Jaimie Milner and some of the men she has photographed discuss the Gifted project.

 

FOR MORE THAN FIVE YEARS, Jaimie Milner has been photographing black men. She describes the process as an exploration of the “beauty and ingenuity of black men today.” Milner has made portraits of more than 50 so far, from all walks of life—artists and musicians, men in politics and business. One of the most compelling images captures artist John Outterbridge peering out of an open car window, looking directly into the camera. The series is called “Gifted.”

“This project is about celebrating men, but it is a platform to go somewhere so much further. It’s a platform for progression. It’s a platform for people to have pride in themselves,” Milner says in the video above. Based in Los Angeles, Milner is a graduate of the University of Southern California and “Gifted” is her first body of work presented publicly. The collaborative project pairs her portraits with words of wisdom from the men, giving them a chance to express themselves and share their insights. “The myth is that we’re all the same,” says pianist Kris Bowers.

The photographs have appeared previously in a group show and for the first time will be featured in a solo exhibition next month at Residency Art in the Inglewood neighborhood of Los Angeles (Oct. 1-Nov. 5, 2016). Milner says she also plans to release a limited edition book.

After seeing “Gifted” online, I reached out to Milner via email with a list of questions to learn more about her background, the images and her subjects, intending to use the information to write about the project. Her responses were so thoughtful and narrative, I decided to feature them as a Q&A, which she agreed to. Milner’s answers are published below.

 

CULTURE TYPE: Do you have a bio you can share with me or somewhere online where I can learn more about you, where you are based, and your work beyond “Gifted”?

JAIMIE MILNER: I don’t have an official bio, but now seems like the perfect time to write one. I was born and raised in Southern California. I attended school in Pasadena from kindergarten through 12th grade. I was first introduced to photography as a high school elective. I had an amazing teacher, her name is Jennifer O’Sullivan. I wouldn’t be a photographer without that woman. She took the time to nurture me and made me feel special for the first time in an academic environment. Attending predominately white schools my whole life had often left me feeling overlooked. Ms. O`Sullivan noticed me, she believed in me and, more importantly, made me believe in myself. This allowed me to pursue photography with confidence and determination.

After high school, I attended USC and got my B.A. in communications. It was the perfect major for me. As I learned about the portrayal of race, gender and sexuality in the media and the effects it has on our society, it made me realize that I could have a direct influence on how people saw themselves and each other. That thought is what lead me to the project. “Gifted” is the first body of work that I have shown and the response from all that have seen it has left me with an overwhelming feeling that I am aligned with my purpose.

 

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JOHN OUTTERBRIDGE, Artist, Los Angeles. | Photo by Jaimie Milner, Courtesy the photographer

 

Tell me about the name of the project. Why “Gifted”?

The title “Gifted” came to me after listening to Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” I had struggled to find the right title for years. That song encompassed everything I was trying to say through this project. In a live recording, Nina Simone spoke of the inspiration she gained from Lorraine Hansberry and her play of the same name “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” She states that the song was primarily intended for black people, it was not written to put any other person down, but simply to build up black people who are in need of all the love and inspiration they can get.

In that same vein, “Gifted” was intended for black men. It is there to remind them of the greatness they possess and provide a visual representation of what that greatness looks like. I believe our gifts are the vehicles to our purpose and if we can properly assume those gifts and our power as individuals then we can effectively move forward and live the life we were intended to. So often we get caught up in changing other people’s views of us, when really, the only view that needs to change is the view of ourselves.

What prompted you to do the project (You say you are not sure in the video, has that changed?) and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

The project started as a nagging and persistent curiosity that spoke to me daily. I naturally began to feel drawn to the men around me and developed a strong desire to learn more about them on a deeper level. Who were they as individuals? What were their dreams? Most importantly, how did they feel about themselves?

When I say I’m not sure why I started “Gifted,” it is because I don’t believe I can put into words the strong cosmic pull I had to do this project. It came from a place that was not from my own experience or my own personal desire, but more of a dream that was placed in my heart.

