Last week, as part of a lecture series celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Myles Loftin, a young photographer, visited campus to talk about his work and the issues of race and gender that it confronts. Loftin, 19, is originally from the D.C. area and has drawn a lot of inspiration from artists around his hometown. He is currently studying at Parsons School of Design in New York. His projects have routinely been featured in several art magazines. HOODED, one of his more recent projects, garnered media attention from popular news sites like Vice and Buzzfeed. The multimedia project pairs a video with a series of photographs of young black men in bright hoodies in order to portray black men in a positive and joyful light — a stark contrast and response to the negative portrayal of black men that usually appears in the media. With his work, Loftin often looks to unveil issues central to the lives of black Americans and people of color. He has also worked to dispel stereotypes of gender conformity and gender roles through his photography. I talked to Loftin about the inspiration for his work and the impact he hopes to have in the worlds of art and media.
Q: How did you originally get into photography?
A: I started photography in 2012 between eighth and ninth grade. That summer, my family took my sister and me on a trip to Italy, and my uncle let us borrow his digital camera. On the trip I used the camera to document our travels, and from that I realized photography was where I wanted to go in terms of my art. Before that I was into illustration and making little comics, but after that it was mainly photography that I was interested in. I got my first camera that year and kept working and working on getting better at photography.
Q: What drew you to photography rather than the other art mediums that you had experimented with before?
A: Illustration and photography feel equally expressive to me, but photography felt more natural for me. I got more gratification out of making images that way than I did drawing.
Q: How has increased media attention changed your work or your message?
A: I think the increased media attention that my work has gotten has increased my impact — not even the impact of my art, but the impact of me as an artist on other people. People seeing me as a young black photographer being successful in the creative industry is something I’ve realized can be inspirational for others. So taking that into consideration, I can use my presence as a photographer to inspire other people to do the same things that I’m doing or have the courage to go out there with their art — photography or any art form they want to do.
Q: Is there anyone in particular that inspired you?
A: There were a bunch, but there were a few that particularly inspired me because they were from my area and they were not that much older than me.
One of them was Tyra Mitchell. She’s from D.C. and she moved to New York when I was in ninth or 10th grade, and I remember following her work and seeing her get all these really cool opportunities and meeting all these cool people in New York. I saw her and thought, “I want to do that,” so she was part of the inspiration for me wanting to go to art school and pursue my photography in New York
Another one is Elijah Dominique. He’s from Maryland, but the whole D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area is pretty close together. To see two people who were young and black and from my area moving to New York and becoming successful and still being successful now was really inspirational.
Q: Do you have any future plans for your project HOODED?
A: I don’t really plan to add to the project — I just plan to keep creating projects that address similar issues that affect black people or people of color. But I think I may try to sell those to stock photo agencies so that I can actually contribute to the positive representation of black males. Maybe someone actually will use these photos to represent us, so that’s one way that I may try to continue the project.
Q: How do your projects interact with current events, etc.?
A: HOODED is the most political project I have out right now, even though my other stuff does have a political nature — but it’s a little less out there than HOODED. I just want people to know that these issues are real and for people to know that racial profiling is the result of so much negative representation of black people. I want people to think about how that may play into their own lives and how they can change the way they view people based on that project and any of my other work that features people of color. Just shedding a light on certain topics is pretty much what I want my work to do and maybe change the way that people think, or make people question the way that they think and act.
Q: Can you tell me about what you are working on now?
A: I am working on one project right now. It is about cultural appropriation. It’s going to focus on how people tend to view other peoples’ cultures and the items associated with other cultures as costumes or commodities that they can acquire and put on without much consideration about where it came from or why it originated. It’s going to be geared toward people like Kylie Jenner and Kendall Jenner and people who dress up in cultural attire during Halloween and how they don’t really consider the people who those cultural items come from or what it means when they put that thing on or why they are praised for those types of things when the people that created it are usually demonized for it.
Q: What about some of your favorite past projects?
A: Last summer I did a photo essay documenting my mom’s side of the family’s family reunion in South Carolina. I was just documenting all of the things that happened, like with my family, taking portraits and stuff. And then also part of that trip I did this project for Rookie Magazine where I created a kind of fake — well, a based-on-a-true story kind of narrative about my family reunion. So I shot film stills, 135 mm film, and made up little captions based on the conversations I was hearing from my family members. So it was kind of a look into life as a black teenager, trying to communicate that energy that’s felt when you’re around family.
I did this project a few months ago for B-Files with my friend Chella. He is gender-nonbinary and a lot of his work focuses on gender nonconformity and questioning social constructs like gender. Basically what we did was a portrait series where we had a bunch of gender-nonbinary youth come into the studio at B-Files. I took their portrait, and Chella did an interview with each one of them and then based on the interview he did different drawings on top of the photos. So I printed them out and he did overlays on top of them, incorporating quotes from the interviews.
I did another photo series for Rookie recently, and it was basically just me photographing and interviewing my friends reflecting on the things that they’ve learned in life since graduating high school. The magazine’s theme for that month was graduation, so I did portraits and then had them write out these reflections kind of thinking back on what they had learned since graduating from high school. For some of them it had been a year and for some of them it had been more like several years so it was interesting hearing their different standpoints on that.
I also worked on this project with this makeup artist named Sheri Pinto. She’s really amazing, she did the makeup art for Childish Gambino’s latest album. So we worked together on this editorial that was spotlighting strong independent young black men. The inspiration for it was this movie called “Meteor Man” and another movie called “Golden Lords,” which were both based on the idea of a group of black superheroes. We were also inspired by civil rights photos because they were the black superheroes of their day, and how we need [black superheroes] now. And it was really beautiful, the coloring was amazing, like gold spray paint in the boys’ hair.
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