Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

African American Women and Photography

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DEANA LAWSON: ROXIE AND RAQUEL

Deana Lawson. "Roxie and Raquel," 2010; C-print, 35x45 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Deana Lawson (b. 1979) was born in Rochester, New York. She earned a B.F.A. in photography from Pennsylvania State University and an M.F.A. in photography from Rhode Island School of Design. She picked up the camera after discovering her voyeuristic tendencies and deep desire to see how a person's personal and social histories are written on the body and filter through to their environments, domestic and public. Though technically a portraitist, her photographs sit somewhere between documentary and appropriation, tableau and archive. While she ultimately chooses the mise-en-scène, Lawson discusses the options in detail with her subjects, allowing them to have input into the scene's construction. This exchange between her and the subjects, in some ways, makes her photography partly a social practice, and suggests that Lawson is invested in empowering her subjects to define beauty according to how they see themselves and how they desire the public to see them.

In "Roxie and Raquel" (2010), Lawson reflects on the coercive power of black female stereotypes using strategies identified in Renee Cox's photography. This photo depicts the eponymous twin sisters whose contrasting attire and expressions reveal their different personalities, as well as how they may have internalized these stereotypes. One, dressed in lamé and stilettos, looks at the camera seductively; the other, dressed more modestly, looks at the camera subtly annoyed. From a black feminist standpoint, Euro-centric culture might label the former a hypersexual Jezebel stereotype, while it might label the latter an aggressive, emasculating Sapphire stereotype. On the other hand, the women might claim that one is sexually confident and the other is strong and independent; together they are sexy and fierce. Herein lies the image's power; Roxie and Raquel's twin-ness not only confirms the non-specificity of racial/gender stereotypes, but also illustrates how empowering it could be to lay claim to and redefine the stereotypes according to one's personal values. In essence, Deana Lawson's photography is about redefining, perhaps even correcting, visual culture, and making room for the multitude of black subjectivities she encounters in her quest to fulfill her voyeuristic desires.

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