Savvy Talks: Kenneth L. Dixon

If there’s one thing more beautiful than the words Black people use to describe our culture and existence, it is the images that Black photographs produce of us. Black photographers are able to capture love, yearning, intimacy, and a gamut of complexities on film that are usually do not surrender to the limitations of the white gaze. Kenny is one of my favorite photographers who so bravely and beautifully tells the Black story through his images. I had the pleasure of working with him in the past and he became more like a little brother than a colleague. One day after realizing life was not fulfilling him he quit our grueling 9-5 and traveled across the world to explore and take pictures. 

For this installment of Savvy Talks, the Chicago native shares his inspirations, what it means to capture Black life and how he hopes his work will be received. 

How did you get into photography?

KD: My interest in photography started during my sophomore year in college. I distinctly remember several of my journalism professors advising me [about the potential of obtaining] more opportunities in the industry, if I could market my skills as both a writer and photographer.

In hindsight, I’m not sure if race played a part in that. Regardless, it led me to enroll in an introduction to Black & White Film Photography and Development in the Dark Room course. My best friend’s father was also a photographer and writer who spent some of his career working in New York City, which at the time was a dream of mine. I think subconsciously, little conversations between us when I was younger influenced me as well.

Which photographers influenced you, and how did they influence your thinking, photographing, and career path?

KD: Gordon Parks, Tyler Mitchell, Trashand, G-White, Micaiah Carter, and Josef Adamu are just a few. I take a bit of everything from everyone that inspires me as long as it makes sense. I think Gordan Parks simply because he’s like the first name most Black people will study when you’re thinking about art history. He documented the life and times of our people. He illustrated it in such a raw and organic manner that it couldn’t really be duplicated. His style gave me hope that one day my work could be featured in museums. He also inspired me to travel and photograph the places that most people are afraid to go to. 

Trashand’s work on Instagram showed me that I could travel the world and see so many other places outside of the United States, which is a huge aspect of my work today. Artists like Tyler and Micaiah revealed Black beauty from a more modern perspective. I love music and working with artists. Naturally, I was drawn to their work because they’d photographed so many of my favorite artists or actors. 

I recently read about how photography’s language is rooted in the violence of white supremacy (i.e., shooting, capturing). As a Black photographer, how do you feel you counter that?

KD: I never looked at those words as violent. I can see the association, and it does make sense. Like any other derogatory [term] or theme, I believe Black & Brown people have turned them into their own. We transform the “less sought after” words and ideas and associate [them] with love and endearment, or even humor. (i.e., memes). Capturing emotions and moments in time are things I love to do. I create with love. Anything I shoot, post, or discuss connected to my work is made out of love. Hate and violence aren’t words that resonate with me or what I showcase to the world.  

How do you counter the white gaze to capture the true essence of the BIPOC community?

KD: I struggled initially putting this into words, and I’m okay with that. I am imperfect and flawed. But so is every other human. Portraits of my people, Black people, in my eyes, are meant to encapsulate the truth, the root of what is. So I’m never aiming to get the absolute best out of every photo of someone but more so showcasing whoever they are and how they’re feeling at the time because that’s good enough. Natural light brings out the magic in our tones, so I love working under those conditions. It adds depth and a variety of perceptions of how we appear, which speaks to who we are as a people. 

What is the greatest significance you think comes from capturing Black life?

KD: Excellent question! The greatest significance of capturing Black life is the ability to proactively rewrite our own history. We’ve been ostracized, shunned, beaten, humiliated, and dissociated from humanity for so long. I think the age we live in now—where imagery is powerful and can easily be shared/seen allows us to change the narrative that some European cultures have misinformed the world about Black folks. 

What do you want to say with your photographs, and how do you actually get your photos to do that?

KD: Honestly, most if not all of my personal work is just conversations I am having with myself. Reflections, meditations, ideas, etc. I’m expressing my feelings at the time through visual art (photos and videos) and sometimes written word, or I’m telling the subject’s feelings, or their art or whatever. I can capture that through the lens by being authentic and highlighting that in the thing or person I’m photographing. It’s about capturing the essence of what is and showing that. People I work with usually have some connection with me, which is important—the more personal the image, the better. Connecting with the subject is crucial for me. It’s the only way I feel visuals show the truth about a person or place. 

Do you have a favorite picture that you’ve taken?

KD: Mmmmm, no, I don’t have one favorite in particular. There are favorites from different scenarios. But not one that triumphs over the rest. I can say that a photo that I recently posted to my Instagram showcasing two Black hands gripping in the center of the frame with another guy (@yahelyon) in the background putting two fists together is probably one of my favorite photographs I’ve taken in 2020. Another runner up would be of a Black Woman (@somegirlnamebri) sitting on the floor with white pants on and a lavender top. 

What other mediums of Black culture influence your photography?

KD: I’d have to say fine art, fashion, and sneaker culture [and] music as well. I’ve always been into sneakers as a kid growing up in Chicago. Naturally, once I began my writing career, I gravitated towards talking about that content, shortly after photographing and filming that stuff. Also, Architecture and traveling are some of my key inspirations. I love the buildings and infrastructures on the southside and all over Chicago. There’s no place I’ve been to that compares to its personality. When it comes to painting, I love artists like Kehinde Wiley and Kerry James Marshall. Their work speaks volumes to Black Beauty. 

Politically or emotionally, what motivates you to continue taking pictures?

KD: I was born in March, so I believe I’m competitive by nature. But I’m at a point in my life where I’m not trying to compete with others or “outshoot” them. I intend to grow with my art and be better than the person I was yesterday. So I guess I battle with myself often, trying to top the last thing I did over and over again. Technically that sounds like I motivate myself. I suppose I do! But people encourage me to continue taking pictures, my family, friends, and peers. One of my main goals is always to inspire. Where I come from, on the Southside of Chicago, I was never supposed to make it this far, especially with the odds that I had against me. Whether that was my environment or family trauma that we as Black people often deal with. But key players in my family stepped up and took me away from the things that would inhibit my growth. In retrospect, as a kid, I never could have imagined I’d be traveling around the world, collaborating with an array of creatives in different industries, and photographing and interviewing my favorite music artists at festivals, all while making us look beautiful. I just want other Black kids, artists, or whoever, oh, and my siblings especially, to know that anything is possible and they can literally achieve whatever their heart desires.