In Conversation with: Frank Frances and Toby Kaufmann – Lift Every Black Voice

During the month of February, Facebook’s Lift Black Voices hub will feature an expansive view of the Black diaspora — honoring and celebrating the past, present, and future of Black communities. Content will be refreshed throughout the month and will include themes such as Black history throughout the diaspora, Black love, Black creatives, and the new vanguard. Facebook commissioned photographer Frank Frances to compose header artwork – images that represent the four themes that Lift Black Voices will cover during Black History Month. Quotes from Frances appear under the header – the first time a photographer is being featured on the hub in this way. 

Later in the month, Lift Black Voices will launch its first-ever virtual photography exhibit featuring the work of five Black photographers: Nadine Ijewere, Prince Gyasi, Arielle Bobb-Willis, Dana Scruggs, and Naima Green.  Lift Black Voices was launched in June 2020. The content changes every several weeks – and at times, the look and feel of the hub is changed to reflect the content within the hub for that time period. The artwork by Frank Frances is the first time a photographer has been commissioned for the hub. We’re planning to highlight more photography in the near future.  

Photographer Frank Frances – Digital Tech Olivia Demetros – Stylist Elvis Maynard – Stylist Assitant Angela Romero

Emerald Arguelles: Can you discuss the experience of the collaborative effort of this project?

Frank Frances: In terms of collaboration, I thought it was exciting to have Facebook reach out about the point of view, Blackness, in a way that I believe is more hyperaware now across the board. I’m from South Carolina, originally Colombia. And for me, I’ve grown up with a certain amount of prejudice in some ways. So I make work in some way to help me work through that. So I think this collaboration from Facebook was how I bring this awareness.

As I talk about my experience via this route, the Facebook employees, a great group of people, put together a list of objects and that backgrounds vary from African Americans and Africa as the range of Blackness is so globally sort of like, it is so inspiring and exciting as a whole. The collaborative part of this was how to acquire and think about that sensitive topic because it is very sensitive to me. I’m not Henry Louis Gates, or Cornel West, or some African American Studies, experts. So for me is like, Okay, how do I take my one sort of experience and make it broader, but in an intellectual way, right?

We built the team, and not everyone was Black, my stylist was Elvis Menard, he’s a French American, queer artist, as well. I wanted to make sure the team could be a team, we can have a big conversation about Blackness. His assistant is Latina, and then my assistant is white. So for me, from the global point of view, this conversation was one that I thought I’d take to the highest level in terms of trying to understand how to have a conversation across all walks of life, right. I think, for me, that was a massive part of, again, a sensitive moment to think about making the work.

Toby Kaufmann: On our side, we work with a whole team that runs the Lift Black Voices team, and it’s predominantly Black women. And some are us, and some are not. Many people were drawing, you know we’ve compiled an extensive list of the objects, and how do you pull images of objects from your memory? Some people were saying, Oh, yes, I remember this from my grandmother’s house, I remember this from and so, you know, in some ways, my team was really like the go-between between Frank and the women that are running this, and trying to balance it and make sure that both of those points of view are really coming across in an in a powerful way. I think that in the time constraints that we had because we did this very rapidly, I’d say. Facebook generally works very quickly, like up to the minute, it had the potential to go a little sideways because everyone has so much emotional attachment to objects generally. But I think everyone was super respectful of each other’s experiences. And that’s nice. And that’s also kind of rare in the commercial space.

Emerald Arguelles: Seeing the images, there’s so much of a connection to them, just myself being a Black woman. And in fact, I wanted to ask you, what were your connections to the objects that were in the images? And what was the selection process?

