Redefining Blackness: Jarrod Anderson
Visual artists examine how they are redefining Blackness
Photographer, creative director of Strivers’ Row; New York
Jarrod (pronounced JUH-rod) Anderson left his birth home in Central Florida to get an education, and ended up learning not only about the world outside of his sleepy and segregated hometown, but about himself as well. He developed a love for photography and taught himself the intricacies of the art form and the business. Since then, he’s done commercial shoots for some of the most successful brands in the country and produced personal work, all of which showcase Black beauty and glamour in all of its forms.
The Undefeated spoke with Anderson about the portrayals of Black people in media and music, and how he seeks to redefine Blackness through his artistic photography.
How do you as a Black photographer want to redefine Blackness?
I like to focus on editorial portraits. I’m from Sanford, Florida, a small city near Orlando, and I went to college in Tampa. It’s very small, there’s not much to do, and growing up there I wasn’t exposed to much. [Later in life] I got to travel to places like London and Paris, and to live in New York City, and experience more of the world. I have a lot of friends and family that don’t get out and experience stuff like that.
I like to put what I’ve seen — fine arts and art in general — in my work and show it to my people back home that might never get on a plane or leave Florida. That’s why I try to focus on high-fashion and editorial work, and put a finer look on traditional lifestyles that Black people live in. That’s what I was trying to do with a piece called A Rose in Harlem — to put that spin on locations and subjects that typically aren’t viewed as beautiful.
A Rose in Harlem is a very evocative image. What were you trying to say about Blackness with that?
That was shot outside the projects in Brooklyn, and the projects have a stereotype of being dirty and grimy and ghetto, and I just wanted to show that there’s beauty in those places and people.
Even the newspapers the model is sitting on instead of a blanket add to the tale. Was that intentional?
Frankly, it wasn’t an intentional part of the story, we were just looking for flair. I was talking to a friend and they said that if they didn’t have a blanket, they would use whatever they had. So it wasn’t on purpose, but it worked.
Lean on Me is another simple, yet powerful image. You caption it on Instagram, “as a Black male, i’m here to say it’s ok to lean on one another in time of need. doesn’t make you any less of a man + anyone who feel different bout it can fight me, on mamas.” Without your words giving context, that image might be misinterpreted as soft. How do you feel an image like that redefines Black manhood, and how do you, through your work, push back against the hypermasculine definitions that are prevalent in our culture?
Like I said, I’m from Central Florida, and in the South in general we grow up with stereotypes of being hard and having to play football and being overly masculine. … I’m not a physical person. I’ll defend myself if I have to, but I never liked aggressive sports. I played football in high school, but because I had to. It wasn’t something I enjoyed doing. Basketball is my favorite sport, but in Florida to be cool and to get girls, you have to do stuff like that.
Younger me did these things because I didn’t know myself or what I really loved. When I went to college, I started to see different cultures. Most of my friends were heterosexual, but I met people who were other sexualities, and I was cool with it — it never affected me. My thought process is to love everybody, even as a child. People always want to bring more to it, but making a big deal out of [masculinity] wasn’t my thing.
When I moved to New York, I met so many great people, men, women, whatever, and some of them have become my best friends. I’m just thankful that I have an open mind. I have friends that use terms sometimes and I have to check them, like, ‘Why would you say that? What was your thought process?’
Some of the best people I’ve met in my life are people that I’m not supposed to be friends with and I like to show that in my work. I’m an ally and I want to show people in places like where I’m from that might not get to go to New York or go to college that there’s more to life than what they know.
Colours seems to redefine Black femininity in a similar way. The models range in skin tones and hairstyles, unmistakably feminine and powerful. Tell me how that image speaks to today’s definition of Black womanhood, which can threaten not only white people, but some Black men as well.
Black women are so powerful, man. I love them! That’s all I know, really. I come from a Black woman and I’m just so thankful to be Black and I want to support them like they support me.
