by Jamie Goodsell
All images © Portrait Mami
Portrait Mami is a photographer who possesses an ability to capture the vulnerability and strength within her subjects. Her images depict people of various sexual identities, colors, shapes, sizes, and - to put it quite simply - they’re beautiful pictures of humanity at its finest. The message being of course, that there are strength and validity in all forms of love. Her work delivers these themes to the forefront and showcases them at a time when we need it the most. I feel deeply connected to her work because of how incredibly open and thoughtful it is. It was an honor to talk with her and get to know her - without further ado, please enjoy the thoughts and ideas shared with us from Portrait Mami.
"IT WAS KIND OF LIKE LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT. YOU SEE SOMEONE WALKING DOWN THE STREET AND YOU KNOW THAT'S THE ONE...THAT'S HOW I FELT AFTER I TOOK MY FIRST PHOTOGRAPH ON A FILM CAMERA."
Where are you from?
I was born at Duke hospital in Durham, North Carolina - but as soon as I was born we moved to Charlotte. I have lived in Charlotte, North Carolina my whole life until very recently when I decided to take some time away and go to Hawaii for a while...so I lived in Hawaii for about thirteen and a half months.
I hear it's really expensive to live in Hawaii.
Oh, it's stupidly expensive. The poverty rate is so awful. Anywhere you go there are homeless camps with all of these families - not drug dealers or crazy people - it's families that just cannot afford it. It's families that had their homes and neighborhoods taken down by Japanese corporate companies who are now doing three million dollar condos on their land and the locals have nowhere to go. People think of Hawaii as this paradise where everything is perfect, but the locals have been stripped away of everything from other immigrants trying to take all of their resources and basically drove them into homelessness and poverty. The schools are fucked up - the kids aren't getting a good education - and it's crazy out there. My mind was blown when I saw all that.
What was your childhood like growing up?
It's very interesting (despite my dad being a very conservative pastor), he had me in the arts a lot growing up. He wanted me to have every opportunity in life and has worked so hard to make basically everything that he could perfect for me. He had me invested in children's theatre, operas, musicals, girl scouts, I took violin class, piano, I did ballet for ten years. He just had me all over the place and it's kind of overwhelming when I think about it, but it was really interesting because you're doing all of these different things that teach you so many different lessons. There were so many stories from people, which I think is really cool - there was a diversity of education through that.
Tell me a bit about your education - you have a great eye for color, composition, light, mood, etc. Where did all of this come from?
Thank you so much! My Bachelor's degree is in Broadcast Journalism from Hampton University's - Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications. Though I dabbled slightly in photography in college, I wasn't fully committed. After I graduated, I became more serious with it. I learned the art of analog photography through my good friend Sean Lewis who taught me the basics on the technicality. My dad had these old Pentax cameras that he didn't use anymore and wanted me to see if they were still working. Pretty much everything changed after that. It was kind of like love at first sight. You see someone walking down the street and you know that's the one...that's how I felt after I took my first photograph on a film camera.
That's beautiful. Where does some of your inspiration come from?
My use of color typically comes from hazy fogs of nostalgia that I have from my childhood or just a time in history that makes my heart fond. Sometimes it's inspired by dreams I have. These particles of my life play a huge part in my utilization of color, composition, light, and mood. I get inspired a lot from movies and the color palettes in film. I get a lot of inspiration from the '90s to early 2000's movies like Cruel Intentions, She's All That, and Clueless. I love that era so much. People had their own unique spark, but it was very minimalistic at the same time - I love the collaboration of the two.
Could you describe one of your personal shoots and how they come together?
It depends - a lot of the stuff is random. For example, the shoot I did recently with De'Onna and Stephen (with the moody blue lighting in the background) that was a thing where we were just all feeling creative that day. We went to Wal-Mart and bought like thirty dollars worth of fabric, a bouquet of flowers, and then we hung up some stuff in my apartment and just started playing around. It's crazy because you do these random things and then it ends up becoming something bigger than you expected. I think it's very interesting how that happens a lot for my work because my work is intentional but then it's not at the same time.
"I DON'T LIKE TO PRESSURE ANYTHING ON ANYBODY. IF PEOPLE TELL ME THEY DON'T FEEL COMFORTABLE, THEN I DON'T DO IT. I THINK A LOT OF PHOTOGRAPHERS MISS THAT."
