When photographer Nydia Blas talks about the young women she photographs, her words are imbued with ideas of magic and alchemy and power, and there’s a folkloric feel to the scenes she stages. Her girls are seen exploring themselves with decorative mirrors and breastfeeding in flowing organza gowns; braiding each other's hair and appearing in clouds of glittering dust.
In among these pictures are self-portraits, too — in one image she kisses the lips of an ancient statue, and in another she wraps herself in a thick floral blanket, staring directly into the lens. These images are collected in a project called The Girls Who Spun Gold and that feeling of enchantment we get from the pictures is crucial to our reading of them, she says. "We each inherit parts of our identity that are dependent upon the bodies that we are born into. Our bodies carry histories, stereotypes and possibly heightened access to violence too. We then have to come to understand ourselves within this world. As painful as this process may be, it’s also really beautiful and transforming. There is a magical element to that."
Blas was introduced to magic by the African American folklore she was read as a child. "My dear Aunt Beverly gave me the book The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales by Virginia Hamilton, and from it I learned to love the fine line where we make the choice to believe, or not believe, in magic. Can animals really talk? Can people really fly?"
In her photographs, Blas wants to reveal the nuances of each subject's own powers and strengths, and the little instances of personal magic they conjure from their lived experiences and project outwards. "I want the girls to really own their worlds, and that means negating the viewer at times. This space is really about the exploration of self and protection of each other."
Blas grew up in Ithaca, a small town in upstate New York which is home to Cornell University. She met the girls we see in her pictures when working at Southside Community Center, which, she explains, is one of the only historical places for African American people to gather in the town.
"It was built during the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration, on behalf of a group of Black women who saw a void in their community." During her time there, Blas met a group of girls who voiced a need for a space that was just for them. "I listened, and we created that space together," she remembers. "We made what we called the Girl Empowerment Group. At first we met every day after school, and unknowingly we created a ‘curriculum’ based on their needs and ideas and what I was really excited to share from my own education and experiences growing up in Ithaca."
Blas and the girls explored their thoughts and feelings with journal writing, held "powerful, painful and intimate conversations about self-esteem, family and boys," deconstructed rap videos and did activities with the After School Program children. "At one point they wanted to start a dance group and perform in the community and we also hosted events for teenagers," she remembers warmly. "We created an environment and relationship built on mutual trust, respect and care. This was dependent upon our shared experiences of growing up as Black women in a small, predominantly white city."
On a personal note, it is an experience that Blas is still healing from. "The town’s tagline is '10 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality'. It is a very white, liberal city that believes it is exempt from the issues of the world because it’s seen as 'progressive' but it is just as racist and complicated as any other city in America," she says. "From a young age I was able to see how racism played out, and this caused anger and confusion – it gave me my first experiences of a world where I am always asking 'Why?' and seeking answers for that which I do not understand."
She continues: "As an adolescent growing up in a predominantly white space I struggled with low self-esteem, although I am careful not to promote what I call a 'light-skinned girl's sob story' – this notion of fitting in with neither Black or white folks. It is not that I do not understand this experience and the pain it may cause, but there is also a lot of privilege involved."
Blas’ family came to Ithaca from Harlem around 100 years ago. Her great-grandfather Leon Martin was a chef at a fraternity at Cornell, and her great-grandmother Mariam Martin stayed home with the children and took in laundry for professors’ wives. "Photography was a part of my ancestors' lives and I was lucky enough to grow up in homes filled with photographs of beautiful Black people loving, playing, celebrating and congregating," she remembers. "These images worked to instil the notion that I came from greatness. I find this an immense honour and it’s an integral part of who I am today." Following in their footsteps, Blas began taking pictures with disposable cameras and 35mm film as a kid, putting things together in front of her lens to see what made a good image and getting the results developed at her local drugstore. In seventh grade, she took her first photography course and began making black and white images of her friends and family. The images, she explains, were mostly candid and constructed portraits. Although her feelings about Ithaca are complicated, she says, it is where she found her way and learned to make meaningful work. "It is also where I cultivated many lifelong friendships and met my partner."
When the time came to leave the community centre to focus on her studies in 2013, Blas felt guilty, even though it was the right decision for her future. "I was a single mother of two with a full course load, teaching, working, and I needed to begin the work I was going to make over the next three years. So I began to photograph the young women from Girl Empowerment Group, as a way to maintain our bonds in a super busy time. I began photographing them in a candid manner, just being an observer, but then I started to have what felt like spontaneous ideas for photographs and I started creating those. The work that manifested was about the time we had spent together. The conversations we had. The intimacy that we created in a space that we made, just for us. The connections we made between history and how Black women are treated in this world and who we truly are." The pictures are the loving result of bonds formed and held together by the thread of shared experience and the meeting of personal histories across the years.
Blas works intuitively when taking her photographs. She believes that an image is made between the subject and the photographer, and while she understands the inherent power she has as the person holding the camera, she is keen to point out that both parties contribute. This feeds into the way she stages her pictures. "While I usually have an idea in mind, I always need the input of the person being photographed. They know how they look best, especially in the age of selfies. They know what they want to project. But there’s also this regal air that I’m looking for and love to pull out of someone. Ownership of the space. The camera. Ownership of themselves. During European/African slavery, when an enslaved African escaped, it was white folks referred to it as 'stealing away'. The notion that you can steal yourself away because you are 'owned' by someone else is crazy. I think that when I photograph people I’m trying to get at something else. Something bigger. And I think that thing is based on intimacy, sharing time and space with someone. I think I mix who someone is with how I see them; who I want them to be, or who they are to me, in that moment."
Blas’ favourite image in the project is called "Honey Belly." In it, two young women wearing fur coats stand in a pool of rich amber honey; one of them is pregnant, the honey spread over her belly, while the other girl leans her head tenderly on her shoulder and presses her hand onto the bump. One stares into the distance, the other directly into the lens. They’re in a kitchen and it’s dark outside. "It’s my favourite not just because I love the photograph but because I remember the night that I made it so vividly. Samone was pregnant in her senior year of high school and I knew I had to make a photograph of her belly before she gave birth. The idea came to me to put honey on her belly and that she should be in a fur coat. We decided to shoot in my friend's kitchen. We ordered food, made a cast of her belly, and talked for hours. Making the photograph was just a small part of our time together. Making photographs is always about the full experience and spending time with people that I love."
The discussion turns to what needs to change about the way our societies and media represent Black bodies – especially Black women – and what we are crucially missing and getting wrong. Blas says: "I’m not sure if that is for me to say at this point but I do know that everything needs to change. I know that we need to make connections between history, lived experience and our present day condition. I know that change has only ever come about at the hands and demands of the people." Her job, she says, is to use photography, with all its storytelling and voice-amplifying and record-keeping power, as a tool for communication. "Like writers or musicians, it’s my job to use my medium to share what I learned with Black women and empower them to make images that unfold their experiences, and speak back to who they are."