Black women are some of my biggest allies and friends, and I wouldn’t be where I am in life without them. I would say that about eight of the [photo advertising] campaigns I’ve done I wouldn’t have gotten without my relationships with Black women. I’m so thankful for that.
They are so powerful. They’re the most educated [Americans] right now, they’re starting the most businesses. I get emotional talking about them, but even though I’m speaking from my heart, these are facts.
So, that’s what that photo shoot was about. Showing women in power. They don’t have to be in skirts [to be beautiful], you can show them bossed-up and doing powerful things. Also, there’s not just one type of Black woman. There’s different skin tones and hairstyles … they’re very diverse and they’re all doing amazing things right now. I tried to make sure everybody would feel represented, and obviously I couldn’t really do that, but that was my thought process.
You shoot for some of the most successful brands in the market. How important is it for brands to work with Black artists, and as an artist, how do you seek to frame Blackness in the commercial space?
Well, my art is my art. My goal isn’t to work with brands, but I have bills to pay and commercial work is how I pay my bills. My end goal is to create Black art that ends up in museums and galleries, and [the commercial work] is my steppingstone.
At the same time, I’m curious and I care about how we’re presented [by brands]. Like I said, I’m from Sanford, Florida, which is where Trayvon Martin was killed. My little brother is around his age and it could have easily been him. It’s a very racist city.
I want to make sure my stuff is true to me. I mentioned [Trayvon] because of George Floyd and the protests and uprisings going on. I didn’t attend any this time because I’m tired of it. I’ve been to protests. I’ve shot [photographs] at protests. It’s the same thing — someone gets killed, there’s an uproar, a looting or two and it goes back to normal. I want to see how these brands really react. I want to see more than just an email blast or social media post [supporting] Black Lives Matter or donating a quick $10,000. I want to see purposeful and meaningful hiring of Black creatives.
They held us back successfully for 400 or 500 years, and I want to see them use that same energy they had to hold us back to put us on. They’ve let me down before, so I want to see who really wants to put us in a better position.
You said you eventually want to see your work in galleries. In an Instagram post from 2019, you said, “growing up, the only representation i saw of Black people i saw in media were as athletes, rappers or oversexualized. every time i take a picture of a Black person, my only intention is to show them as something else; as art. that’s the only reason i do what i do, create the way i create. to show the art in us all.” That’s an impressive goal, so how do you subvert your audience’s preconceived notions of Blackness?
By creating the scenes that they might not see — Black men leaning on each other, a beautiful scene in the projects, Black women in suits being bossed-up. I take what society gives us and show the opposite. If you see Black women being oversexualized, I show them being bosses. If you see Black men being overaggressive, I show them leaning on each other and wearing pink and doing [so-called] feminine things.
Softening the men is not my only intention, but I just want to show that there’s more. [People] are so used to seeing football players and rappers and gold chains and fancy stuff, but they’re not used to seeing just two dudes chilling! We chill and talk to one another like anyone else. We cry, we have emotions, we’re just Black … that’s the only difference. That’s my goal. To create those images in my own way.
You’re the creative director for Strivers’ Row. Tell me about that project.
Strivers’ Row is a campaign that me and my friends Destinee Swindell and Duclas Charles started about three years ago. I’m in charge of all the graphics and photo shoots that come out of that.
Destinee lives in Harlem and I live in Brooklyn. There’s an area in Harlem called Strivers’ Row with a lot of beautiful old brownstones. After it was built [in the 19th century], it sat empty for years because the developers wouldn’t sell to Black people. Eventually, they opened it up to Black people but it was superexpensive, so the people who bought homes were doctors, lawyers, scientists and other successful and prominent Black people. The cream of the crop.
So the company we started highlights young Black people that are excelling in areas where we’re usually not welcomed or recognized. We have Harvard graduates, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, poets, chefs, stylists, Grammy winners. We have everything and we’re just shouting them out. It’s a family … a community where we can build each other up.