By Suniti Srinivasan
Today we’re pleased to welcome Natasha Tarpley and Regis and Kahran Bethencourt (Creative Soul Photography) to the WNDB blog to discuss The Me I Choose To Be.
Natasha: The fundamental connector for me is not hair but more embracing the complexity of who you are and creating spaces where African Americans can explore and celebrate these things. This has been my inspiration for all my work, to depict joyful images of Black kids in particular, for themselves to see themself in that context and for the world to see that as well.
I think that is a common theme between the two of you, what do you guys think?
Creative Soul Photography: Yeah for sure.
Is that what made both of you drawn to work with each other?
Creative Soul: Yeah, as Natasha was talking I was just thinking how closely connected our themes are even if we do it in different ways, ours being photography and hers through writing. We also have very similar missions, ours is to encourage Black youth to feel more self-confident but to also combat some of the negative stereotypes out there.
How did you guys get into this work, what inspired you to start?
Creative Soul: In the beginning, we were everything photographers, so we were doing a little of everything. We decided, “Why would we do something we hate”? We would go to a wedding and hate it, but we realized that we loved photographing kids and we would always pull them to the side. We wanted to get into the kid’s fashion industry knowing our creative side could be unleashed, we wanted to do more than just take a few photos of them in a field, we wanted to do something that incorporated hair and fashion making us drawn to photography for the kid’s fashion industry. We realized that the kid’s fashion industry lacked diversity and children who have natural afro hair had it straightened as their parents believed this was the only way for their child to make it into such an industry. We had an aha moment at that point, realizing that the industry had a huge void and we wanted to make that smaller by showcasing children with natural hair (more specifically natural afro hair).
Would this be how you want people to remember you for after you retire from this career?
Creative Soul: Yes! At the moment we call ourselves dream makers for kids, we ask kids to say whatever dream they have whether that be an artist or a DJ or any other dream they have when they grow up. We try to incorporate that through our photos and I would love to be able to look back and see these kids as what they aspired to be. I would love to know that perhaps these photos were the spark they needed to go after something that they thought was impossible at one point in life.
I love how you take such passion in your work and you take pride in every kid you photograph. Do you remember a touching moment a child might have said to you in the past during a photoshoot?
Creative Soul: I do not remember anything specifically but one of the things we love when photographing kids is the reaction, in the beginning, they are kind of nervous or not confident but after the shoot they are smiling with their heads held high, they have a whole different attitude. For us, that is the best feeling as a photographer when we can see them transformed not only on the outside but on the inside!
Creative Soul: I think I fell more in love with the mission than with the actual art. It is very cool, the process is awesome!
Natasha, as part of my research I got to know your mother was a huge influence and that the only time you got to spend alone with her was when she was doing your hair. What were some experiences you remember with your mother when she was doing your hair?
Natasha: We had this ritual where we would pretend there were people in my hair, we would have an ongoing saga of all of these characters who are doing things. These characters were drawn from people around us like family and community, it created that space for imagination and creativity. My mom also influenced me because she was a writer. Growing up she never became a professional one but she wrote stories for my siblings and me about things we were interested in.
Going back to what all of us have been saying, those early images of us in a story helped us make that connection of, “Wow! I can be the protagonist in a story.” Like how Regis and Kahran were saying, I have also had experiences of people who are almost in tears because of the impact the book has on them. One thing I want to add is people usually connect with this issue of hair but it is so much more than that, it is so layered this may be the manifestation in some cases but our mission is more about self-acceptance which is the heart of both our work.
Creative Soul: This is such a good point because in the beginning some of our focus was more about hair but slowly as we started to dig in it has become more about culture and the confidence aspect, what started as something more focused on hair morphed into something much deeper and bigger. I feel like hair may be a part of it but it is not the focus, it is an element but not the sole focus.
Natasha: I work with a lot of writers, as a young medium writer I would encourage you to kind of think about African American subject matter as a holistic experience because people tend to sometimes make it about a specific matter like hair or racism, pushing the idea of the complexity inhumanity of all of us but specifically African Americans in the media.
You used phrases like “I am hope” and “I am a bridge builder” or “I am a conjurer.” Were you talking about the ways that younger generations can move toward a more antiracist and equitable world? What were your intentions behind these phrases?
Natasha: I was not thinking in terms of that particular topic, for me, this book is less about an external expression about how we can be equal, it is more about internally exploring who you are. Like you said you need to have that sense of who you are before you can go out and engage with the world, because if you go out and engage with the world without completely feeling good about yourself then you are never going to be in that equal stance, you are never going to come to the world as a whole person. So this was really about celebrating who you are as a person, and acknowledging that you do not have to be one thing. This book is like an evolving journey of who you are.
Creative Soul: I love that line about bridge builders because when I see our younger generation, I see them hopefully seeing them taking elements and pieces from our ancestors and being able to pass them down to the next generation (kind of like passing the baton). That is why I believe our work is so important because we need to celebrate that culture and insert it into everyday life. I feel like our younger generation can sometimes get lost and do what is trendy and what is new, making them forget about their culture. I think there are ways to make our culture trendy because a huge part of self-acceptance is accepting your traditions and culture.
That kind of reminds me of an image of a girl holding a photo of her ancestor, after talking to you all, I can connect the words and imagery more.
I also have a lot of cultural things and sometimes forget about those things when looking at others.