I still can’t fully comprehend why I’m so captivated by black men, but I do know that I am, on a profound and overwhelming level. Maybe it’s because I see my own beauty and power reflected in them. It might also be that I see them as a missing piece to a more complete vision that I have for the world. All I know, is that they’re powerful beings that are an integral part of my existence, future and progression as a black woman.

“I still can’t fully comprehend why I’m so captivated by black men, but I do know that I am, on a profound and overwhelming level. …All I know, is that they’re powerful beings that are an integral part of my existence, future and progression as a black woman.” — Jaimie Milner

My hope is to inspire millions of men to create a new vision for themselves. One of hope and truth that is void of anyone else’s opinion of them. Having a powerful vision of yourself radically effects the way you operate in the world…and that, in my belief, is what will lead to the change that we have been praying for.

 

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STANLEY LUMAX, Photographer, Brooklyn, N.Y. | Photo by Jaimie Milner, Courtesy the photographer

 

Tell me about the decision to shoot in black and white.
This series is intentionally in black and white because I didn’t want anything to distract from the character of the men. I wanted it to be about their characteristics and their emotion. The absence of color forces you to focus on internal attributes instead of getting consumed with the external. In other words, it’s not about their skin but who they are as people. That’s what black and white portraiture does for me and that’s what I hope it does for my audience.

Is the “Gifted” project about art and photography or social justice and social change?

Most definitely social change. I believe that your gifts serve as a tool for your purpose. I think so many people obsess over the love of the art, when what really matters are what you’re trying to convey through that art and how that helps to better the world or people around you.

In my case, photography is the vehicle through which I can create my own world. A world in which I’m beautiful, I’m powerful and I’m seen. I’m not seeking justice. Justice is contingent upon someone else’s treatment of me. As long as we keep giving it value, we’ll continue to be devalued. What I’m concerned about is changing the way we see ourselves.

What was the time frame for the project? When did you start? When did you complete it or is it ongoing? Are you still photographing subjects?

There’s no particular time frame for this project. It started in 2010 after graduating from USC and I plan to continue the project as a series, and will be releasing the photos and interviews collected thus far as a limited edition book.

How many subjects are included in the project?

From 2010 to 2015, I’ve photographed more than 50 men for the project and will start photographing new subjects this fall.

 

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PHIL UPCHURCH, Musician, Los Angeles | Photo by Jaimie Milner, Courtesy the photographer

 

Who are the men featured? Some are well known, others are not. Are they people you know? How did you select them?

The men featured are artists, entrepreneurs, musicians, filmmakers, etc.—all men in the arts, business, politics and finance. Some are well known, some are not, but they are all men I believe to be extremely talented and influential in their respected fields. Strangely enough, as soon as I started pursing the project the subjects came to me.

The first man I photographed for the series was Phil Upchurch, a legendary guitarist who worked with Quincy Jones, Chaka Khan, Michael Jackson, George Benson, etc. He happened to go to my church. The second subject was Robert Watt, the first black French hornist to be hired by a major orchestra in the United States. He sat across from my mother and I at a luncheon.

From there people started recommending their peers and teachers. It’s really amazing because as much as this series is about me celebrating black men, it’s also an intricate web of black men celebrating one another.

“It’s really amazing because as much as this series is about me celebrating black men, it’s also an intricate web of black men celebrating one another.” — Jaimie Milner

One of the subjects is artist Hank Willis Thomas. Unlike the others, rather than capture his face, the image is of his fist and tattooed forearm. How did this approach to his image come about? What does it symbolize in your view?

The image of Hank’s fist popped into my mind on the way to the session. I stopped at Rite-Aid for black eyeliner and wrote Hank on his forearm. I remember being super embarrassed to ask him to let me draw his arm, but that was my interpretation of him. I felt that who he was and what his work embodied could be depicted through the symbol of a black power fist. For me, that image spoke more than the more traditional portrait.

The “Gifted” project shares some of the same intentions as “Question Bridge,” the transmedia project Hank Willis Thomas co-created. Can you comment on any parallels?