What do you think it is about you that can set people at ease and create that level of emotion in your work?
My ability to be personable. I think it's really important to have a sense of connection and respect. I just treat everybody like they're my best friends. It's fun to get to know them and make them feel good about themselves while shooting. I make sure they feel confident and respected. I give them the necessary space that they need when they undress for intimate shoots. I make sure that I talk to them in detail about things beforehand and listen to any concerns they might have before the shoot. I don't like to pressure anything on anybody. If people tell me they don't feel comfortable, then I don't do it. I think a lot of photographers miss that. I think that's what separates me a lot from other artists because people know that they can trust me and no matter what space we're working in that it's a safe space.
What do you think makes a great portrait?
Connection, mood, lighting, and color scheme. When these four staples are brewed together in the right sense, magic unfolds. Something that tells a story, expresses a certain vibe, or something that person went through. I really like personal stories that people can relate to on a larger scale.
Can you talk about marketing yourself and the business aspect of photography a bit?
Once I got to a point with my credentials where I thought I deserved to be paid, I set up a price breakdown and just laid down the rules for people. "This is what I'm worth now because these are the things that I've done, I know I'll give you this quality so here's my price." People respected that and started paying me. All of that has just been through word of mouth and social media marketing.
You've been very successful with your marketing - what's the secret?
There's not really any secret, you know? I think sometimes photographers get peer pressured a lot and don't really know how to speak up for themselves. We need to start being more direct with each other. When you're upfront with people (in my experience) it's either they don't pay (which you know, their loss) or they do pay. That helps eliminate people and bring in the correct clientele who will always respect me. It just all starts with being direct.
Why is film special to you?
What I love about analog photography is that every time is like Christmas in the sense that you never know what you're going to get. I love how it's a game of chance every time, you're rolling the dice. I like that thrill. Sometimes I might get some cool light leaks that I thought maybe fucked up the image but instead made it look really cool. When my Pentax camera got taken by the ocean (I retrieved it) it was completely drenched. I developed the film anyway, even though it was caked in saltwater and sand. It ended up making these cool colors and the sand that got trapped in the negative made it look like the models were sparkling.
I wanted to talk to you about an image that you said was actually taken down by Instagram - can you describe what happened?
It was a mix of images that I did in a slideshow. One of the images was of two men kissing, but they were naked - it was censored and you couldn't see their genitals. They reported it and took it down which took all of the images in that slideshow down as well.
What do you think about the censorship that's happening?
I think that it's absolute garbage. I feel like it's very calculated, sexist, and homophobic in a sense - especially with all of the sponsors and corporate leaders that are on Instagram. You have these white male photographers who are knowingly shooting underage girls and it's been made public throughout all social media.
How did you find out about this happening?
There's an international model that I follow on Instagram and she's made her account a safe haven for other models to tell their stories of sexual assault and any type of abuse from other photographers. So people like James O'Donnell (@shitjimmyshoots) and Mark Del Mar (@markdelmars @bleeblu) came up in almost 2-300 accounts. That's how I found out about them. After that, all these other social media accounts came out with all of these blacklists. That's when I found out that all of these photographers I used to look up to had these horrible background stories. That opened my eyes to a lot.
Why do you think people still support these photographers if what they're doing is public knowledge and unethical/illegal?
No one reports them. You have photographers like myself who censor everything correctly, shoot ethical intimate photography, and it gets reported constantly. There are several accounts of rape, molestation, child pornography, and the accounts don't get taken down. I'm on my fifteenth account now. People don't do anything about it until all of the models come together. Some of the photographers went into hiding immediately and took their own accounts down. Instagram never really does anything about it until people start making a voice and setting a platform for people to talk about these things, or else people are never gonna know.
What are you trying to get across with your intimate portrait work?
With my intimate work, it's so important for people to understand how sex is supposed to be consensual and healing. I just make sure that people have that connection and that it's of equal power - or the woman is confident in her situation - being able to capture that so people understand what real chemistry is like. I'm trying to put that out more into the universe instead of all of these hyper-sexualized images of women that make it look like we can treat them however we want. In our porn too, there's a lot of hate and shame-fucking where the woman never really has power in the situation - it's very degrading. Women aren't just these toys to throw around, we're very precious creatures that deserve to have love and affection.
