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  • Writer's pictureLady Jonene

My Photography Journey

If I can be transparent, I've always struggled as a photographer. I have an "eye" for things visual whether it's with photos, curating or even fashion. I know what looks good. Technically? I've barely known how any of my cameras work. True story. The one I have now (Canon 6D Mark II) probably does a bunch of cool fancy things, but I have no idea how to even begin to figure them out. I know what I like to see and clicking a button, without too much technical direction, has always been an enjoyable experience for me.


My mom gave me my first camera when I was about 13. It was a Canon point and shoot ... my mom LOVED Canon cameras so to this day, it's the brand I'm loyal to. Anyway, I'd take the camera to school, sports practices after school and to the roller skating rink every weekend. I was the girl with the camera.


When I was about 25 I bought my first Canon SLR film camera. I remember bringing it to dance rehearsal and everyone was so excited for this new big camera I bought. Little did they know I had no clue how to use it nor would I ever sit down to figure it out. I'd put the setting on automatic and just shoot ... I still do this at times and am totally fine with admitting it :)


Dance. I was a dancer, well I still am because you'll never be able to tell me any different, but anyway, being in the dance world I got a ton of practice shooting movement. When shooting dancers you kind of have to know or anticipate what move they're going to do next and I think coming from a dance background, shooting dancers for fun, came easy. O and I only shot with ILFORD HP5 film. It's black and white and grainy witch I LOVED.




So there I was, living my best life as a dancer in Philly's only all women's Hip Hop dance company, Montazh (now known as The Ladies of Hip Hop). I was attending college at Temple U, dancing and bartending. After high school, I didn't go to college until I was 28. I tend to be a tad stubborn, coupled with the fact that I had no idea who I was or what I wanted to do ... I wasn't ready at 18 nor did I want to go somewhere simply because in 1993 that's where everyone said you HAD to go ... college. No thanks! I'll go when I'm ready :)




From 2000 to 2008 I was in school for some of the time and doing a lot of photojournalism type stuff. When I was at Temple I took a photo class (the only one I've ever taken) and I had a surge of confidence as a photographer and ,because I was bartending in the city, I had access to a lot of Philly's best DJs. I'm a music head at heart so I quickly formed close relationships with a lot of them. The first person I asked was DJ Excel. He was DJing where I bartended and one day I randomly asked "Hey would you want to walk around the city and I'll take photos of you?" It organically started a "series" that I didn't know I was creating. I honestly just realized it now as I was typing. Let's call it the "Let's Walk Around & Snap" series. I started asking DJs, rappers and anyone else I knew in the Philly Hip Hop scene, to just meet me somewhere in the city and we'd walk around, talk and take photos. The thing about me it that I like moments, not poses. It's part of the reason I never got into portraits, corporate or fashion photography. I can't pose you. I'm really not good at telling people how to stand or tilt their head. I'm much better and talking with you and getting those natural facial expressions. In my opinion, between the poses are where the best photos lie.



Then in 2008 as DJ Excel and I were driving past the Philly Art Museum he said "You should take a photo of all of the Philly DJs" and I ran with the idea. In 1958 Art Kane took the iconic photo "A Great Day In Harlem" , in 1998 Gordan Parks followed up with another show stopper "A Great Day In Hip Hop" and then in 2008 yours truly got together a couple hundred of Philly's DJs to shoot "Philly DJ Day". It was back in the myspace days so I reached out to Rich Medina, Jazzy Jeff and DJ Aktive, told them my idea and it kind of just took off from there.


Remember DJ AM? From Philly, but moved out to LA and made a huge name for himself. Him and Travis Barker of Blink 182 formed a group, were traveling together and unfortunately were part of an airplane accident. Because Jazzy Jeff and AM were close friends and had worked together in the past, he was supposed to be at DJ Day which is why you see a lot of people wearing DJ AM t-shirts. AM was interviewed by People magazine and when he mentioned he was sad he was going to miss Philly DJ Day, the event then had national awareness. It's, by far, one of my biggest accomplishments. Not even as a photographer, but as an event producer. From birthing the idea, to reaching out to all the DJs, to finding the right venue, hiring security ... the list goes on. Now I'm not going to sit here and act like I did it on my own because I had TONS of help from friends and especially Kamau Stanford. He took my vision and helped me make it possible. And let's not forget the DJs ... they were easy and awesome to work with. They were instructed to walk in, sign a release, sit for a headshot, find their group (if they were part of a DJ group), pose for that photo, then they all got together for the final photo that you see above.



After DJ Day I started getting a lot of photography work. Urban Outfitters found my photos on Flickr and we cut a deal to where they licensed 5 of my photos to be sold online, in stores and INTERNATIONALLY! This was back in 2009 when Urban used original art and paid artists what they deserved. It was the biggest check I had ever received and I finally thought that I had "made it". Since I had shot the DJ Day photo I had a lot of DJs, producers and MCs reaching out to me for random shoots. Jazzy Jeff's Family Christmas Card, Comic Con with Kwame, Hip Hop Honors with Questlove and a bunch of other random shoots I didn't think I'd ever be hired for. I think a lot of success in life comes when you can visualize what you want and I had not one vision or any idea what I wanted out of my photography career. What I did know, or my ego really, was that being around famous people made me feel like I knew what I was doing. I didn't. I was coasting along without a vision, taking whatever came my way. I wouldn't recommend this. I took jobs for very low pay because I didn't have a business sense what so ever and the confidence to ask for more money hadn't developed yet.