Creative Soul: Yes we are all so focused on today and the current trends that you sometimes forget about those traditions, and with social media, the trends are in one day and out the next so your mind just keeps moving on.
What were some of the struggles you faced when writing this book or when taking the photographs for this book?
Creative Soul: The process for us was a little different because we came up with high-level concepts, but usually it is not for a specific story or words, for us it was how to tell that story through imagery or to showcase the words through imagery. That part was very challenging in terms of what images best tell that story because some of it was beforehand just planning and some of it was after taking the photos and seeing the images. Some of it we thought would go in one direction but we ended up taking five to six photos. Also usually we just use the original photo(no photoshopping), but in this, we did use some photo manipulation which added a level of fantasy for us to extend from just the photography part.
Natasha: I guess it is always letting the story become what it is going to become, for me it was I have not written poetry in a long time though I started my publishing career writing poetry. This book was like a very spare narrative, so the process of figuring out what that structure was going to be was difficult. I have also never done a rhyming manuscript before, figuring out those technical details once I figured out how the manuscript was going to be formatted. I took a lot of inspiration from poets like Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton, all of them had something that they brought to the table, Maya’s poetry was very powerful, Gwendolyn had that deep grounding and culture as well as a good sense of kids perspective on the word, Lucille Clifton writes very spare poems I used all these techniques to help me.
You used poetic language in your books. Why did you want to write these books in poetic language and what do some of the phrases you used mean to you?
Natasha: I felt like this book needed a lot of space for the photography and illustrations because when you are writing a more substantial storyline, the illustrations are really in service to that storyline. With Creative Soul, it was a great place to have that open fantastic space of imagination and creativity so I wanted to create a space with a lot of openness.
Creative Soul: I appreciated that because it allowed us to get creative without being boxed into a certain set of words and gave a lot of room for artistic expression.
Natasha: With the photographic genre it is harder to convey that sense of action and storyline so it was also our consideration on how we could make something that is dynamic without having it be dependent on a plotline.
Each child on each page is very unique, what is the process when it comes to selecting a certain hairstyle, makeup, and clothing for each child?
Creative Soul: We are very lucky to have a team that we have been working with for years, this is very beneficial since they understand our overall style so usually we are putting together mood boards for each page to figure out the overall direction, but the way I like to work with my team is I let them get creative with that vision because they come up with stuff I would have never thought of, they add their take on the mood I give them so when we are on set it is kind of like a creative factory I think it kind of keeps us fresh and creative.
The book has multiple background colors; are these colors connected to emotion?
Creative Soul: Yes, for sure, we think about colors and the mood scene but done in post-processing so Regis takes that and figures out how we can add that little bit of fantasy to it.
What was your mission when it came to this book?
Creative Soul: I want kids to be able to dream big and do anything they want, I want them to not feel limited to a box others put them in. I feel like black youth especially are put in a certain box that they can only be and do certain things, for this book I wanted them to feel the possibilities are endless.
How have your stories impacted your writing and photography?
Natasha: When I started working on I love my hair I felt there was a need for more expansive and joyful narratives that feature black children, and I still feel that way a lot of the books that get the most publicity are the ones that deal with trauma like violence and racism which are important to arm our kids but they are not the whole of our lives, I think if we can embrace all the wonderful things that happen in our life then we can deal with all that other stuff differently. I feel like the way we talk about race and racism goes around in a circle and we are still maintaining the same power dynamics and we are not changing the structural way we deal with this problem. I think we have to do that a lot within ourselves and communities and fortify who we are before we go out and deal with some of these other issues.
Creative Soul: For us now a lot of the kids we photograph are the heroes of our story, we kind of draw inspiration from their stories. This weekend we did a photo shoot with a girl who wanted to be a mermaid who can go between land and water, so we kind of take inspiration from the kids and morph it into our vision. So we kind of draw inspiration from the child’s story and make them the hero of it.
Natasha: That is so crucial, I love that it is your process where you actively engage the kids in telling their own stories. This is the ultimate goal for us all even though I’m doing it through stories the goal is to encourage people to own and identify and tell your story.
Creative Soul: Yes it makes it so much more personal for us all, I always imagine how cool it would be if one of the kids we photograph have their dream come true and has the photograph that we took up on the wall because a lot of these dreams are going to come true one day even though at the moment it may only seem like a dream.
Natasha Tarpley is the author of the bestselling picture book I Love My Hair!, as well as other acclaimed titles for children and adults. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and numerous other awards and she is the cofounder of Voonderbar! Media, a project seeking to expand the depictions of children of color in media. She lives with her family in Chicago, Illinois. You can find her online at www.natashatarpleywrites.com.
Regis and Kahran Bethencourt are the husband-and-wife duo and the imaginative forces behind CreativeSoul Photography. With more than ten years of working with hundreds of children, families, and brands, they specialize in child and lifestyle photography while incorporating authentic visual storytelling. They live in Atlanta, Georgia. You can find them online at www.creativesoulphoto.com.
Suniti Srinivasan is a blog volunteer for We Need Diverse Books, and a middle schooler in International Community School. She is very passionate about law and International Studies. When she is not doing schoolwork, she expresses herself through classical dance and finds it to be a great stress reliever. She is an animal enthusiast and has a golden retriever who keeps her busy. She has been an avid reader from a very young age, absorbing the tales of strong character in fantasy lands and in society. She hopes to share her joy of reading with the world and help highlight more diverse authors through this platform.