Written by: Gabriella Alleyne
Who is the photographer behind The Color of Dance Project?
Her name is Tiana Kargbo, and she recently moved to New York City after earning her Bachelor’s in Fine Arts in Dance Performance and Choreography at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is a dance photographer, and her newest project is The Color of Dance Project. You may have seen her beautiful pictures of dancers of color on your Instagram feed. To learn more about The Color of Dance Project, Tiana, and her dance and photography background keep on reading!
What is The Color of Dance Project and how did you get the idea to start it?
The Color of Dance Project is literally just me and my camera going around and capturing just how beautiful dancers of color are and the beauty in that. I think that there’s so much on social media and just everywhere of non-colored dancers, and that’s become the standard. That’s what there is to look at when you’re just looking for pictures of dancers. It’s so hard to find beautiful colored dancers just on the internet, and I want to be a source for finding beautiful dancers of color. And also just trying to get their stories out. Because I think a lot of people don’t realize how much different it is for a dancer of color to be in a room full of non-dancers of color and trying to make it in a world where it wasn’t designed for them originally. I think that providing stories is one of the biggest things that has shifted a lot of people’s perspectives on almost anything. Once you hear a story and you’re like “oh this happened to someone”. So having the stories to go along with the photos of each dancer has been a big part of it too. So I’m just trying to just provide awareness. Like the bottom line is that I want to allow space and provide awareness and just have people understand how beautiful dancers of color are and how hard they had to work to be where they are.
Have you come across any difficulties while creating The Color of Dance Project or being a photographer? If so, how have you overcome these difficulties?
Not so much through the project, I think the biggest thing is time. It’s been a pretty crazy past couple of months. The Color of Dance Project is all donation based. Another issue in the dance world is that a lot of dancers don’t have the same opportunities because of money and so getting their pictures are expensive and so I wanted this project to be totally free or donation based.
I think that as a photographer in the past, in general, it’s hard to have friends who are in the field of dance and know me, which is a lot of my friends, it’s trying to make sure that they understand that this is also my job and I don’t just do it for fun. Most photographers start out doing it for fun because it’s something that we love, and so we do it and take pictures of people and things for free because that’s what we do. But understanding that this is also a job and people kind of forget that sometimes and that’s ok, but I think that’s been the hardest part of being a photographer is like telling people this isn’t all for free. I can’t just give you my career for free, so I think that’s the one little challenge. But that’s not really a challenge for the project. That’s just a challenge for a photographer.
What have been your successes/accomplishments while creating The Color of Dance Project?
I think that for me what I would consider the biggest success is just having so many people reach and say I never knew this or share the stories. And it’s not over I still have a few more shots before I think I might take a hiatus. In the last month or two having so many positive reactions of people becoming more aware and supportive.
I had somebody contact me. She’s a PhD student, and she wanted to have the pictures from The Color of Dance Project on display for her PhD Thesis. That was really cool. Getting to talk to her about it. I think seeing that people care to read about what’s going on and they care about how much it’s impacting young dancers. And they want to help. I think that’s been the biggest success.
Do you see yourself continuing this project for a long time (beyond a year) or do you have any other projects in mind that you would like to start?
I’m sort of always coming up with something. I think that’s one of the reasons I moved to New York in the first place because the things I came up with always needed to be done in a bigger space like New York with more artists available. And so I definitely want to do other projects like down the line. I don’t know if I see an end to this or not. I think I will do as long as somebody is there who wants to be a part of it. So it might become something where you only see a thing about it every month or two. But like as long as somebody sees the advertisement and wants to do it, I’ll do it with them. For now, at least I don’t think I’ll put a cap on it.
I have an idea for a group shoot for the project where I send out an invite to all of the dancers who have been a part of it so far, and I kind of see it in Washington Square Park. Just doing a shoot with all of them there because I think that will be so powerful because just seeing so many beautiful dancers all in one place. So that is something I want to do. I think that would be a really good way not to finish the project but to have something a little bit bigger than what I’ve done so far.
How long have you been a photographer?
I’ve been messing around with the camera my whole life. I think that I didn’t start qualifying myself as a photographer amateur or not on any level until probably about three years ago. And that started when I started photographing dancers, and I realized that’s really where my niche was and where I was able to speak the most through the photo was through dancers.
What made you want to take dance photography?
