To photographer Spencer Charles, the Black woman’s body is a work of art. The 25-year-old uses her beauty as the canvas to his stylized photographs, which often depict women of color in their most natural state.
Stretch marks, hips and all, he’s developed a knack for capturing Black women in her most raw form, often through the use of tasteful nudity. Charles has gained quite a strong following mostly from his ability to turn seemingly imperfections into masterpieces, celebrating Black women flaws and all.
In December, Charles took his brand to new heights when he released a limited-supply calendar called “Mused,” featuring some of his most alluring work.
In a sit-down interview with Centric, the young lensman explains his foray into the photography world and why he specifically chose to only photograph women of color. Also, read what he finds most intriguing and beautiful about the Black woman, and why he thinks more images like his are needed in the art space.
How did you get into photography?
I got into photography because I just had a camera. I bought a camera some years ago while I was still in school just because I kind of wanted to play around with it–and I never really used it. It was sitting on my dresser for awhile and I was put into positions where I needed the camera; I was working for a street magazine and I had to take pictures of the products. I got used to using the camera a lot more, and I started shooting with it.
When I started shooting Black women, it grew from a project I was doing called Beau Atlanta with my friend Eric, who is a photographer. I was the writer for the project and he was the photographer. We would interview different women around Atlanta and shooting them in their apartments. In doing the interviews, I kind of fell in love with the idea of just the beauty and power that comes out of women when they’re in their most vulnerable stage; when they’re talking about their lives and goals. When we stopped the project I continued doing my own photography. I felt like [photographing Black women] was the genre I wanted to explore a little more because it was so raw. I felt like it was something that was needed.
How do you find your subjects?
Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, random places. They email me. A lot of them are girls I know. I rarely use the model sites. I don’t really go to model agencies because most of the girls I shoot are not all professional models. I try to take a more personal approach, which social media is great for.
How do you get your subjects to become comfortable with you, considering many of them are nude or in bra and panties?
I’m really shy, myself and I feel like they sense that when we meet. I try not to be so awkward–it doesn’t really work. But then again I feel like that helps them become a little more comfortable. I’m not really sure why they become so comfortable. It just happens naturally. It doesn’t always work out like that. Sometimes the shoots go pretty awkward, and that’s usually when I’m working with more professional models. When I’m working with regular girls it’s pretty smooth. But you can always tell through the photos which shoot was comfortable.
What’s your editing process?
I edit the lighting, but I don’t airbrush anything. I don’t take out any stretch marks or beauty marks. I try to keep it very natural, very raw. But I do edit the photos.
What are your thoughts on the Black woman’s body and do you think that your images are needed?
For so long the Black body has been portrayed by someone who is not us. Even if it’s us taking the picture, the idea behind that photo isn’t our thought. When I started doing nude photography, I looked back to a lot of work from the ‘70s. I looked to a lot of Gordon Parks. Even though he didn’t do nude work, just the look and feel of his images. I looked to a lot album covers, specifically Ohio Players, Parliament-Funkadelic. I kind of wanted to recreate that feeling…how it felt to be Black during that time. The Black power movement. I wanted to portray that through my images. How Black women are portrayed is one-sided. It’s either you look like you can work at King of Diamonds or Magic City [strip clubs], you’re on the runway–or you’re the Olivia Pope, boardroom type. All three looks are beautiful, but I feel like they can be interchangeable. Just because you’re a mother of two and you have stretch marks, it doesn’t mean you can’t be just as sexy as the 19-year-old stripper. Not that you want to, but you can be. And just because you work [in the strip club], it doesn’t mean you can’t be in the art gallery or that you have to be only those type of images. I wanted to give some variety.
What do you say to people who think your photographs are too risque?
I don’t think everyone is supposed to be comfortable with it. I think that’s fine. I take criticism pretty hard. I’m very sensitive, but I have to keep telling myself that it’s not for everybody. Everyone isn’t going to see it as beautiful as much as I would like them to. Everyone isn’t comfortable with nudity as much as I think everyone should be. I can’t really tell them they’re wrong for that because that’s their feeling. The art I make comes from what I feel inside and what I feel about certain situations. People go through their experiences and feel differently about it…about how Black women should be portrayed. If they’re not comfortable with it then I’m fine.
You published a calendar that showcases your work. What made you do that and how has the response been?
I did the calendar because I needed to make money, to put it bluntly. I’m not good at booking shoots and saying, ‘oh this is the amount of time you get for this amount of money.’ Shooting weddings and all the type of stuff photographers make a lot of money doing, I’m really bad at so I had to come with creative ideas to make for an income [laughs]. I thought the calendar would be cool; something tangible that people can have for years to come. I don’t think people really use calendars like that today, but it’s a conversation piece. The goal was always to do a calendar first and then move into a coffee table book, which I’m working on now. The calendar was a great gateway for that. It did extremely well–way better than I thought. I stopped the sales in January because I wanted to keep the calendar special to people who got it.
How do you choose the artistic direction for your shoots?
I find girls on social media so that I can find out certain things about them, which helps in the creative direction in picking out what to do during the shoot. I also talk to them a lot before we shoot the scene; what they’re comfortable with, what they listen to, the style they like, how they normally wear their hair instead of what they would get done for a photoshoot. I do this so that I can come up with the best concept for each woman.
What makes the Black woman beautiful?
I feel like the amount of oppression and pressure they go through on an everyday basis makes them absolutely beautiful. The fact that they can still shine, do all of that, I think is beautiful. My mother is a Black woman, and growing up I watched her do so much. I watched her be a single parent, raise me and go to grad school. I watched her teach, leave from school and go to church and teach dance classes, leave there, cook dinner and then work on her own book. She got little to no sleep and woke up to do it all again–all with a smile on her face. That gave me a deep appreciation for Black women.