There is a specific power that comes from telling your own story. No middle man, no filter. he is Freedom. The Black Image Center, which celebrated the grand opening of its physical space in May, is a world built on this principle. Two years ago, six young-ish photographers in LA came together on (mostly) Instagram with the idea of empowering black image makers, storytellers, and creatives financially and creatively in LA — and a community has surrounded them. They organized, planned, raised funds, threw activation, pioneered the LA real estate market and the process of becoming a non-profit organization. What Driven Founders Kalena Yiouqi, Maya Mansour, Zamar Velez, Hailey Nickerson, Samoen Kidden and Michael Tyrone Delaney is, at its core, a spirit. It’s what they get when they’re behind the camera, preserving family history or telling the next generation of black stories. “There’s so much about the Black Image Center taking what we have or what we want and making it an organic thing that we can pass on to other people,” Mansoor says. Prior to Juneteenth, Image spoke with the organization’s founders about emancipation—how it inspires their work and how they develop it into their daily lives.
How did Black Image Center get started?
Zamar Velez: We came together because we wanted a place where people could come and feel comfortable with like-minded people – who look alike – as one big family.
Heligh Nickerson: Around that time, in 2020, it was a period of racial and social unrest. [We wanted] Envisioning and cultivating a safe space for Black creatives and image makers where we can share and expand resources with the community. At least for me, that time felt very raw and painful. Eg: Where do I go? Where is a safe place for black people? Black Image Center is about community and sharing those principles.
Samoan Kidden: Plus, we really, really missed out on the tangible things in art. I hate that art is all over the internet and Instagram now. I really wanted a place where people could show up and do things in person.
Maya Mansoor: I was looking forward to taking more pictures and being in a place that was all about learning and community, and I wasn’t looking for it. Then I saw the first Instagram post about the idea that there is now Black Image Center and quickly emailed the address to join. I don’t really consider myself a working photographer as an amateur photographer, and I really want Black Image Center to be something where people feel like it’s allowed – like a way they can express themselves. As the medium can be detected.
Michael Tyrone Delaney: To echo what he said, Black Image Center is really about making things accessible to the masses. That’s our goal. This is a big priority for me as I understand the struggle of being an artist.
Kalena Yeuqi: I worked in the fashion industry for 15 years. While there is always black talent, there are very few black people on set who hold positions other than talent. Yet the way racial rebellion was being displayed was a white look at a black problem. [It was as if] Every picture of black pain and trauma, true devastation, was taken by a white man. So that idea—that it’s still really being exploited, and that black people aren’t being given a chance to tell their own version, their own story, and their own relationship with their own history, even Not even death and violence. … we really wanted to create a place where black people had the confidence and resources to tell their own stories.
Correct. The idea of who is behind the image and why it matters.
MM: I used to do a lot of modeling. I’ve been on maybe 1,000 different sets. That situation – being one in front of the camera and looking out and there’s this sea of people who don’t look like you, who are mostly white, who are in control, like, your image is in now their hand and they can do whatever they want with it – it’s like such a harsh thing to feel. The more I learned about labor and blackness, the more invested I felt in taking control of my image.
HN: What attracted me to the work we’re doing is just getting fed up, like Kalena said, with this white look at black bodies, black culture, and blackness. He’s not even being created by a black artist or black image makers, fed up with the fabricated idea of what “black” is. Black Image Center is, in a sense, a way to violate all of these things.
You connected online two years ago, but the grand opening of your physical location took place in May. How would you describe energy?
KY: I am really excited about the future after the grand opening. It was exactly what I thought it might be. It is motion and it is creating force. It was just an army of f-gorgeous, creative black people—maybe 400 people.
How did space come into your life?
MM: We did our pop-up last year through this mural project in collaboration with Four Freedom and Converse. There are murals across the city created by black female artists, and each mural has a programming associated with it. We curated our pop-up programming for the murals at Lemurt Park by two artists, Eddie Roberson and Hana Ward. We worked closely with Eddie and Hana throughout the pop-up process; Then Hana also brought in a bunch of her family photos and archived them, so we got to know her through that too.
After maybe two or three months of looking, we reached a point where we felt like we had exhausted all of our personal connections and resources to find one place. We decided to do a post on Instagram asking if anyone in our extended network had any connections. Hana sent our Instagram post to one of her childhood friends, whose mom owns this amazing space we’re moving into. We made our post the same week that all the tenants were moving out, and they hadn’t listed the place yet. [The owners] They were so generous and let us see the location before they list it online. We expressed interest, they gave it to us.
How do you see image building and storytelling as a means of salvation?
MTD: There are billions of black people on earth – don’t speak me on billions – but we are all different, so to be able to tell our stories and build a community is liberating and special.
HN: To me, it just means purely and simply taking up space. It means affirming our existence, and our lives and our identity and who we are – in all our detail and our versatility.
KY: My relationship with images and blackness is not linear. I have never seen my life playing in a movie. Do you know what I mean? There is no version of Blackness, my family, my relationship with myself that has ever existed before. I have actually set my own journey. But the idea is that, let’s say, in 50 years, there could be all kinds of different versions of the meaning of blackness. That there will be a child out there who is struggling with their relationship with it, and then they will find something that makes super sense to them. he is Freedom. Freedom is the ability to understand. The ability to feel like you can be honest about your situation, even when it doesn’t fit this narrative and the model that Hollywood has created, is freedom.
SK: I went to the Walt Disney Concert Hall to talk to Angela Davis and she said something that stood out to me. She is basically saying that she sees artists and abolitionists alike because they are the only two people who can imagine something that is not there yet. That’s how image-making is for me – being able to have a hand in creating whatever world you want.
MM: It really hit the head. I think liberation is something that is constantly sought and answered, and there is no one way to be free. Or one who feels liberated for me may not experience liberation for someone else. I’m really big on question than answer.
And when do you personally feel the most free?
KY: When I am alone and nobody wants anything from me.
MTD: Being able to create and have a “job” outside of the creation of capitalism. I’m so caught up in that, and I’m realizing that personal work is so important and that’s what’s going to move me forward as a human being. We fall into this trap of, like, needing to look at it a certain way. When I am creating just to create, I feel liberated.
MM: When I’m not in pain, I feel most physically free. Plus, I feel the most free when I’m deep, deep in nature. Where I don’t see any cars, I have no cell service. If I just look at the ocean and see the feeling of awe at where it is, it’s all created. It is so vast, and its grandeur feels really humbling, which is somehow associated with liberation. It makes me think of a friend of mine, Melody [Ehsani], She always says, “God is the best designer.”
SK: I second that mindset. Honestly for me to be free is to be as far away from my phone and laptop as possible.
HN: I feel the most free when I am composing and when I am telling stories. When I am in a safe place.
ZV: I love being out only with like-minded people and being able to do what we want. They match my energy. It’s so free. I really can’t even explain it.
MM: Another level of this is knowing that other people are also given that liberation. There’s so much about the Black Image Center taking what we have or what we want and making it an organic thing that we can pass on to other people. It also feels really liberating, when we can hand someone a film role and say, “You don’t need to give me anything for this.”
MTD: A friend of mine came to the inauguration and she was like, “You guys are the missing link.” We are also creating tools to help others free themselves. And it’s beautiful.