Meet The Women Making Inclusive Creative Spaces For Black Joy: “If I Don’t Do This Work, Who Will?”

“There are so many Black stories out there to tell that I don’t think we have even scratched the surface of, so I hope to see more of that this year.”

Polly Irungu and Shavone Charles are poised to make significant changes in the photography community, and what we see when we turn on our phones.

“I’ve spent the majority of my career advocating for underrepresented creators and communities across the intersection of tech, contemporary art, entertainment, and fashion,” Charles said.

Charles is a multi-hyphenate creative: model, musician, and diversity advocate, currently working at VSCO. She’s also the mind behind the #BlackJoyMatters project, which has become a way for photographers and creatives around the world to spotlight their work online.

Irungu is a digital editor at New York Public Radio, and the founder of Black Women Photographers, a global community and directory of Black women and nonbinary photographers.

Their respective projects are labors of love and of duty at a time when both the photo industry and consumers are more aware of the issues of inclusivity and who is able to tell stories. As social media and apps like VSCO become increasingly common access points for people to get hired, they are making it easier for often underrepresented voices to be heard. As Brent Lewis, a cofounder of Diversify Photo put it, “Black stories need to be told by Black folks because we’ve been left out of that conversation for so long.”

Irungu and Charles spoke through Google Chat in an interview facilitated by BuzzFeed News, which has been edited and condensed for clarity. The interview initially appeared in our photo newsletter JPG, which you can sign up for here.


Nicky Quamina-woo

As the ocean’s tide goes out, young girls in the village of Nungwi search among the algae and sand for small mollusks that they can boil for food in Zanzibar.

What’s a time in your career where you felt like, Wow, I’ve made it?

IRUNGU: When I saw my work on Nasdaq’s Tower in Times Square as part of their Amplifying Black Voices campaign, I definitely had a brief moment of the “Momma, I made it” feeling. But naturally, as a creative, I am always wanting more.

Don’t get me wrong, I took time to celebrate that achievement, but I didn’t stop there. This month, I went back to Nasdaq to pitch a collaboration with Black Women Photographers. Throughout the month of February, they will be amplifying more Black voices, specifically, Black women and nonbinary photographers.

To me, it is not enough for only me to just “make it.” I am constantly thinking about how I can bring other Black women into these spaces. The work I have put in for the last seven months to build this community is just another example of that commitment. Most recently, it was truly rewarding and a “wow, *we* made it” feeling when The Kelly Clarkson Show invited me to talk about the work I am doing to help more Black women photographers get hired.

CHARLES: YASSSS, Polly! I know that’s right!

IRUNGU: LOL, thank you, Shavone!!

CHARLES: Honestly on my end, I haven’t yet fully felt this, mostly because I look around and see that so many people (including my family, peers, and colleagues) are in need in some shape or form. As a Black woman and Black creator, financial freedom and access are two of the most important factors that would impact me feeling like I’ve made real progress and created positive generational impact and equity for those who need it. I’m grateful for the earned opportunities and accomplishments I’ve had thus far, but the work continues!

To Polly’s point — it is important for us to stop and just breathe and celebrate our wins and progress along the way though. I am working on being better at that!

IRUNGU: It is definitely a work in progress on my end, too! Amen to that — here’s to generational wealth!

CHARLES: Isn’t it? Always a battle to find balance through it all!

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