It most definitely does. We are both providing an intimate platform where men can speak their truth and at the same time providing a more varied and honest depiction of who they are. “Question Bridge” and “Gifted” have the same goal with different perspectives. The perspective of a man and the perspective of a woman. Both are needed to progress our culture.

 

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HANK WILLIS THOMAS, Artist, New York, N.Y. | Photo by Jaimie Milner, Courtesy the photographer

“The craziest thing about blackness is that ‘black people’ didn’t create it, Europeans with a commercial interest in dehumanizing us created black people…” — Hank Willis Thomas, Gifted

In addition to portraits of the participants, the project includes quotes from them. Tell me about the role of these quotes in tandem with the images. How are the quotes generated? Do you interview the men or prompt them with a particular question or topic?

The quotes are derived from five questions that I ask each man. The questions were developed later in the project. I was traveling to people’s homes and having these beautiful conversations with them, none of which were recorded. I wanted to find a way to bring people in to the intimacy and vulnerability of my sessions, to be a part of the beautiful conversations I was having and the truth I was trying to convey through the photographs.

The role of the questions was to create a deeper dialogue amongst the work and find the mental commonalities among the men. I wanted to see where they all agreed and use those commonalities to speak to a much larger audience of black men.

Given the project, what has been your experience with black men, in your family and beyond, whether positive or negative? A number of the subjects are in the arts. Have you had male mentors or men who have significantly influenced your practice and pursuits?

My relationship to black men has been very positive. My father has been the driving influence for the project. His role as a strong, loving, dedicated father and husband has shaped my view of black men from an early age. He allowed me to see all the good qualities of a man instead of stereotypes and negative depictions. I started “Gifted” because I didn’t see men like him depicted in mainstream media. Not all women are blessed with a positive male influence from an early age as I was. My goal is that through “Gifted,” black women will see that these men exist and they’re very real.

My biggest photographic influence was my photo mentor, Bazille, who is also a black man. He was a family friend of our neighbor and shot TV and film promotions. At 15, I was assisting him on shoots, learning the equipment and lighting. He has such a beautiful eye and really influenced my composition early on.

The pursuits are just magical! I believe them to be directly from God. I also think some of this determination might be in my blood. My paternal grandmother was an activist and my great uncle Thirman Milner, was the first black mayor of Hartford, Conn. Through many generations we have been focused on doing great things for black people. I have a feeling I am just getting started.

“Through many generations we have been focused on doing great things for black people. I have a feeling I am just getting started.” — Jaimie Milner

What is your next project?

“Gifted” will continue as a series, but aside from that I’m focusing on a conceptual photo series exploring the symbolism of cotton. I’m flipping the meaning of what cotton means for blacks in this country. That’s all I can say for now. It’s still in the works. CT

 

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SCOTT TUCKER, Artist, Brooklyn, N.Y. | Photo by Jaimie Milner, Courtesy the photographer

 

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ROBERT WATT, Musician, Los Angeles. | Photo by Jaimie Milner, Courtesy the photographer

 

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DAVID OYELOWO, Actor, Los Angeles. | Photo by Jaimie Milner, Courtesy the photographer

“I don’t think you can play Dr. King, entertain who he was, what he did, why he did it, and then just slink back to a degree of complacency that the world has changed. …It has changed, but no as much as we would like, or as much as he would have dreamed.” — David Oyelowo, Gifted

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FROHAWK TWO FEATHERS, Artist, Los Angeles. | | Photo by Jaimie Milner, Courtesy the photographer

 

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KENNY LEON, Director, New York, N.Y. | Photo by Jaimie Milner, Courtesy the photographer

“America is still messed up because we’ve never embraced that slavery existed. I don’t think black folk have honored the sacrifices of the folks who went through slavery and I don’t think the whites have even admitted it happened. It will always haunt us until we deal with it …until we look at its ramifications and the effect it had on us both emotionally and economically.” — Kenny Leon, Gifted