Do you have anyone who has been inspiring your work lately?
Erica Lust, who's a big-time porn director in Barcelona, Spain has been a big inspiration for me. She's one of the rare female directors in the industry and there's a really great documentary on Netflix right now called Turned On. She's on episode one talking about how she got into the industry and when I saw that I thought, "finally, women who are like me!"
Can you talk about an image you've done that stands out and what it means to you?
Gosh, there's so many that I love. I really love Stephens Universe. You never get to see black men photographed like that. It's always tough or fashion forward. I love the intimacy in his eyes, they're so powerful and it draws you in. I didn't even edit that picture, that's how the color came out - even though my walls are white - because we played with the lighting from the Christmas ribbon, which caused that rainbow streak to hit his face. I thought it was cool how that came out, very experimental and just a lot of fun. I just love the color, his expression; it was a really fun day.
You don't typically see men photographed this way, I'm glad to see more of it.
I don't like to do the stereotypical magazine/commercial style for guys. I want them to be more vulnerable, in touch with their emotions and feelings, so I'm trying to convey that. You don't always have to be this big strong person who can't cry - you're a human being too - like open yourself up. I really like to try and do that more when I shoot male models.
Can you talk about your sexuality and how it spills into your work?
It started around first grade when I realized something felt different about me. I couldn't truly explain it back then as it was all so new to me. From the beginning, I could tell I saw and felt things differently than others around me. Growing up at first, I only liked girls. When I had my first boyfriend in high school, I realized that I was bisexual. It's the unconventional and sort of reversed way to go about it, but in my circumstance - that's what happened. I never wanted to do a "coming out" story - not because I felt ashamed - but because it was just something that felt normal to me. Despite growing up in a predominately southern white area (at the time), I still felt acceptance from my peers. Some may have disagreed, even my family, but there was never any ill will towards me. I was one of the rare lucky ones.
Speaking about my work on sexuality, a lot of variables come into play. The main reason I photograph sexuality the way that I do is because I am a rape survivor. I was driven to make people understand in my work that being intimate with someone is: CONSENSUAL, HEALING, UNDERSTANDING, AND BALANCED. I try my hardest in every shoot to show that the love and healing process is there between two individuals. No matter sexuality, no matter gender, no matter ethnicity.
What impact has Girl Gaze had on you and your work?
They're a community that really helps you out! Because of Girl Gaze, I got into Vogue Paris, and their big art show in L.A. - that had Reese Witherspoon and her daughter - and now they both love my work and keep in contact with me. I got to be in one of their books that came out last year. Girl Gaze gave me the opportunity to be in LomoWomen for Lomography USA, it's been amazing. They're the reason a film director reached out to me to be their director of photography for a movie in Atlanta, so we're going to start shooting that next summer.
That's huge! It sounds like they've done a lot for you
Girl Gaze has helped me with a lot of things; if it wasn't for them I don't think I would have gotten as many opportunities as I have now. Their platform has allowed me to extend my reach to so many people both nationally and internationally. I'm going to be in a Girl Gaze: Behind The Lens feature for their website and Instagram very soon!
What's your advice for young aspiring artists?
Keep pursuing what you're doing. Consistency. Keep going. The right people will look at you and they'll reach out to you. Keep doing it, keep practicing, and keep figuring out what it is you want. Someone out there is looking, they're looking at your progression, and if it's not happening now then it's just waiting for the right moment - but it will happen.
"WE GOTTA START TREATING EACH OTHER BETTER"
What is your message to the world?
We gotta start treating each other better and that's what I really want to put out at the end of the day. We need to have more open communication and understanding of our wants and our needs, and start being able to be vulnerable with each other, and just learning to talk more and be there for one another.
I can't thank you enough for giving me some time today, thank you.
Oh my gosh, thank you so much, Jamie, that truly means the world...it never gets old. I'm so happy that it means this much to you because it means that much to me and it's awesome that it affects other people that way too.
You can view more of Portrait Mami's photography here: portraitmami.com
Follow her on Instagram here: @_portraitmami