Laila Annmarie Stevens is a photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. I became familiar with Laila’s work through Scope of Work’s annual portfolio review, where she shared her ongoing series, “Clayton Sisterhood Project.” As someone who thinks a lot about picturing families, Laila’s project resonated with me. The black and white images of places and faces evoke a sense of both joy and melancholy. Inspired by the concept (and importance) of the family album, Laila photographed families and friends to trace a sense of lineage through a shared history.
Most recently, Laila’s work was included in the Museum of the City of New York’s photography triennial, “New York Now: Home.”
– Alex Thebez
Hi Laila, thank you for taking the time to speak to us, could you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you get into photography?
Hello! It’s a pleasure to speak with you both. I’m Laila Annmarie Stevens, I’m a 22-year-old documentary photographer currently residing in Crown Heights, Brooklyn originally born and raised in South Jamaica, Queens. I was introduced to photography by my grandmother as a young child, where my sisters and I would dress up for photoshoots in her backyard. I then picked up my own interest at 9 when my parents bought my first digital camera.
What was the earliest photograph that you can remember taking?
The earliest photograph I remember taking was of a man walking along the streets of Soho during golden hour. The strength of the shadows were prominent and looking back, an exploration of sophisticated visual skills of light and composition.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the series, Clayton Sisterhood Project? How did you start the project? What inspired you to start this project.
Clayton Sisterhood Project explores the continuing legacy built by my sisters and nieces from New York, NY moving onto Clayton, North Carolina land together. I was largely inspired by public historical archives of Black everyday life. I also began thinking about my own family album, and my grandmother’s self-determination to document her family using disposable cameras. My first trip down south where my sisters and nieces live sprouted my own determination to document the simple yet profound nature of our existence, and my unique experience of having a women-majority family.
What was the process like in finding and photographing the people in the project? What was collaboration like between you and the people depicted in this series?
The process consisted of contacting old friends from my past and being brave enough to reach out to new ones and their families, who I’ve just begun to know. Making portraits was both observational in nature, examining scenes as they played out in front of me, and creatively innovated by the featured women and I.
Why did you decide to pursue this project in black and white?
In creating the project, I sought to visually reference historical Black archives. This practice resonates with me because it passes on histories rooted in the community and gathers found materials for further intergenerational use. We are then encouraged to replicate this action for future kin. With all that we do, my efforts are deeply sourced back to the 1960s Black Power Movement’s emphasis on self-determination.“To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.”
How do you see the relationship between image making, inclusion and power? Why are these themes important to your work?
I believe the action of photographing is an intentional effort directed toward community building and the improvement of the relationship, whether temporarily for the photograph or a deep friendship growing as a flower in this intimate experience. In making images that seek to uplift marginalized people’s perception of themselves or vice versa, I both hold a self-determined power to translate my vision of them as an empowered being in a replicated light and the sitter as the holder of the same power. These themes are important to my work because visibility encourages youth who struggle with intersections of their identity.
What are some of the moments of inspiration and challenges that emerged from the process of working on the Clayton Sisterhood Project? What surprised you?
In the process of working on this project, I’d developed a preeminent connection to nature I didn’t believe would come to life until visiting the South. This gave rise to an appreciation of different locations outside of the home, while reflecting more on the sitters’ own relationship to the environment behind them. Whether it be a single tree in a neighborhood park or the ocean as integral to the story of our “family tree” and ultimately, ancestral connectedness.
How has the project and the work that you’ve done toward it changed your perspective toward your practice and your identity?
Clayton Sisterhood Project has heightened my devotion to the photographic practice because it’s become my own form of meditation and grounding through handling heavily rooted concepts such as lineage, migration, and more. Emotions that are quite difficult to express verbally can be conveyed through the sensitivity evoked in an image. I’ve come to understand others who are similar to me, in their womanness, in their queerness, in their blackness, and in return I understand myself on a deeper level.
What does community and collaboration mean to you? How do these things shape your perspective or approach to your creative practice?
Community and collaboration to me are directly intertwined. To lean on someone else for advice, to put your heads together to resolve an issue, to lay all hands on deck working towards a specific goal, whether it be artistic or otherwise is inherently creative, and is an integral part of the development of my own projects. Collaboration encourages me to view environments in a contrasting light and utilize the skills I carry to embrace experimentation.
What are some of the artists, writers and creatives that are inspiring you right now? How have their work influenced yours?
Right now, I’m inspired by the rhythms of Aja Monet, a surrealist blues poet, and the creatives behind the KYKY archives, Siddisse Negero and Zora, a digital archive and educational resource for lesbian, queer, gender non-conforming, and trans people of the African diaspora. Both their works and words access the root of our souls and are forces of nature who use identity, representation, and personal stories in an effort to create community.
What’s a song that you can’t get out of your mind lately?
Heart Full of Love – Cleo Sol. This song expresses gratitude for relationships with a sense of soft tenderness.