Delphine Diallo Redefines the Camera’s Gaze

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All images courtesy of Delphine Diallo

Had it not been for a chance meeting, the world may not be able to see the powerful work of French-Senegalese photographer and visual artist Delphine Diallo.

Born and raised in Paris, and now based in Brooklyn, Diallo studied visual art at the Academie Charpentier, which sparked an initial love of darkroom photography. But instead of going into the discipline after graduation, she worked as an art director, graphic designer, and special effects artist — but it wasn’t her calling. “I was drained by the production mode, by putting all of my energy into it,” she tells SEEMA.

Diallo happened to attend a charity dinner at the invitation of a friend in 2007, where she met New York-based photographer, artist, and naturalist Peter Beard. It was that meeting with the 70 year-old (she was 30 at the time) that changed the course of her life.

“We had the deepest conversation of my life,” Diallo says. “We really connected in on this creative energy level — about art and about life.”

Delphine Diallo profile

Beard invited her to join him on a shoot for the Pirelli calendar in Botswana, and from then on, Diallo’s life was completely changed. “After the trip, I was seeing the world differently,” she says. She quit her job as an art director and decided to take up her true calling of photography, moving to New York City in 2008 to pursue her dreams. Diallo started to explore not only photography, but the mediums of illustration, collage, and 3-D printing as well. She started to take on editorial and corporate clients, like NIKE, but a personal project may have become one of her most impactful.

“Growing up as a Black woman, I was always hyper-sexualized or seen as ‘exotic,'” Diallo explains. “And that wasn’t really me; I grew up as a tomboy. It was just how the rest of the world saw me. So I started to photograph my friends, in order to change the gaze of the white male photographer. I wanted to take that negative energy and turn it into positive energy.”

Since she started it in 2009, Diallo has shot more than 140 women for her Women of New York project. In her striking black-and-white portraits that mix in mythology, anthropology, and race dynamics, the women are presented in a strong, powerful light. In a book proposal she’s working on, Diallo writes, “The divine feminine force is a force for consistent change and renewal. My aim is to protect, honor, and advocate for the eminence of the spirit and soul of the Black woman. I build artistic spaces for faces and viewpoints that have been historically overlooked to emphasize the legitimacy, and even supremacy, of the unheard voices. I reflect my vision with social activism, a healing process connected with spirituality.”

Diallo was recently featured in a New York Times collection of self-portraits by Black photographers reflecting on America. For the photo, which features a suit of armor set aflame, she traveled back to Senegal to have the metal armor custom-made on her body, then brought it back to her studio.

“I had a hard time defining what kind of archetype I am,” she explains. “In the span of seven to 10 years, I’ve been working on it, and I decided I am a spiritual warrior. It’s actually in me and in my skin.”

Diallo continues to incorporate activism and female empowerment into her work. As for the advice she would give budding photographers, she says: Listen to yourself.

“I practice martial arts so I don’t need anyone else to believe in me,” she explains. “We have to take note of the lack of role models for women in this industry. You need to create your own role model. Even my family didn’t understand why I was doing this at first. The voice within you has to be stronger than anyone else’s.”