In Conversation With: Kreshonna Keane

Kreshonna Keane is a self-taught photographer from The Bronx, New York. Kreshonna has a very unique way of utilizing her environment and her surroundings to transform her images into conceptual artwork. In The Art of Reflection Kreshonna puts together an array of portraits in which she transforms her subjects from everyday New Yorkers into characters in stories of triumph. Works in the book have been featured in publications such as Cosmopolitan Magazine, I-D/Vice, Aint–Bad, Converse, and more.

Emerald Arguelles: I’m curious, how did you start shooting? And how did you become interested in photography?

Kreshonna Keane: So I always had an interest in photography. My grandma always had a disposable camera on her, just capturing the moment; when I was younger, I didn’t like it and appreciated it as much. And as I started to get older, I began to love looking at old family photos. Then, when I got to high school, I had gotten my first camera ever, just one of those regular, like pointing shoots, that was when MySpace and Facebook were out, you know, everybody’s just trying to take pictures. I ended up starting to take photos of myself, as well as my friends, just learning how to do some edits and posting them on Facebook; I got a lot of like traction; a lot of people were looking at my photos and loved them. And that’s kind of where the interest started.

I interned for another black woman photographer; she’s a fantastic wedding photographer now today, and I was able to see that there was a possibility for a career path in photography. When I first started, it was just a hobby, and growing up in the Caribbean, you don’t see the arts as a possibility for a career, they kind of like drilled into our heads, like, you have to be a nurse, you have to be a doctor, you have to be a lawyer, right? To see art as a career just wasn’t a thing until I saw another black woman photographer doing it. So I decided to pursue it.

EA: Can you discuss how your environment and specifically The Bronx, has influenced your work?

KK: I lived in Atlanta for a little while. So, I was born and raised in the Bronx; growing up here, it’s hard for you to see the beauty in the space you live in. I’m sure you’ve realized this, living here, it’s such a fast pace. It’s such a rapid pace place. And like you said, if you don’t work, you literally will get depressed. So it’s like, I grew almost to despise being in the Bronx.
I couldn’t see the beauty in it. I couldn’t see where I came from and then moving to Atlanta.

So living in Atlanta didn’t have a camera. I wanted to be doing photography down there. I wasn’t networking as much. I didn’t know as many people, and I didn’t have a camera to shoot with. So coming back into New York, I feel like I had a different kind of drive like, Okay, I have to get a camera, I want to shoot more. So I started borrowing and renting from friends and taking pictures of friends around. I’ll be in front of the Kingston bakery that we always buy patties from, or, in front of like, all these different restaurants and known spots uptown. I started to grow an appreciation for space as I began to take pictures of my friends in the space. I began to really like see The Bronx for what it was the beauty in, the structures of our buildings, the culture around. I decided to highlight that and almost use it as a backdrop in my, in my photography. So The Bronx became like a critical piece of all of my work.

EA: Who or what are your influences?

KK: I feel like I have many peers who I can say not as strongly influenced me but inspire me rather. There are many other female photographers, a lot of other black photographers that I love, like Joshua Kissi and Micaiah Carter. There are just so many amazing photographers. In terms of what my influences are, to be honest, I’m influenced by so many different things like music, old movies, and films. My ultimate goal is to get into film direction, like, really, really cinematic, like movie sets and things like that. I’m very, very inspired by like old movie films, like very old school, like the 80s and 90s; I’m talking R&B music, things like that inspired me to get in my creative bag. And then just seeing what other photographers are creating kind of inspires me to go harder, you know?

EA: Are there any movies in particular, because I know a lot of your work seems to be inspired by the 70s?

