*Photographers Note: Dr. Tiffany Jana is purposely blurry on top to represent that we are always evolving and not blurry on the lower half because there are some things about our identity we will not be able to change.
What motivated me to create IdentityRVA?
I felt concerned, as many people were, when I heard the angry rhetoric and saw the deep divisions that coincided with the politics of 2016. I’m a portrait photographer. I know that, from a distance, it’s easy for people to point out differences. We can easily begin to fear what we don’t comprehend and band together with people who seem more like us.
I love the way a camera’s lens can bring people closer – to themselves and to others. We begin to see details that help us to identify with others, to understand others’ feelings and empathize with their vulnerabilities. I began to interview experts and explore how I might use my camera to possibly start a healing conversation. IdentityRVA grew beyond just portraits to include video interviews featuring eleven amazing women who generously share their compelling stories. The videos open an avenue for everyone to step into each woman’s unique, sometimes painful struggles, lighthearted insights, and compelling experiences. We discuss all the things we’ve been told we’re not supposed to talk about! As I listened closely and entered into each of their experiences, I found I achieved a deeper level of understanding, and ultimately, the key objective of IdentityRVA is for each story to spark new conversations.
Why I think conversations about diversity issues are so challenging.
I’m an introvert and I know what it’s like to be too timid to approach someone and start a conversation. Most of us are reluctant to talk about certain hot-button issues. We worry that we might offend someone and we’re taught to be polite and to NEVER ask intrusive questions. These eleven IdentityRVA pioneers bring down all of those walls. They open up to generously share so much of what we’ve been curious about. We feel a little of what it’s like to walk in their shoes, overcome struggles, and live authentic lives, as they do with each of their unique mix of identities. They are so inspiring! And the exhibit provides a comfortable space for celebrating the beauty of all of our differences, along with the many facets of our fluid, ever-changing identities.
How did I engage my subjects to be involved?
I started with a diverse group of women, some of whom I knew, others were friends of friends, and others came by referrals. One such participant I met one day as I was riding my bike past the Wolf Creek Museum. I realized I wanted to include one of the most overlooked and original residents of America. I asked if they would like to be apart of this exhibit and they were enthusiastic to participate. I learned fascinating information including that they can date their archeological artifacts back to 15,000 – 20,000 years. All of the applicants had to fill out a questionnaire that included the same questions asked during the videotaping.
Through this process, I discovered biases I didn’t realize I had.
Even though I love to explore differences and am always curious to learn about others’ experiences, just like everyone, I have to question assumptions and confront internal biases that I discover in my reactions and thinking when I encounter differences. I have never even pierced my ears so it was challenging and fascinating for me to learn about body art in the form of tattoos and piercings, for example. Now I appreciate the art and the beauty, as well as the depth of the personal expression it represents. This was another facet of diversity I needed to explore.
What are the components of IdentityRVA, in addition to the portraits of each subject?
We want to bring everyone into the conversation, so in addition to the portraits, a short video summary, and the longer individual videos on my website, we provide an interactive set of questions for visitors to consider or to share their responses via post-it notes. We want everyone to feel free to explore and to share their own experiences and insights and to ask questions.
How do you plan to continue with and expand upon IdentityRVA, beyond this exhibit?
There are two plans for continuing after this exhibit closes in July. First, we hope to share it with more communities in other galleries or venues, and second, we’re making plans for a Phase II where we will expand the Identity! RVA conversation. I would love to hear from anyone who is interested in joining IdentityRVA as portrait subjects, volunteers, or as supporters!
Please join me for my first art exhibit on Friday, May 18th from 6:00 – 8:00 pm at the Crossroads Art Center (W. Broad Street/Staples Mill Road) in Richmond, VA.
Special thank you to Memories Videography for producing the video.
Special thank you to Sue Kindred of SK Consulting for being a consultant on this project.
Special thank you to all the amazing and inspiring 11 participants.