Photo credit: Dana Scruggs auto-portrAIt

"I am not a dude"

A MAKER MAGAZINE exclusive interview with Brooklyn based photographer, Dana Scruggs. 

Dana Scruggs is a photographer based in Brooklyn, NY. In 2016, she launched SCRUGGS Magazine, a print publication dedicated to her vision of the male form. In March 2017, MAKER MAGAZINE interviewed Dana via Skype.

Dana Scruggs is an only child who was born in Chicago, Illinois, and spent her time reading and daydreaming. These moments of introspection, coupled with the fact that her father was not present in her life, have fused into a thoughtful and unique perspective on photography. Dana’s subject of choice is the male form.

“I want to capture the male form within and throughout its layers of physicality, vulnerability, and masculinity”

How did you get started in photography?

I was going through a period of depression and it was very difficult for me to work…which means that I was very broke.

I was a stylist at the time and I had a ton of vintage clothing piled up around my apartment so, I decided to sell them on Etsy in order to make enough money to pay my rent.

With my basic point and shoot digital camera, I took pics of the clothes on hangers - which ended up looking really shitty. So, my Mom let me borrow her Best Buy card so that I could buy a DSLR. Then I found a model on the internet so that I could shoot my clothes on a real person.

After a while, agencies started reaching out to me to test with their models…and that’s how I got started. I really had no interest in becoming a photographer - I was just trying to pay my rent.

So, you made the transition from fashion stylist to photographer. Did you choose photography or did photography choose you?

Photography definitely chose me…it wasn’t a conscious choice.

The work showed me, in real time, how much further white people have to go in respecting Black art and Black artists.

Since you did not follow an official course of study in photography, I would imagine you educated yourself by looking at the work of other photographers and artists. Is this true and if so, who are some of these photographers/artists?

Kerry James Marshall's work and trajectory inspires me, almost daily. Not so much his photography, but his perspective as a painter capturing the Black experience. I also like the work of Kara Walker for her fearlessness and unapologetic approach to creating art as a vehicle to address racism.

Her piece, "A Subtlety" moved me beyond words. The work showed me, in real time, how much further white people have to go in respecting Black art and Black artists. There were people with dogs traipsing through the space.

There were people touching the works, gawking, laughing, making inappropriate comments and taking inappropriate photos with The Sphinx. Her body was consistently disrespected by white people, who were just trying to have a laugh by air cupping her buttocks and breasts for their keepsake photos. 

In terms of photographers, I like the work of Herb Ritts and Viviane Sassen. As far as I have seen, her work has never perpetuated tropes and stereotypes about Black people, nor have I seen her work be disrespectful in any way towards Black people that she's photographing. 

Black people are often generalized and stereotyped simply because of the color of our skin. I won't make those kinds of assumptions about Viviane based on her heritage. I can acknowledge the beauty in Viviane and Herb's work, and not dismiss them simply because they are white.

Just like I would never say that I like a photographer's work simply because they're Black. In fact, when I first saw her work - I had no idea if Viviane was Black or white, male or female. I was just drawn to her stunning imagery. The same goes for Herb.

I think it is going to take some years before people start to experience photography simply as stunning imagery without making assumptions about who is behind the lens. That is a beautiful and freeing concept.

Just because the industry is dominated by white photographers doesn't mean that some of them aren't creating great work. We just need more talented Black photographers to be given the same opportunities for exposure and success that our white counterparts are given.

A female photographer shooting men is a rarity.

Why are you interested in the male form?

As a woman, I’m attracted to men in general. Their energy, their bodies, their masculinity. I also enjoy shooting men more than women because it’s easier to break through their insecurities.

In my experience, men are more willing to go outside their comfort zone. If I ask them to do something “weird” like pretend they’re an astronaut doing tai chi - they’ll try to do it. They’re more open to the process.

A significant number of the women that I’ve shot get very concerned about looking stupid or ugly or in general give me a lot of pushback. They don’t trust me or my process - which can be frustrating.

How do you navigate the reception of your work as a woman shooting men?

