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Hey, How'd You Launch an Inspirational Photography Campaign, Eunique Jones Gibson?

The advertising-pro-turned-photographer on her work devoted to young people of color

By Janelle Harris - March 17, 2014
Every day, Eunique Jones Gibson uses her lens to memorialize her clients -- engaged couples, newlyweds, mommies and daddies in the afterglow of new parenthood -- in the happiest, most love-drenched moments of their lives. It's a rewarding use of her talent. So is the other side of her eponymous business, the simultaneously activistic and artistic "Because of Them, We Can" campaign. In it, she depicts kids as miniature versions of African-American heroes like civil rights leaders Fannie Lou Hamer and Frederick Douglass; each photo is flanked by a powerful quote from the individual being honored.

It's the kind of visual imagery that sparks an immediate reaction and interest that a book or biopic sometimes cannot. "With this campaign, I wanted to show the innocence and potential of a child and also use elements like graphic design, topography, text and quotes to bring it all together so that it says something more," Gibson explained of the series, which launched in February 2013. Here, the self-taught photographer discusses the gift of wordless expression and why photography remains an art of riches.

You're a relative newbie to professional photography. What were you doing before you got into the field?
I was an online advertising account manager with Microsoft. It's funny because Microsoft actually helped me purchase my first real camera. I had won bonus points for exceptional performance and cashed them in for a gift card to buy a camera. So I started delving into it more deeply while I kept my full-time job. After a while, it was like I had two full-time hustles because the business grew so much. I was like a weekend warrior. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I was shooting all day, every day. Then it was Friday, Saturday and Sunday and a weekday evening. Then I launched the campaign and it got to the point where it became uncomfortable to do both jobs. I was like 'OK, I think I can do [photography] on a full-time basis, control my own time and be able to do what I'm passionate about.' I'd say it took about four years.

What was your inspiration behind the "Because of Them, We Can" campaign?
My sons. I thought about how Chase, my 5-year-old, was born during President Obama's election and then Amari, my youngest son, was born during his re-election. I thought about how many opportunities they have as a result, but I also thought about the progress that was made prior to President Obama and the people who paved the way for us to have the opportunity and freedom we enjoy today. It started coming to me [as], 'Oh, because of him I can, because of her I can.' From there, "Because of Them, We Can" evolved.

How did you decide which heroes and heroines to honor and how did you find the children to portray them in the shoot?
I already had a book of clients who have children and I knew I wanted to use some of them off the bat. Like I knew who my little Frederick Douglass was going to be because I took his newborn pictures and I saw how crazy his hair was and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, he'd be a great Frederick Douglass.' In some instances, I reached out directly and contacted the parents. I, of course, didn't know 28-plus little kids, so I put a casting call out on my Facebook fan page. I had tons of submissions and matched the kids up based on their looks. I emailed the parents a shoot date and we got them all done in one day.

"Having a marketing background, I think in terms of messages with my pictures."

I wanted to focus on people we've heard about -- Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X -- but I also wanted to recognize people who are doing things within their respective fields that are paving the way for others. That's why I highlighted Spike Lee, who is a cultural architect and started a movement through film. I wanted to highlight current trailblazers like Kerry Washington. People questioned my decision to do that because they felt like she hadn't done anything worthy of this campaign. But we can't wait until a person is old or dead to pay attention to their work and look at their blueprint.

Some would say there's a growing disconnect between young people and history. Is addressing this issue a goal of your series?
When Nelson Mandela died [shortly after actor Paul Walker died], a teacher reached out to me and told me that her high school students knew who Paul Walker was but they had no idea who Nelson Mandela was. They said, 'Who is this Nelson Mandela guy? Why is it such a big deal that he died?' I hope young people will Google to see who these individuals are. Who was Assata Shakur? Who was Mary McLeod Bethune? Who is Lonnie Johnson?

Having a marketing background, I think in terms of messages with my pictures. I hope parents and teachers will use them as a teaching tool. I also hope a campaign like this that promotes understanding [of black] history and highlights what people who looked like them have accomplished will create a sense of pride in kids. I think if they see the images and learn the stories behind the heroes -- what they had to overcome, how they maybe fell down and got back up, how they worked hard to get to where they are -- their bar of expectation will automatically go up for themselves.

Prior to this series, you created an "I Am Trayvon Martin" photo campaign. What were you trying to convey with that project?
The fact that it could've been any one of us. It was important to get everyone from kids to senior citizens to stand in a picture with a hood on [and a description of] their occupation so that you understood that if you just judged them based on the color of their skin or their hood, you would have missed out on who they really are or could be. I felt like there were so many people who were furious and wanted to express that, but didn't have a positive outlet beyond marches and rallies. I encouraged other photographers to launch their own campaigns. I couldn't photograph everyone across the country, but I could appeal to other photographers to offer a free photo shoot at their studio or their community so that they could also do their own spin on it. For me, those images were worth a thousand emotions and a thousand messages and a thousand thought-provoking questions.

"I love being able to share my passion for social justice. That's a niche carved through trial and error, so try different things to figure out what speaks to you."

Are you planning to continue the "Because of Them" series? How will you improve or expand it?
We're having conversations with media partners to get the campaign across as many mediums as possible -- television, radio, billboards, bus shelters. It started as a social media thing but we really want to expand it. We're battling for the self-esteem of our young people. That's what it's all about. We have all sorts of issues, but can we collectively put our heads together and work to inundate kids with these messages? The campaign is also going to expand outside of African-American kids.

I look at the ways some of my Latino friends are treated and I am appalled at the stereotypes that are pinned to them. How do you help expand their conversation beyond immigration reform? How do you introduce a little Latino girl or boy to Carlos Slim or Richard Montañez or Celia Cruz or Sonia Sotomayor and have them look at these individuals in the same way that African-American kids are looking at [my] pictures? There's so much that can and needs to be done and it all boils down to our children, their self-esteem and how they see themselves.

Eunique Jones Gibson's Tips for Becoming a Photographer:

1. Shoot as much as you can."You have to shoot to learn. Even when I had a full-time job, I would come home and practice. I'd grab my camera and take pictures of my husband's action figures, focusing in and out. There's always something you can shoot."

2. Find your passion. "I had to try a number of things to figure out what I liked, from photographing models to shooting parties and events. I realized that wasn't what I wanted to do. I love 'love.' Whether it's a story about people falling in love, families in love or kids who exude love, that's what I identify with. I also love being able to share my passion for social justice. That's a niche carved through trial and error, so try different things to figure out what speaks to you."

3. Identify what makes you unique. "Why are you different from all other photographers? There are enough to go around, so you need to carve out your own space, whether it's how you light subjects or the angles that you shoot from or the type of focus that you have. Partner with other photographers so you can shadow them, but home in on something that makes you different from anyone else."

Janelle Harris resides in Washington, D.C., frequents Twitter and lives on Facebook.

NEXT >> Hey, How'd You Create Social Impact Using Your Documentary, Trouble The Water?

© Mediabistro Inc. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of Mediabistro Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of Mediabistro Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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