So I’m also a dancer. I went to school for dance. I got my Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance performance and choreography. Dance was also my goal, and photography got stuck on the back burner when I started dancing because I didn’t really feel like it was what I wanted to pursue at the time. And so I put everything I had into dance, and I actually sold my camera and everything. I just quit photography.
And then in college, I had a friend who was selling his camera, and I was like “I’ve been kind of really wanting to take pictures again. I’ll buy it from you.” So I bought it, and it was a really simple set up, but it was enough to make me realize how much I loved photography. And I had a lot of friends that were also into photography. Most of them did landscapes or portraiture, and so I started doing portraits because I’ve always been more drawn to the human side of photography. I think I’ve always been very interested in humans in general like I’m also a sketch artist, and I love choreographing because I love seeing it on other people. All people are my muse, and so I started with portraits. Then I realized that there’s a lack of dance photographers in the industry that also dance. Most dance photographers are not also dancers. And there are a very small handful of dance photographers who understand dance so well that they can make the dancer happy. I wanted to be a photographer that could do both. And so I started just practicing on my friends because I was at a dance school, so I had lots of dancers to practice on. As soon as I started doing it I realized this was it this was something different, and that was where my eye was. My portraits were always good, but they weren’t great, and as soon as I started doing movement-based photography something shifted, and I realized this was what I was supposed to be doing. I still do portraits and headshots, but dance is what I’m really really passionate about. I just really love capturing movement and just making it still because it’s the exact opposite of what it is like dance is moving. This is the one thing that keeps it still forever, and so I think that that’s really cool. In my style, I capture the dancer’s heart and soul because I focus more on just the way that their body wants to move and less about the poses.
Do you think being a person of color has impacted your experience as a photographer?
No, I think that not as a photographer which is kind of interesting because as the photographer it doesn’t matter what you look like because you’re behind the camera all of the time. So I think that it’s fun for a lot of photographers that it doesn’t matter, even a little bit, what you look like because if people like your photos that’s you. You are your photos to other people.
You mentioned that you have a dance background, do you think being a person of color impacted your experience while you were dancing?
Yes, I think that I probably have a different story than most though. Because mine was impacted on both ends, from white and black dancers and people because I’m biracial. I was the only biracial student in my program for all four years. It didn’t really affect me until I got to college. I had a lot of issues within the department, there were a lot of things that went on between the students and the faculty that were very damaging, and a lot of them were racially based issues. And so it really started to wear on me, and I felt very alone and very disconnected. And for lack of a better term shunned from a lot of what went on. Because it was like you’re aren’t white enough to be here, and you aren’t black enough to be here. And so me being a person of color it was something that shouldn’t have been an issue because there are people who are of color. It was like a very diverse program, there was about 50% white and 50% black. So it shouldn’t have been an issue, but I didn’t fit into either one. So it affected me in a very weird way, it’s a very long story but yes it definitely had a negative effect on me for a few years where I just felt very alone.
How do you define being an artist?
I think that being an artist is a lot more than the average joe would think. I think when people think of artists they think of painting and stuff like that. I think there are three levels to being a true artist from a dancer’s perspective and honestly from a photographer too.
First, I’m a human, and that’s what comes first, always. There’s a humanity that is behind everything.
And then secondly, I am an artist, and that’s all the human brought into this field, how emotionally connected it can be and how physical it is. All of that goes into being an artist.
And then I think that thirdly, I am a dancer and I am a photographer.
So when someone asks me, “What are you? What do you do?” I don’t really answer with photography or dance. I say I’m an artist. Because I’ve always kind of been someone who is invested a lot into a lot of fields of art and so I think it would be doing myself a disservice to just identify as one. So I think that understanding all of those little pieces that go into being a dancer or photographer makes you an artist. Because I think there are dancers who are not artists, and there are photographers who are artists. But you can’t be an artist and not be something else you know. Because I think just to explain it a bit more, you can go to class, you can be talented, and you can have good legs and have nice feet and have everything you need to be a dancer. But if you aren’t doing all of the things that go into that mentally if you don’t understand why you need to have x y and z to be a good dancer and why you’re putting all of this energy into something that is pretty rough on your body I think you’re sort of missing the creating aspect of art, and I think that’s really what makes you an artist.
We hope you enjoyed reading the interview Kaleidoscope Teen Magazine had with Tiana about The Color of Dance Project and her journey getting where she is today. To keep up to date with Tiana and her photography you can follow her on Instagram @tianakphoto and @tiana.kangaroo