By SPECIWOMEN Photography RUBY ROSE
"I’ve learned to love myself and embrace my features. The confidence I’ve learned from being a woman has made me more confident in other aspects of my life, including my art."
Please give us some background information.
Hi! My name is Neah Gray, but my art alias is NEA GRA. I’m 17 years old, born and raised in Brooklyn NY. I attend a private independent school in lower Manhattan, but I am off to American University in the fall.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve done everything underneath the artistic sun from dancing and playing the saxophone to acting, writing, painting, and drawing. I’ve never focused my attention on one form of art and honestly drifted to whatever allowed me to express myself best at the time. I’ll draw, stop for a couple of years, then pick up a pencil like I was just drawing yesterday. I’ve realized now that it is okay to dabble into a little bit of everything, and that is exactly what makes me the multifaceted person I am today. I am an ever changing person who is always exploring herself and her being within the world. I overflow with ideas, visions, aspirations and wants. It is important and special to me that I can express myself in different ways, and nowadays, I have chosen photography, modeling, writing, and social activism as my outlet.
What got you into photography?
I’m not exactly sure what got me into photography, but I started taking a black and white film photography class at the International Center of Photography in 9th grade after my mom recommended it. I have been going to ICP for the past four years now, taking more advanced classes in photography II, color, and portraiture. The repetition of washers in a laundromat or columns in a train station definitely drew me into photography, but it wasn’t until I traveled abroad to Uruguay in the summer before 11th grade that I started taking real portraits of people and develop (ha) a love for photography. I continued to photograph by borrowing a camera from my school until I won a scholarship that granted me a brand new camera plus equipment. The feeling I got, and still continue to get, when I take a great shot is what kept me shooting.
What do you photograph?
My photography is mainly portraiture. I love shooting people and their faces. I also photograph many people of color, and through my photography, I hope to give light to groups of people who are not always appreciated or included in society.
What messages are you hoping to convey through your Photography?
I am an avid social activist, specifically speaking up about black rights, black power, black women, queer women of color, and womanism. Through my photography, I hope to convey messages about the black community or pressing social issues like racism, colorism, sexism, the treatment and perceptions of black women in society, black empowerment, and self-care. Often times, when I see feminists talk about feminism and women’s rights, many of these women tend to leave out the issues that women of color face. Historically, women of color have also been left out of the feminist movement because of their race. Intersectionality is very important when talking about all women; trans women, women of color, and queer women. This is why I tend to use the word womanist because womanism sparks more inclusive conversations.
What is your set up like?
Once I have an idea or inspiration, I start by brainstorming who, what, when, where, why, and how. Almost every personal project of mine has an important meaning behind it. Whether it be self love or exploring of the effects of colorism on dark skin and light skin black girls like I did in my Colorism and Black Beauty project. I plan out everything I can from what my subject is wearing and what kind of lights to what their hair will look like and what feelings or message I want to convey.
Where does your art bring you?
My art brings me past my perceived limits. Every time I shoot I have a little bit of anxiety about whether or not the shoot will be executed how I want and if viewers will truly understand the message or meaning. Once I start shooting that anxiety subsides and whatever happens or however it comes out, I have faith that everything will be fine as long as I give it my all. Every single time, I am proud of myself afterwards because my shoots never come out exactly how I planned them, but a little bit better. My art brings me happiness and personal satisfaction, but most importantly, I want my art to give people that inspiration to bring themselves to test their artistic limits. Once you begin breaking barriers you thought surrounded you, the drive you have to break down other perceived limits is limitless.
What are your favorite places where you live? In the world?
I’m a city girl but I don’t like the city, so every major part of NYC is out. I have definitely gotten used to the fast paced walking though, but I’m tall with long legs so part of it comes naturally. I do however, have a few favorite spots. One would definitely have to be the Brooklyn Museum
on Eastern Parkway. It has a huge plaza like area, with lights, water fountains, cultural events every Saturday, and the daily skateboarders. I’ve been going there religiously since I was young, and I will always love that place. A couple blocks down is my second favorite spot, Prospect Park. I find it not as busy as Central Park, and when you and your friends decide to have a picnic at midnight during the middle of the summer, Prospect Park is always the way to go. I love the area of Crown Heights, my neighborhood, in general. I live in a mostly Hasidic Jewish area so at times it is peaceful, quiet, and a nice break from crowded, busy and loud NYC streets. In the world, my favorite places would have to be Punta del Este, Uruguay and Cadiz, Spain. Both beautiful, beautiful places with gorgeous beaches and friendly people.
Who inspires you and your photography?
One person who inspires my photography is Diane Arbus. Her ability to capture marginalized people, make them feel comfortable, and not exploit them in the process is definitely something I keep in mind as I continue to photograph people of my race; which has been historically marginalized and oppressed. Another person who is constant inspiration to me when it comes to my photography is my boyfriend Shawn Shuttlesworth. He is also a photographer with such a natural talent, and he inspires me to have more confidence in my work and “just go out and shoot”. Honestly, anyone with originality and a deep passion for what they do inspires me. When I see people chasing their dreams and working hard, it inspires me to continue to focus myself on what’s important, push past limits, become fearless, put myself out there, and make my art passionate enough to inspire others.
Tell us a short story about yourself.
When I was six, I was bouncing on an exercise ball and bumped into an iron board in my mother’s room. The hot iron fell flat on my back and left a nasty scar that I still have today. A couple of years ago, I wanted to get a cover up tattoo over the scar but then I realized I actually liked it. This is one of the few starts of me embracing my “imperfections”.
How does being a woman shape your life?
I identify with my race first, and woman second, so being a black woman has definitely shaped my life. I have realized that my beauty is not going to be appreciated by everyone, especially in a society that idolizes people who do not look like me. I’ve learned to love myself and embrace my features. The confidence I’ve learned from being a woman has made me more confident in other aspects of my life, including my art. I dare to be bold and make positive strides in my life as a black woman.
Slideshow courtesy of Neah Gray.