All posts in Portrait Studies

On Location: Mississippi Delta

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Known as “The Most Southern Place On Earth,” the Delta is a lush expanse of fertile farmland tucked between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers in northwest Mississippi. Here, the sky swallows you whole and time drips like warm honey. Deep kinship and murder ballads weave into the rugged landscape like underground quilt codes. This is the underbelly, where history and pig fat commingle in a dark stew of long-winded stories and contradictions.

When my dear friend Alex told me that she grew up less than 3 hours away from the Delta, I had stars in my eyes. Aside from being the ground zero of Blues music, the Delta bespoke of an America that was at once remote and inaccessible as it was painfully ubiquitous to the American psyche. The immigrant in me wanted so badly to tap into the darker narratives of the deep South, what I considered to be the “source” of American identity in all its scarred glory.

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ClarksdaleAlex-12Needless to say, when Alex offered to drive me down to the Delta I leapt at the opportunity. We took Highway 61 from Memphis, TN and drove 250 miles through vast cotton fields and kudzu-covered shacks to Clarksdale, MS, one of the better known towns in the Mississippi Delta. We spent three glorious days exploring the floodplains and sitting on the front porch of our homestead watching the sun go down over the swelling horizon. Thankfully, Alex also tolerated me taking a few snaps of her in the 5AM morning light on the day of our departure. Nothing like seeing a woman in her element, in her home state, in a vintage dress similar to her grandmother’s. Enjoy.

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Photo Credit: The Denizen Co.

Portrait Studies: Teake

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Teake is a poet/musician/painter/martial arts extraordinaire currently based out of Connecticut. His humble spirit belies his impressive travel repertoire including the Samoan countryside (!) and a martial arts monastery in rural China. We met up one afternoon in Brooklyn, a city he once called home, and made pictures while talking about his artistic upbringing, Josephine Baker, living off the grid, and our shared guilty pleasure of holing up on Friday nights painting and listening to BANKS.

When Teake is not training, producing music or working on his myriad of watercolor projects, he works as a wilderness counselor at a local camp to impart young kids with basic survival skills and to promote sustainable lifestyles amongst the future generation. An articulate man of many passions and talents, Teake is a force to be reckoned with. Visit his website to learn more.

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Photo Credit: The Denizen Co.

Portrait Studies: Eri

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Many of us have seen the elaborate gold-lined kimonos worn by Heian-era Japanese noblewomen. The cascades of gilded textiles paired with silky raven hair depict a culture that values form, elegance, and an air of exclusivity.

Instead, this portrait session with the beautiful Eri Tachibana features juban textiles and boro fabrics worn by 17th-19th century women of the peasant class. Outspoken, resilient, and extremely hardworking, these women represent a side of Japanese womanhood that is often overshadowed by the more widely known narrative of the “demure Japanese woman.” Inspired by hand-painted vintage photographs of the Japanese peasant class and incognito noblewomen donning the okoso-zukin head scarf, Eri and I teamed up to explore the intricate layers of Japanese womanhood. We created three looks: the peasant, the traveling noblewoman, and a simple look featuring Eri in a juban undergarment. Enjoy.

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Ellie-744-WEBRESThese looks would not have been possible without the kindness and generosity of Kimono House in Soho, NYC who supplied the boro fabrics and the monpe pants, and Shibui in Dumbo Brooklyn, who supplied the juban, woven basket and kasa hat. Both of these local establishments listened to my vision intently and allowed me to sift through their (breathtaking) inventory to find the perfect pieces for Eri. I cannot thank them enough. If you live in NYC, do pay them a visit.

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Photo Credit: The Denizen Co.

Portrait Studies: Fatimat and Amina

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My father comes from a long line of school teachers. After living amongst Japanese immigrants in both New Jersey and California, he learned that the top concern of many first generation Japanese parents was passing along the Japanese language to their nisei children. In 2005, he founded a small Japanese language school in Los Angeles.

Finding a venue proved to be difficult. Though the curriculum only took place on Saturdays, most LA County establishments presented him with a labyrinth of paperwork/astronomical admin fees or flat out refused to host a large group of “immigrants” on their premises. That was when he came across a full-time Islamic school in West Los Angeles. They kindly offered him a cluster of classrooms adjacent to their Prayer Room to open his school. Over a decade later, the campus is used jointly Monday thru Saturday and my father’s school has grown into a community of over 200 students.

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FatimatAmina-13-WEBRESIn a society where immigrant populations are often pitted against each other through alienating rhetoric such as the “model minority,” the Muslim community in Los Angeles gracefully offered my father a helping hand. This had a profound impact on me as a young teenager, a mere four years after the 9/11 attacks and the starkly unfounded Islamaphobia that plagued the national conversation for many years to come. The same community that was demonized incessantly on cable television was also the only community that helped my father realize his dreams.

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FatimatAmina-14-WEBRESI have since been blessed with several Muslim friends. Fatimat is one of them. Her warm and welcoming personality belies her sharp wit and intelligence, which was evidently passed on to her delightfully clever daughter Amina. We met up one Saturday afternoon in her apartment in Newark and took some family portraits in the Prayer Room. The waning sun filtered in through the tapestry curtains as Fatimat and Amina kindly walked me through the modes of prayer in Islam.

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There is very little I can do to repay the Muslim community in LA for offering us a space to preserve our own language and cultural practices. That being said, we are at a crucial juncture in our country’s history where minority communities can stand in solidarity or succumb yet again to inconspicuous divide-and-conquer tactics. Indeed, the longstanding relationship between my father and the Islamic school’s founder is a true testament to the fact that the former is possible.

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FatimatAmina-5-WEBRESThank you for sharing these moments with me, Fatimat and Amina.

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Photo Credit: The Denizen Co.

Studio Sessions: Oscar

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I met Oscar almost six years ago when I visited NYC for the very first time. Our mutual friend Angel had invited a small group of his close friends to take me out for the night. Oscar was one of them. I was wide-eyed and slightly intimidated as the city of my dreams, in all its rugged glory, starkly unfolded before my eyes.

Oscar and I became fast friends. We were both bilingual. We were both first generation immigrants. We were both trying to make sense of the societies we grew up in. After several years of living in different cities, I was lucky enough to reunite with him and Angel in 2014 when I officially moved to NYC.

OscarAcuna-23Fast forward to: present. Oscar is well on his way to becoming a model, and I had the distinct privilege of shooting a series of portfolio pieces with him. We met up in an artist’s loft in Bushwick and shot in the broad morning light. We’ve both come so far. Thank you Oscar for a fun shoot, and for making my job so damn easy. Enjoy!

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Photo Credit: The Denizen Co.