power they have in storytelling, she’s been able to make a difference in the way audiences engage with these raw experiences.
“One thing I’m aware of is that I’m a Black woman taking images for major platforms and other people seeing me doing that, people have reached out to me for advice or guidance, but I feel like my presence in storytelling in this moment as a Black woman is inspiring to some people and gives them courage to do that themselves. That’s an important place to be in and to offer.”
Historically, a photojournalistic story wasn’t seen as legitimate unless it came from a white man. Recognizing the meaning of being a woman of color with a camera lens that has the ability to capture images beyond the lenses, she acknowledges how inspiring her story and presence can be for many others who strive to live their truths visually. As a photographer and professional that pivots from academia, to communities, to major journalistic platforms, to social justice movements, she continues to show people they can do it too and tell their stories by interrupting the predominant narratives and being a part of the conversation.