This NYU Sophomore Created a Photo Series on Black Vulnerability That is Getting People Talking

Ashley Pena was tired of only seeing white angels. So, she decided to create her own Black Angels.

The NYU sophomore, who majors in photography naturally, takes photos that focus on “Blackness as it relates to vulnerability and how that looks privately and publicly.”

We talked to Ashley about what sparked the idea for her Black Angels photo series (which you can scroll down to see), how she is handling being a black creator during these draining times, and what else she has up her sleeve.

What’s your background and how would you describe what you do? Tell us your story. 

I was raised in Maryland pretty much all my life until I headed off to college in New York where I attend NYU and major in photography and imaging. To describe what I do, I prefer the term image-maker rather than a photographer just because I feel like I don’t just take pictures, it feels more like I am telling a story or a narrative rather than detaching myself and objectively making photographs. 

My work focuses on portraiture through documentation and storytelling, particularly on Blackness as it relates to vulnerability and how that looks privately and publicly. It’s about identity, power dynamics, and viewing Black life as worthy, desirable, and sacred. 

To have Black people see themselves within my images and to communicate authentic beauty because whenever Black figures were photographed, it was through the white gaze and filtered through Eurocentric standards of beauty. For me, it’s about sharing truth and controlling back the narrative. I wanted to rewrite a history filled with erasure and misrepresentation.

What were you doing before photography and how did you get to where you are now? 

Before photography, I was into painting. I started to take photography more seriously in 2017 and that eventually became the only medium in which I navigated the world through. I was young when I started to make images, so I wasn’t doing too much before that.

Now, I’m an upcoming sophomore at New York University studying to get my Bachelors’s degree. I don’t know what I will do after, but I’m hoping college will help me figure that out. 

Tell us about your Black Angel photo series. What is the meaning behind it and what inspired you to create this project? 

I started the “Black Angels” photo series around the same time I started my “Boys Don’t Cry” series which had more to do with vulnerability. When I first started the “Black Angels” series, it was because I wasn’t seeing any Black Angels anywhere, whether that be in renaissance paintings, modern paintings, or in any other art form. All of the angels I was seeing were white. 

As I started making these images, I started to realize that the only time I saw Black men depicted as angels were when they died. That’s when I realized my images were also playing tribute to all of the fallen angels who have died and all the angels who continue to fear for their lives because of the criminalization of their bodies. I wanted to create images that show Black people in a light that shows our humanity because too often people portray us in a way that dehumanizes us.

Aside from being a Black woman, what initially peaked your interest in the religious iconography of Black people from various backgrounds? 

When I started the “Black Angels” series, it was because I never saw any Black figures depicted as Angels in the white cube spaces that were museums or galleries and especially in churches. I’m not as religious as I want to be, but I know enough to know that religion is whitewashed. Christianity in particular is practiced all around the world. Many churches don’t acknowledge racism because they were corrupted by white evangelicals to believe it’s too much of a political topic to speak on. Not only that, but the images of God and “God’s people” depicted as White only reinforce feelings of inferiority among non-Whites. Many racists claim to be religious, but still hate God’s creations. It just goes to show how white supremacy is rooted in American Christianity. I chose to include images of Black people from various backgrounds because anti-Blackness is a Global issue. The United States is not the only country that was built from systemic racism and it’s important for other places to know and acknowledge that.

With the current political climate in our country, from the protests to major changes in huge corporations due to the Black Lives Matter Movement, as a Black creative how are you doing? And how has all of this affected your work? 

I was talking to another friend who is also a Black creative not too long ago about these statements that corporations are making and how we felt about them. In the end, I came to the conclusion that we aren’t the only Black creatives who feel overwhelmed and angry right now. Personally, a lot has happened during these past few weeks for me. People are reaching out to represent me, feature my work somewhere, etc. Many people have taken an interest in my work overnight and it saddens and angers me that it came from the backs of Black suffering. The Black Lives Matter Movement going mainstream once again has impacted the way people have engaged with my work. My work is my activism and the work that many people have an interest in is work I’ve put out a long time ago. Anti-Blackness, racism, colorism, white supremacy, and so many other issues have always been an issue, but the fact that these corporations choose to speak out now seems superficial. Until I see actual change happening, it is only a performance. I constantly ask why now is the time these companies that weren’t inclusive before want to start amplifying Black voices, and it feels temporary to be quite honest. I am grateful for the genuine opportunities that do come my way though. 

When you’re not working on content, what do you do for fun? Are you super social or more of a homebody? 

Whenever I’m not working on making content, I like to go through photo archives of other people’s work. I also love reading books, and right now I’m going through a couple of photo books I’ve always wanted to read which is always fun and interesting. I could look at them all day long. I’m also in the process of doing research for current and future projects. I’d consider myself a homebody, but after this quarantine is over, whenever that’d be, I will make it my mission to be more of a social person. I’m tired of being home all day.

What do you want our readers to take away from our interview? 

Some people had the privilege to not understand what my work was about and now that my work has reached these audiences, I can only hope they understand the truth that has always been within my images. And to the Black readers, you should never feel guilty about experiencing joy, especially right now. That in itself is a revolutionary act.

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