In 2012 I went to rehab. Didn't see that coming did you? Yeah, when I was 28 I picked up an opioid addiction that lasted about 10 years. From 2002 - 2012 you could find me in a cozy bubble of pills. Yes, I organized DJ Day high as shit, yes I was a Jazzy Jeff's house on a regular basis running to the bathroom every hour to pop more pills. Step 12 in the program is about making amends and Jeff's wife Lynette was one of the people I called to apologize for my actions. I don't think she even realized how I was struggling that whole time when I was in their home, but Lynette always made feel safe. Her and Jeff both. If you've ever been to their home or are close with them, they're some of the most loving, giving people in the world.


I can go into detail about the pill thing in another post if you want. I'm very open about my struggles, but for now, let's stick to photography.


So yeah after rehab I wanted to help people. I learned that being in service of others is probably one of the best ways to live your life. I got a job at a place called Pathways To Housing which helps the homeless get off the streets and into apartments using the harm reduction method. Most of the clients had a dual diagnosis of mental illness and drug addiction and wow did this help me grow and understand some of my childhood trauma. Yes, we're going there ... the childhood. My mom suffered from both mental illness and drug addiction. Bipolar 1/Schizophrenia is not fun to grow up with as a child and I'm pretty sure a lot of you reading this will agree (I'm giving you a BIG hug right now). When my mom came down from drugs or mania, she'd sleep ... for weeks and as a child I never understood why. As an adult I covered those feeling with pills and chose not to deal with it. Clean and sober at Pathways literally watching clients do the same shit my mom did enabled me to understand that she couldn't help it. She didn't sleep and ignore me on purpose. It was part of a bigger picture: her mental illness. Working at Pathways allowed me to understand my mom more, forgive her and let go of a lot of anger I was holding on to.


There weren't a lot of photos taken around this time. I was working on myself and would take the occasional street shot as I rode the subway to work everyday, but's about it.


In 2016 I had my daughter Lansana. LaLa for short, but you'll here me refer to her as Roo (long story, for another blog post). She changed my life. Gave me the confidence I never knew I had. Enabled me to look at life as half full. Kids man ... they change you. Her father and I moved to Chestnut Hill when I was pregnant so a lot of the photos I took were of Roo, my dog Gus and landscapes ... all with my Iphone. Remember when I said I barely know how to work my fancy camera? Well the Iphone suited me just fine. It still does.


When Roo was about 3 America's Garden Capital (because Philly is the capitol) contacted me to be an ambassador on Instagram ... meaning I could go to ANY garden or arboretum in the Philadelphia & surrounding areas for free ... I just had to take photos and tag them on instagram. WHAT? I can take my kid and her friends to beautiful gardens, run them until they're so tired I get piece and quiet at home AND I can take photos?! I'm there.



We went to a different garden nearly once a week for more than a year. We've been to a lot of them multiple times. Any garden or arboretum between New Jersey and Delaware, I have photos of it.


Then in 2019, Roo's dad and I split up and I moved into an apartment in Chestnut Hill with really high ceilings. My bedroom had a large white wall and the first thing I thought of when I saw it was "I want to take photos of people here". I randomly started contacted people I knew throughout the years on Instagram. Pretty sure the DM read something like this:


Hi! Do you want to come over, talk for a little and then I'll take photos of you in my bedroom? I'm calling it "The Black and White Bedroom Series". Bring like 3 outfit changes.


And that was that. People would come over, we'd sit and talk for about an hour. I'm a deep talker. I like to get in there and discuss childhood traumas, addictions and anything else that people are usually uncomfortable talking about. I'm quite vulnerable and I feel like it allows people to be the same with me. Plus ... I wasn't shooting models who knew their angels. I was shooting regular people and a lot were not comfortable in front of a camera. The hour long talk before the shoot was a way for me to get them to loosen up without even realizing it. I'd also talk to them the entire time I was shooting. Remember: moments not poses ... talking to people and getting a reaction while I'm shooting them is what I like.




I did my bedroom series for about a. year and a half and then ... I had an idea to do a pop up art exhibit called "The Show With No Name" and, well ... here we are.


The only time I take my camera out now is to shoot at Jansen when I do their social media. I've gone on a couple of vacations in the last few years and have only brought my Iphone and disposable cameras. Some of the photos that I've shot on my Iphone and blown up ... have sold in the gallery ... so if you're interested in photography please do not think that you need to spend money on a camera. Shoot with your phone.


A goal. Remember I said I never had any while taking photos? I have one now. My photos will be in a museum one day. All of my DJ Day photos, The Bedroom Series, the George Floyd protests ... all of it. My body of work will be in a museum for you to view. That's about all I want to do with my photography anymore. Video is quite popular nowadays and I do have plans to bring my Bedroom series to the gallery but in video form. I haven't figured it all out yet and plus ... I need the time!


So that's it. That's the story.


Thank you for reading


Jonene

xoxo







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