Polly Irungu wanted to help other Black women photographers during the pandemic. She ended up starting a global community that provides members with grants, free educational classes and job opportunities. (Courtesy of Polly Irungu)
During the massive uncertainty that was June 2020, photojournalist Polly Irungu sent out a tweet that would change her life—and her industry—for the better.
In those stressful months of climbing COVID cases and protests against systemic racism, Irungu had heard from Black women photographers struggling because of canceled gigs and 2020’s mental health toll. She was in a relatively stable position herself, working from home for the public media station WNYC, and she wanted to help. She set up a relief fund on GoFundMe and tweeted the link, and in days the campaign exceeded its $10,000 goal, raising nearly $15,000.
Irungu was able to distribute the money to 70 Black women photographers around the globe. And she didn’t stop there: she harnessed the fund’s momentum to create a professional network called Black Women Photographers where photojournalists, commercial photographers and fine artists alike share skills, opportunities and advice.
“It’s so cool because I’m starting to get to know these photographers on a friend level now,” she says, adding that the group has women and nonbinary people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, including some with young daughters who are also getting involved. “It’s really beautiful to see that there is a range because the younger photographers can reach out to these photographers that are older or have more experience and get that kind of mentorship."
Since its inception, Black Women Photographers has grown to over 700 members (California and New York by far have the most, but the group has participants in Africa, South America, Europe and the Middle East). The network’s directory has helped members get hired by the New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters and other prestigious outlets. And Irungu has organized a number of other important opportunities: free, virtual classes from experts; free software licenses; and portfolio reviews with top editors in the biz. Members stay in touch on Slack and often promote each other’s work, leading to art and NFT sales.
Now, Black Women Photographers is getting ready to launch a new $40,000 grant program and $10,000 gear giveaway from Nikon, with applications opening on Sept. 1. As brands and media outlets attempt to make good on their promises of equitable hiring, the group has proven to be an important partner.
“The talent is there,” Irungu says. “If you want a photographer that’s local in Nairobi, Kenya, I can find you several. If you want one in Belgium, Germany, I can find you a couple. If you want Little Rock, Arkansas, I got you—the list goes on. It’s like, there really is no excuse.”
Since COVID restrictions lifted, the ever-expanding online network began to gather in person, with Black Women Photographers meet-ups in Oakland, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, and even London and Abuja, Nigeria. For Irungu, who graduated from University of Oregon in 2017, and recently left WNYC for a photo editor fellowship at the Intercept, the network transformed her experience in the industry.
“Before I said like I’m going to do this, I had a lot of phone conversations with photographers on my Twitter list, just hearing their journey, hearing the things that they wish they had,” Irungu says. “Even myself—I know what I wish I had when I first started. I wish I had a community to turn to. I wish I had free educational stuff because I knew my parents and I can’t afford going to art school.”
Now, she’s granting those wishes for others. “I tell Polly all the time she’s literally changed my life,” says self-taught Oakland food, lifestyle and portrait photographer Meika Ejiasi, who works as a content marketing manager by day.
Ejiasi dreams of transitioning to full-time photography, and she says the group has helped her get closer to that goal. Several clients have reached out to book her after finding her website in the Black Women Photographers directory. That includes American Airlines, for whom she took photos of Black-owned businesses in North Oakland such as Marcus Books, It’s All Good Bakery and the Towne Cycles bike shop.
Now, Ejiasi is getting ready for another assignment for a major brand she can’t yet reveal. “I mean, [Black Women Photographers] have changed the trajectory of my photography career, and I will be forever grateful,” she adds warmly.
Sarahbeth Maney also found the support system she needed in Black Women Photographers when she relocated from Oakland to Washington, D.C. for a fellowship with the New York Times three months ago. Previously, Maney had shot for the San Francisco Chronicle and Flint Journal, covering hard-hitting human interest stories about racial justice, disability and the pandemic’s effects on everyday people. Now, her assignments at the nation’s paper of record include traveling on Air Force One with President Biden and Vice President Harris, and flying to Texas and Missouri to cover immigration and poverty.
Portfolio reviews from Black Women Photographers helped her connect with some of D.C.’s top photo editors, and she’s excited about the network’s potential to advance Black women in the field. In the Bay Area, she only knew of three other Black women on the same career path.
“The Bay Area is made up of a very large Black community, and I think that we need more people from that community telling those stories,” Maney says. “It’s really important for people to feel like they are being seen and heard in a respectful way. And I think that the best way to do that is by having people there that understand them.”
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