Shaniqwa Jarvis Uses Photography To Search For Truth
The New York photographer talks inspirations, representation, and keeping it all the way real.
Shaniqwa Jarvis is infatuated with truth. Whether she’s shooting portraits of pop stars, documenting dreamy places, or creating editorial for magazines including Paper, The New York Times, and The FADER, her goal is to try and be as real as possible. But what does “real” mean? When I meet up with the New York-raised photographer in her studio in Jersey City, she tells me she strives to capture something in her subjects that a parent or close friend would recognize. She does it, ironically, by knowing that photography isn’t honest: “Everything is manipulated.”
On one wall of her open photography studio, she has taped up an array of prints of her photos in different sizes and colors. When I ask her about how she decides to construct a shot, she points to them and says that she has always known how to re-create the things she’s seen and felt. After studying elementary education and psychology in Massachusetts, and then racking up two years of debt at Parsons studying photography, she has spent the last few years traveling and learning about the world through her bold lens. Although influenced by the shifting style of the pop culture world around her, her work is much more than that; Shaniqwa Jarvis takes photos in order to tells stories that connect with human emotion.
What first made you want to be a photographer?
I think I always loved it and my experience at Paper Mag opened my eyes to what storytelling really is. I think I thought, “Okay, you can take photos and take portraits and have fun,” that sort of thing. But the magazine really taught me how you connect with people. How you can tell stories.
What’s your process like in constructing a photo?
I think it’s just making someone comfortable — really simple. I mean, that’s really fucking hard but the more comfortable you are as a person, the more you’ll give. I also think that we’re all human and have animal tendencies, and you can sniff out someone and see if they’re keeping it real and being true. If you see someone being a fucking dick to you, you will respond that way. I think most people when they’re on set with me, they’re like, “This has been the easiest chillest vibe of all time.” It’s because I just set the tone. No one needs to be frantic and crazy.
Tell me about what it was like shooting Bibi Bourelly for The FADER.
That shoot was really fun for me. Normally I do a tiny bit of research before I shoot someone because I want to save it for when I meet them, but I was watching this interview with her and she was saying, “I only love it when people are real, I don’t give a fuck about this, I don’t give a fuck about that,” and it felt very similar to how I feel. Like, if you’re not being truthful I don’t give a fuck about you. I’ve always wanted to shoot in that strip where I shot her. We got there and she was like, “Are we setting up anywhere?” and I was like, “No, right here on the street.” And she was like, “Okay,” did her little glam and we just walked around, looked at things.
What do you shoot with?
I shoot with every and anything. I think when I was younger I was like, “My Nikon F3 or nothing! My Mamiya 645 or nothing!” Now I’m like, my Cannon's for digital, my Mamiya medium format sometimes. I have an Olympus point and shoot. I think I used to be very, very particular and now it’s whatever feels comfortable in my hand.
How do you think the photography landscape has changed because of iPhone photography?
I think it’s allowed a lot of people to express themselves individually which I think is amazing, but it’s also, iPhone plus Internet has twisted a lot of people into thinking they’re creative because there’s no creative director of the internet to be like, “Nah, son. Your shit sucks, try again.” I come from a time where you would present your photo and someone would say, “That’s shit, try harder.” Now there isn’t that. You can just put your photos up on the internet and let them live and feel great even though they’re shit.
[More] positively, I think they’re great because I think a lot of people can express themselves, and I think that’s super, super important.
Who are your inspirations?
Ben Watts, but Ben Watts from the Big Up time. I think when I first saw that book I fell for him, his stuff felt very much on that level, it felt real it felt honest it felt strong and it felt bold. Of course, the photographers that everyone else loves, like Bruce Davidson; William Eggleston is my hero. Helen Levitt, Lorna Simpson, Lola Alvarez Bravo — most people know her husband, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, but she gets overlooked and she’s amazing. Also Kara Walker and Carrie Mae Weems. I used to work at this bookstore called A Photographer’s Place on Mercer and Prince, and I used to stare at her book, every day, all the time in the shop and I think it’s that thing about representation. When you see yourself doing something, you have no problems going for it. I think seeing Carrie Mae’s work really inspired me to just go for it. I think that’s when I was like, “Fuck it, I’m going to go to Parsons. Fuck it, I’m going to be in debt. Fuck all of it.”
My mom was like, “Why are you going to do this? It’s so hard. You’re stepping into something that’s traditionally a white male scene, it’s going to be really hard.” And not until last year was I like, “Oh shit, my mom knew something that I didn’t know.”
What happened last year that made you realize your mom had a point?
Just getting more successful and then the higher you go up, the crazier it gets in many fields. You start to interact with people who maybe have never interacted with someone like you before. And just some things that have been said to me that are like, “What?! Did you just say that? Are you serious?”
Can you talk about Kara Walker?
I didn’t really know her work until I went to Parsons. She had a big installation on one of the walls on one of the buildings we went to so I went to the library and figured it out and fell in love with everything. I have this weird thing where a lot of the black women who inspire me to do what I do, all of their work focuses on being a black female artist. And weirdly enough, what I took from it was being an artist and telling that story, not necessarily telling that story of being a black female artist. But there are some things that are so truthful and honest about what they were doing that made me realize I can do a story about break-ups or traveling while working and not feel wrong to tell the truth about it.
There’s a lot about telling the truth — especially if you’re a black woman — telling your truth about what it takes for you to get up in the morning and do what you do. I just thought what she was making is fucking sick.
I think it’s fascinating the way you captured masculinity in your series, This Charming Man. What caused you to do this project?
I started this project for multiple reasons and I never thought I was going to be documenting this when I did. It took really just getting into it and being real and honest with myself going and meeting these guys. There’s just something in my gut that told me, okay, go up to that person and ask them if they can shoot them in their home.
I’m a super nosy person, and as a kid I always wanted to go to people houses for play dates. And I remember I would go over and I would just be into their shit. Like, what do you have? What do these things say about you? Who are you? And I don’t think that’s changed at all. Everyone presents themselves as something and then you get to see them on the inside and it’s like, “Oh you’re not even that.” And I think that has a lot to say about male masculinity.
What is the best bit of advice you’ve ever gotten?
Try harder. Full stop. Try harder.