There is a special power that comes from telling your own story. No intermediaries, no filters. That is Freedom The Black Image Center, which celebrated the grand opening of its physical space in May, is a world built on principle. Two years ago, six young-ish photographers came together on Instagram (mostly) with the idea of empowering black image makers, storytellers and creatives financially and creatively in LA – and a community surrounded them. They’ve organized, planned, fundraised, mobilized, and emboldened the LA real estate market and the process of becoming a nonprofit. Its founders are Kalena Yiauki, Maya Mansour, Jamar Velez, Heleigh Nickerson, Samoan Kidan and Michael Tyrone Delaney. They get behind the scenes, preserving family histories, or telling the next generation of black stories. “A black image center is about taking what we have or want and making it an organic thing that we can offer to other people,” says Mansour. Before Junitith, Chhabi talked to the founders of the organization about salvation – how it motivates their work and how they cultivate it in their daily lives.
How did the black image center come about?
Zamar Velez: We came together because we wanted a place where people could come together and create like-minded people – like-minded people.
Haleigh Nickerson: Around that time, in 2020, it was a period of ethnic and social unrest. [We wanted] To envision and cultivate a safe place for black creatives and image creators to share and expand resources with the community. At least for me, that time felt very raw and painful. Like: Where should I go? Where is the safe haven for blacks? The black image center is about the community and sharing those principles.
Samone Kidane: Also we lost really, really tangible things in art. I hate that art is on the internet and Instagram right now. I really wanted a place where people could show off and do things in person.
Maya Mansur: I was eager to take more pictures and be in a place about learning and community, and I couldn’t find it. Then I saw the first Instagram post about the idea that black is now the image center and emailed the address to get involved immediately. I don’t consider myself as a hobbyist as a working photographer, and I really want the Black Image Center to be something where people are allowed – as they can explore as a means of expression.
Michael Tyrone Delaney: To echo what they say, the black image center is really about making things accessible to people. That is our goal. This is a big priority for me because I understand the struggle to become an artist.
Kalena Yiaueki: I worked in the fashion industry for 15 years. Where there is always black talent, there are very few black people on the set who set the talent apart. Even then, the way ethnic revolts were portrayed, he had a very white eye on the black problem. [It was as if] Black pain and trauma, every photo of true destruction, was taken by a white man. So the idea – that it is still really exploited, and that black people are not given a chance to have their own version, their own story and their own connection to history, not even death and violence. We really wanted to create a place where black people could have the confidence and resources to tell their stories.
That’s right. The idea of who is behind the image and why it is important.
MM: I used to do a lot of modeling. I’m probably in 1,000 different sets. That situation – being one in front of the camera and looking outside and there is this sea of people who don’t look like you, who are mostly white, who are in control, like, your image is inside now. Their Hands and they can do whatever they want with it – it’s such a tough thing to feel. The more I learned about labor and blackness, the more I realized I had invested more in controlling my own image.
HN: As Kalena puts it, this white gaze on black bodies, black culture and blackness is what draws me to the work we are doing. It’s not just black artists or black image makers who are fed up with the idea of what “black” is. The black image center, in a sense, is the way to violate all these things.
You connected online two years ago, but the grand opening of your physical space took place in May. How do you describe energy?
KY: After the grand opening I feel really excited about the future. It could be exactly as I imagined. There is this speed and it is creating force. It was just beautiful, creative black people – probably an army of 400 people.
How did the place come into your life?
MM: We did our pop-up last year through this graffiti project in collaboration with Freedom and Converse. There are these murals all over town that black women artists have done, and each mural has programming attached to them. We curated our pop-up programming for murals at Leimert Park, by two artists, Adee Roberson and Hana Ward. We worked closely with Adee and Hana on the pop-up process; Hannah then brought a bunch of her family photos and kept a record of them, so we got to know her through that.
Maybe after two or three months of searching, we’ve reached a point where we’ve exhausted all our personal connections and resources to find a place. We decided to post on Instagram asking if anyone has a connection to our expanded network. Hannah sent our Instagram post to one of her childhood friends whose mother took possession of this wonderful place that we finally reached. We made our post the same week that all the tenants were moving out, and they hadn’t listed the place yet. [The owners] Were very generous and let us see the place before they list it online. We showed interest, they just gave it to us.
How do you view image building and storytelling as a means of salvation?
MTD: There are billions of black people on earth – don’t quote me in billions – but we are all different, so be able to tell our own stories and create liberating and special surroundings communities.
HN: For me, it just means pure and just taking place. It means confirming our existence, and our life and our identity and who we are – all our expansion and our multidimensionality.
KY: My relationship with image and blackness is not linear. I have never seen my life played in a movie. Do you know what i mean Blackness, my family, has no version of my relationship with myself that has ever existed before. I’ve really navigated my own journey. But the idea is, let’s say, in 50 years, there could be all sorts of different versions of what blackness is. There will be some kids who are struggling with their relationship, and then they will find something that makes them feel super-understood. That is Freedom The ability to understand is freedom. The ability to feel like you can be honest about your situation, even if it doesn’t fit into the story, 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 told me to stand outside. She is basically saying that she sees artists and abolitionists alike because they are the only two people who can imagine what is not there yet. So I think creating an image is for me – being able to get your hands on the world you want.
MM: Really hit the head. I think salvation is something that is constantly being sought and answered, and there is no way out. Or what I feel liberated for may not feel liberated for anyone else. I am much bigger in question than answer.
And when do you personally feel free?
KY: When I’m alone and nobody wants anything from me.
MTD: To be able to create beyond the construction of capitalism and have a “job”. I’m very caught up in that, and I feel that personal work is very important and it will move me forward as a human being. We fall into this trap, for example, it needs to look a certain way. I feel free when I create to create.
MM: I feel most physically free when I’m not in pain. Also, when I am deep, deep in nature, I feel most free. Where I can’t see any cars, I have no cell service. If I’m just looking at the ocean and that feeling of awe where it is like, it’s all created. It is huge, and its grandeur really feels humble, which is somehow related to salvation. It makes me think of a friend, Melody [Ehsani]. She always says, “God is the best designer.”
SK: I repeat that mentality. To be honest, being independent means being as far away from my phone and laptop as possible.
HN: I feel most free when I’m creating and when I’m telling stories. When i’m safe
ZV: I like to be able to live outside of like-minded people and be able to do what we want. They match my energy. It’s very free. I really can’t explain it.
MM: Another level is knowing that other people have been given that salvation as well. The Black Image Center is about taking what we have or want and making it an organic thing that we can offer to other people. She also feels really liberated when we can hand over a movie role to someone and say, “You don’t have to pay me anything for that.”
MTD: A friend of mine came to the opening and she was like, “You’re a lost link.” We are also creating tools to help others free themselves. And it’s beautiful.