Frank Frances: I want to start by saying the one experience I can’t speak to being a Black woman. However, I was raised by a single Black mom, so I am hyper-sensitive to that experience, that I am akin to through my mom through my sisters and, you know, things like that. I also wanted to tell a story that felt very close to home. So in terms of selecting objects, Elvis went to many African markets and went to really historical places to find real pieces with history, like the kente cloth, I think it was from Ghana. And I think that you know, it was silk, it wasn’t a cotton cloth, I’ve never seen anything like it in person. I remember going to church and wearing Kente cloth on Sunday. for me, I had that experience, but to have this fabric, woven within the still life, in the actual still life. This is very different from my interior world because interiors are aspirational, walking into someone else’s mind, their emotional state because they live in the still life. It’s built off how the select objects, the memories we have, and then our personal experiences of, I would say, happiness and sadness towards some things. And I think that for me, is; I think in some ways, it is based in trauma to you know, trauma from a sort of when we grew up, or just being in the South, I remember there being Confederate rallies. My work is based on all the history. The still life is so emotional, I’m an artist, so I’m sensitive in a lot of ways to represent the culture.

Emerald Arguelles: The use of Lift Every Voice and Sing is a beautiful identifier in the title; how did the Black National Anthem’s use come about?

Frank Frances: Those particular words Lift Black voices. And I think in some way to Lift Black Voices; I think that we’ve always been lifting ourselves in some ways. So I think that there’s a point of pride to hearing those words and connecting those words, again, to something that is more public. At least as recent history, we as Black people have been letting people in on sort of these secrets that we, say ourselves, we talked about our hair, we talked about certain foods, to Lift Black voices, you know, it’s not just lifting a voice it’s really to reach and lift other people up. So I think that from, in the context of a sort of commercial work, and having that sort of framework that I can work between all these worlds, it’s conducive to know that I’m going between these worlds of fine art, commercialism, and then in some ways, a very strange world that I don’t necessarily relate to. Still, I’m beginning to have a broader perspective of interiors. But the greater perspective I can say is that Lift Black Voices, I think, is one thing that everyone can relate to, in that like, Look, without our voice, there wouldn’t be many voices. There’s a point of pride to that.

Emerald Arguelles: There are so many complexities in Blackness and the Black experience. How do you define Blackness, or do you believe that it can be defined?

Frank Frances: I think my experience of Blackness I don’t feel is defined. It’s a galaxy; we are a space of history; we are a space of many experiences, languages, and color; the Blackness is epic, endless. These objects aren’t just objects. I speak about the smell of my mother braiding my sister’s hair as a kid in the blue grease. This is one experience, right, like making my book’s work, “Remember The South,” is my memory of itself, or my rendition of my conditional traumas, and been trying to make those things whole. So I think that for me there’s a point of beauty. This is beauty and Blackness, there’s endless trauma also associated with Blackness in America. So I think that for me, I can only come from an American point of view.

Whereas I have African friends, they have a very different perspective of Blackness and how they see themselves. Making work is a way to upending all the things that I walk through life with, whether they are baggage or whether they are encouraging truths somehow. So Blackness as a whole, I can’t define it as one thing; I would describe it as just like space. And I think we all tend to travel through that space together. Especially now. The marginalized way of working in the space of Blackness still gets bigger and bigger. I don’t know if it can be defined. I know that we’re beautifully tough, intelligent people. I think that and making work in every spectrum, whether speaks directly to Blackness or speaks to the beauty created by Black people, I don’t want just to be considered a Black artist. I think that that is a larger conversation that is just beyond. When you hear like Frida Kahlo, Frida Kahlo, she’s just a great artist is not only a Mexican artist. The spectrum of that has to be bigger. Especially, I will say, especially in post-2020, not to say that it hasn’t always been, there’s a whole range of artists that, like I can list off in infinite, who broke those boundaries in ways that I can respect. My goal is to try to continue that push forward.

Photographer Frank Frances – Digital Tech Olivia Demetros – Stylist Elvis Maynard – Stylist Assitant Angela Romero

Emerald Arguelles: So in this monumental moment, can you discuss the origin of this and kind of the early stages of planning?