KK: I really love all old-school movies, like I’ll sit down and watch The Breakfast Club and Dirty Dancing and things like that. I love that old aesthetic, but the 70s theme came to me; the afro was a thing at one point. I wanted to highlight the beauty of that. I started first doing color stories on my Instagram and then transitioning into themes. So the same theme was just from me wanting to highlight like afros, and the beauty of black people and their hair, and being who you are, just you and your skin. Then my editorial concepts just grew from there. It kind of all does, sort of linked back to the 70s, the Black is Beautiful movement, with women, more specifically, Black women embrace who they are. I think even still, that is a struggle for a lot of Black women because we kind of we’re kind of told it, like every facet that we are isn’t enough or it’s unprofessional, or it doesn’t fit like a particular type of standard. But I think in the 70s is when they started to break that mold, and you realize, oh, I can do whatever I want to be but more importantly to just be myself and what I am.

EA: Moving through your experiences as a photographer and the work you’ve seen, is there one image that has always stuck with you?

KK: So, I can’t say that it’s one image, but I can navigate like a particular style. There’s a woman named Nadia Lee Cohen. Her work is exactly what I want to do with Black people. Very cinematic, high fashion glam looking like it’s coming straight out of a movie scene. I want us to be seen and highlighted in that Hollywood glam, super cinematic way.

EA: I wanted to ask, so what do you want people to take away from your work?

KK: So I want people to see the beauty in the spaces. Of course, I shoot portraiture; they tend to be like, very close up significantly, like, eye contact. But I want people to see the beauty in the spaces that I put my characters in. Also, the characters themselves tend to tell stories; they usually have some political statement that they’re making. Then also, move forward into my storytelling, I want people to be able to grasp the story ultimately. That’s something that I’ve always said that I wanted for my work; I like to tell a story. And I feel like I’m finally getting there.

I remember when I did, The Hood Excellence, The Ghetto Rapunzel to Project Princess. There was a story there that I was trying to tell but didn’t fully grasp. Of course, the one or two pictures that made a statement, they did what they were supposed to do. Ultimately, there was a story there that I wanted to tell. So now I feel like I’m moving forward in that the most recent project that I put out, which was the Black Ballerina. I feel like I entirely told the story of that girl, so I’m looking to do that. I want people to fully understand the stories that I’m trying to tell and have them make a long-lasting impression.

EA: How did the FaceTime shoot come about? I know it was probably because of COVID, but how did it start?

The FaceTime shooting was something that I wasn’t even interested in, like the beginning of the pandemic, everybody’s home. I saw people doing it, and I was like, I’m not trying to do that. I want to get back to shooting in person. My cousin reached out to me, and she’s like, oh, let’s try it. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and she never lets me shoot her, like in person never lets me shoot her. She’s so beautiful. So I’m like, Okay, you know what, since she’s finally like, willing to let me shoot her some way, somehow, let me try it. And I tried it, posted it on my story, and a lot of people loved it. A lot of people were reaching out to me to do it.

If you look at my Instagram, you’ll see the evolution of me using the grid and changing the font of FaceTime because I was still trying to figure it out. Until finally, I was able to, like, come up with one that I loved, I made the grid, and I did it for four people. And I posted it on Twitter, and I went viral. And I wasn’t expecting that at all; my caption was “Shot on FaceTime, that’s it, that’s the tweet.” When I tell you like the traction that I got from that, I got 4 million impressions on that, and I couldn’t believe that 4 million people saw my work. It was insane to me; people loved it. They were very receptive to it. After that, I said, Okay, you know, what, I have to start charging for these. So I priced them by $50, and I could have charged more, but it’s FaceTime; you’re not getting the same quality as if I was in person. Of course, it’s a pandemic; nobody’s working, so I tried to do something cost-effective but still lucrative for my time.

Brands started reaching out to me like I did Converse, I did Cosmopolitan, I did Paper planes. That was such an amazing experience, the fact that these brands could see my Facetime, where it’s something that doesn’t even fully represent who I am, in terms of quality and what I can bring to the table. Still, they saw something special in that and wanted to give me the opportunity.

Kreshonna Keane : The Art Of Reflection is available for pre-order here.