Photography student Michaela Lawson was struck last August by inspiration so strong for Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy album Damn that she was compelled to “speak her truth” about it. Unintimidated by the album’s stature, she became part of an informal community of artists independently responding to it.
“My photography is not only inspired by the visual arts of different periods, but by other mediums, especially music,” says Lawson. The overarching theme of Lamar’s lyrics is “’You decide the choices you make. How do you want to see the outcome of things?’” she says. “It brought me to ask myself how I might approach my photography and express myself the best way I can. I had to start thinking what I wanted to show the viewer.” Planning it all on her own was a personal challenge, she says.
Lawson says she listened intently to “every beat, and lyric-by-lyric, to deconstruct and decipher it until I understood each individual theme of the 14 tracks.” The multiple interpretations and complexity of the album didn’t escape her. By October 26, she had a set of photos responding to each song. “I chose a line from each of the 14 songs that stood out for me. I made it a priority to visually explain how this could connect to me,” says Lawson.
“I am impressed by Michaela’s work. Her use of color and the striking compositions of these photos are powerful. While being attuned to the times and current culture, she clearly has a personal vision that is evident in every one of these photos.” – Troy Richards, Dean, School of Art and Design
“Songs like ‘XXX’ made me look at my world, my feelings toward America and how it has treated my people and anyone less fortunate,” says Lawson. “ I found lines like: “’America please take my hand, can you help me under’– it cut off at ‘under’ — which is intriguing to me.” She says she used her visuals to amplify the consequences of the country’s current gun laws and interpretations of Second Amendment rights.
“I created a handmade physical notebook for the project and printed miniature pictures for references. I made a calendar with a final deadline before Thanksgiving break. Almost every October weekend I shot. “I used lighting equipment and gels that complimented Black complexions. I used red and blue, big and small depending how much red and how much blue. I also wanted to light black skin in a visually pleasing way. It coincided with the theme of Wickedness vs. Weakness,” she said.
“Michaela is someone to watch. She’s influenced by movies, books, words, definitely music–not only visual things but her experiences. She’s quiet but assimilating things around her. It allows her to produce. She’s a self-motivator. Yes, there are outside things that motivate her. I’d classify it as being an artist. An artist should always be producing and she always is.” – Prof. Curtis Willocks
“The models I used brought their own postures, their own style–we all connected as one. I enjoyed working with so many different Black people. We talked about each song,” she said. “It was a coincidence that we were learning to use strobes in class [Photo 3: Advance Photographic Solutions] and that was what I needed the most to help me with the project,” she said.
“David Joseph who works in the cage [where photographic equipment is stored] gave me advice about equipment. Professor Willocks gave me help in the studio. Being able to try the strobes and decide on effects these expensive things make possible was terrific. Now I carry that knowledge wherever I go. “Professor Willocks would always say ‘You have these resources –the equipment and lighting, lenses, cameras — Use it!’ His class made me a better photographer. If I wasn’t at the school I probably would not have done this project. The resources–there is so much you can do.”
“The models I chose reflect how I see myself. Not extravagant, but people who dress like me and express me in my culture as a Black woman in America. I wanted to show Black love, Black friendships, Black fear, Black pain, and of course pride.”
Photos used with permission.