A lot of people (especially men) think I'm a man when they see my work. “Hey, Bro, your work is great!” or, “Dude, I love your work!” is a pretty common message that I receive from fans on social media or from models reaching out to shoot with me.

How do you respond to these compliments?

I politely tell them that I’m not a man. That I’m a woman. It can get a little annoying, especially when someone sends me a message on Instagram calling me “Bro” when I have a ton of selfies sprinkled throughout the posts of my professional work. That just tells me that they didn’t really do any research on me. It’s nice that people like my work, and it’s not surprising that they assume I am a man. Most famous photographers are men…white men; so, people have been conditioned to expect that photographers are most likely male.

Go ahead and tell us your thoughts on the photography industry. What can you tell us about your experiences as a Black woman in what you have described as a white and male-dominated space?

It’s been hard. The industry is definitely a “boys club”. I interned at a photo studio and was continuously passed up for paid work - even though I had been there much longer and was more experienced than the people that they decided to hire. It felt really shitty when I had to constantly teach things to people who were getting paid and I was only getting a lunch voucher. For a long time, I was the only woman and the only Black person who worked in my department.

Did they ever pay you?

Eventually they did, but only after I told them that I wouldn’t be coming in again unless I was paid. The straw that broke the camels back was when they hired a girl who only interned for 2 days and I had been there for almost 6 months without once being offered a paycheck.

She didn't know how to do anything, so they had me teaching her how to do her job. She was a pretty white girl, so I knew why they hired her. I wasn’t angry at her. I was angry at these men who decided I wasn’t worth paying because they weren’t attracted to me and because I didn’t fit into their white male idea of what a photographer should be.

You still ended up leaving. Why?

I was getting paid for a while, but then one day they called me and asked me if I was available to come into work within 2 hours. It was my day off. I said no. The manager asked me why (which was none of his business). I said, because I’m shooting. He goes “Oh…” After that, they never offered me paid work again. Saying “no” because I was shooting my own work wasn’t ok with them. It wasn't a good enough excuse for me to not come in on my day off.

You once posted on Instagram that, “As a Black Woman, I’m tired of being called angry if I say something contrary to what a white person thinks or wants to hear. Not assertive or opinionated or a critical thinker, but angry. This is offensive.”

It’s extremely offensive when this happens. As a Black person, you’re often viewed as angry if you don't agree with what a white person is saying. You can be talking in the most calm and even tone and have valid fact based points, but because you’re contradicting a white persons viewpoint or beliefs - you’re automatically angry. This has happened to me many times. But, if a white person contradicts another white person, it’s considered discourse.

Speaking of critical thinking, what are your thoughts on the State of the Union?

I think we live in an aspirational culture. In general, white people in the United States are afraid of losing their power. They’re afraid of no longer being the most populous race in the U.S. They're afraid that People of Color, the very people that they’ve dominated and oppressed the world over, will have more power than them, more money than them, and that they will essentially be the new niggers.

If you are a white person and what I’m saying offends you - then I’m talking to you. If you are a white person and you acknowledge white privilege, then I’m not talking to you. This is usually the point where people go, “But, not all white people!”

The Obamas were a portrait of Black excellence. Trump being elected was a reaction to the fear of Black excellence.

How will you address these issues of fear of Black excellence in your work?

My work focuses on the Black male body - which is praised and revered for it’s excellence in athletics and in the entertainment industry and beyond. Black male bodies also illicit fear in everyday life and in everyday situations when around white people. That’s why LeBron James was cheered on the court by the same people who called him “nigger” when he decided to leave Cleveland.

In America, Black people are only safe when white people feel like they have power over you and when you’re doing what they want you to do. When they feel threatened or like they’re losing that power - that’s when Black People lose their life…or in the case of Colin Kaepernick, blackballed out of the NFL.

Addressing the beauty of the Black male body, it’s power and it’s presence, is central to my work. Showing that Black men have autonomy over themselves and that their existence should be revered - not feared.

MAKER MAGAZINE is proud to present Dana Scruggs as part of our 2019 Amsterdam exhibit, NOIRE ABSOLUE, which will be a group exhibition featuring the work of emerging contemporary photographers of the African Diaspora.