Toby Kaufmann: Yeah, so on the Facebook side, we work extremely collaboratively like our crew within Lift Black Voices. My team is worked together on every project, where there’s a new header. We’re continually lobbying references in our chat about things that we love and things that were inspired by, though, when it came to this, we started just thinking about ways that are, are not only singular people. We don’t want to highlight one singular people and finding a way to do multiple experiences within one image is quite challenging. So I think for that reason, we settled on the still-life concept. And I think everyone immediately was really on board with the objects as meaning. Frank, there was not anyone else that we wanted to shoot this.

Frank Frances: Well, thank you, first of all, look, that’s very humbling. Nothing that in the words of Betty, I can only be humble; that’s my mom. So hearing these things is one thing, but you know, unless I live up to her, you know, joy in what I do, then none of it matters, but thank you. I saw their lists of things from their team. And I was like, Whoa, it was some history that I had to read about. I’ve read Little Legends with my son. Now Oh, man, I learned a lot about that and, learn about some adventures. Like the stoplight, and I was like, I might have known these things. And I may have forgotten these things. I was like, you know what, it’s fantastic that now these are all in this image of still life. So I think just the impact of to experience and making the work. I feel broader, in Blackness, right. I think that is also a part of these experiences because it’s no way to know all of them. To speak about the collaboration, I believe that the vastness and the intellect of each one of those people in those teams also baked into this work. It’s not made alone, to me, I’m an artist. Sure, I’m one artist, but I work collaboratively in so many ways, with so many people. And my background, I spent ten years working with my wife as a collaborative duo. What I’ve learned from that experience is that I want to spend time collaborating with people across the board, which I think that this particular experience, and stoked my interest in collaborating more the same way that initial collaboration, set me on to the course that I’m on now.

Emerald Arguelles: I wanted to ask you I’ve seen these images. I’m very grateful. And I’m very proud of where I come from in my own experience. So what do you want viewers to take away from this?

Frank Frances: I want viewers to. Well, I think it is twofold. I believe that the elegance and beyond that, I think is beyond elegance, I think that the depth in which I believe Blackness is achieved, lived, viewed, like our lived experiences are so vast, and so and rooted in every history, especially the American history. I hope that you know we can keep creating, and I can keep making work for viewers to help them understand their own lived experience and, maybe, redefine how they see themselves through the work. I think that that’s the hope for every piece I’m making and every collaboration. I think that’s a very tall order, of course, but I believe that as an artist, I wouldn’t want to live any other way because of a lot of pressure. I think we’re representing many hundreds of years and thousands, and millions of years of history. I believe that to be a part of it or to make even a smaller dent. I hope that people can find some inspiration out of it in that history. Even if it’s to sit and rethink how they live their lives up until that point up and just seeing an image, it’s not for me, I’m not just a photographer; I make things that are photographically based. I think for me, the broader perspective is that if you’re creative, you have to find ways to get a creative idea.

Toby Kaufmann: I think from a broader Facebook photography perspective because I spent so much time at Refinery29, their vision, and I want people to see themselves in the content and to be inspired. And a lot of the comments on Facebook about these images. People are remembering things and that’s beautiful for me, even though that’s not my history, but I’m proud that they can see themselves in the content. So I think I think that’s how you connect with people authentically is to be able to create work that that touches people. And I think even if they don’t see themselves exactly in the content, people are saying things like, “Oh, my God, I didn’t realize the stoplight’s inventor was Black.” I didn’t know that. I think that’s something that most of us probably learned on this journey. So I think there’s that also sense a deep sense of pride. That’s a; it’s a huge deal. So I think it’s the combination of discovery and the pride of your lives and the experiences you’ve left.

Emerald Arguelles: That’s beautiful. I am so happy to speak to you all. I think this is a groundbreaking moment, I think for everyone and being a Black woman and wanting to see the representation of our experience in the arts. This is a testament to that. And the images are stunning. And I’m so grateful to speak to you all. I do appreciate it. Thank you.

Toby Kaufmann: We’re grateful to you. We’re so excited that people are excited about this. The press has been overwhelmingly positive. And I think people are excited to see themselves in the content. I’m excited that Facebook is doing something pretty radically different at the moment.

To learn more about Lift Black Voices please visit their website.