The Light Factory Photo Arts Center launches a mentorship program to invest in Black photographers

Story by Kyesha Jennings

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

When Titus Heagins, a documentary photographer and educator, decided he wanted to give back, he had no idea that a visit to the Light Factory Photo Arts Center in May 2021 would be the catalyst for an impactful mentorship program that he would design and facilitate. He visited the Light Factory to support a fellow photographer whose work was on exhibit. While there, Heagins had a conversation with Executive Director Kay Tuttle. Though neither Heagins nor Tuttle remembers exactly what they spoke about, the two describe the moment as a “nice conversation that was fun.” “I think we joked and laughed about a few things,” Heagins said. “And we talked seriously about photography.”

After traveling the world for well over twenty years documenting the lives of people who often are seen as “other,” Heagins found himself advocating for young Black photographers any chance he could. In the early stages of his career, he could not find a mentor who was interested in his work as a Black photographer. He had to look for ways around the barriers he faced on his own.

During their conversation, Tuttle mentioned wanting to start a mentorship program. She had been toying with the idea for quite some time, and Heagins was all ears. “For me, typically, I always bring up issues of African Americans in photography, and I feel that Kay heard me,” said Higgins.

“Titus is so giving. . . and nurturing. it was just. . . incredible,” Tuttle observed. 

Drawing from his breadth of knowledge, Heagins made a list of goals he wanted to accomplish. One was to inform the six mentees who would participate in the program about the difficulties they would encounter obtaining mainstream recognition. “Playing on those fields demands more than beautiful images. [It requires] heightened information about the overall body of work and would require more precise and interesting written and speaking presentations,” said Heagins. Another goal of Heagins was for the mentees to realize the financial reward photography can bring. Teaching them about the legacy of Black photographers who came before them, from Gordon Parks to Carrie Mae Weems and Augustus Washington was important, too. 

A conversation with the mentees

(L-R) Cheryse Terry, Titus Heagins, Cordrell Colbert, Jessica Dunston, Cheryse Terry, Jessica Dunston, All mentees photographed with The Light Factory Executive Director Kay Tuttle and Mentor Titus Heagins | Photos by Jon Strayhorn

Emerging photographer Cheryse Terry grew up on the west side of Charlotte and is a mother of three, a wife, and a collector. Her childhood home was destroyed by fire a few years after her own mother died, leaving Terry with only five pictures of her younger self. The loss sparked an interest in archival documentary work. “Because all visual or physical history of me being a child is now gone, it's important for me to make sure that I'm immortalizing people. Most of the work that I do is with the homeless. I know a lot of times they might not have access to cell phones or photography,” she says.

Noticing her growing passion for photography, a close friend told her about the Light Factory’s mentorship program. Having previously attended another friend’s artist talk there, she was only somewhat familiar with the organization. The Central Avenue building it occupies, however, was where she had attended TAPS, a specialized high-school program for teen mothers. “I had my first daughter when I was 15. The building that the Light Factory is in was “the pregnant school.” I went to school there when I was in ninth grade. Being back there 17 years later was full circle for me. Like, whoa! And not much has changed about it. The floors are the same. The structure of the building is still the same. I was very excited to be there,” said Terry. As a novice photographer, Terry was attracted by the abundance of resources the Light Factory offers. She was able to use its print studio and process photographic film in a darkroom for the first time ever, and learn from Heagins. “I really enjoyed my experience with Titus. We were able to go to him with general or specific questions and because of his tenure in the business, he had an answer,” Terry said.

The BLACK GAZE: Representation, Identity, and Expression was Terry’s debut exhibition. Searching for the perfect words, she described the experience as “absolutely beautiful,” repeating the phrase three times. Terry photographs people who experience homelessness and is intentional about capturing them in ways that are not exploitive. “A lot of times, we center ourselves in the lives of homeless people as if we're the standard and they should have what we have, but sometimes people are just comfortable with their life and it's not a negative thing. It's like that's their environment. That's what they're comfortable in,” Terry says. The protective feelings she has for her subjects is warming. Terry, in a matter-of-fact way, describes them as “her people,” following the communal, understanding kinship practiced in Black communities. As she reflects on her overall experience participating in the Light Factory’s mentorship program, she acknowledges how beneficial and life-changing the opportunity was. “It was definitely in alignment with what I wanted my photography journey to look like. It's a blessing that it found me. What's next is my ongoing journey on Beatties Ford Road, on the west side of Charlotte, documenting my people, documenting those that don't have the ability, the means, or the resources to document their lives. This is a lifelong project for me,” Terry said.  

Photos below by Cheryse Terry [@cheryseterry.img]

 

Originally from Raleigh, Jessica Dunston has always viewed herself as creative. She was introduced to the arts through writing poetry, short stories, and photography. With a B.S. degree in pharmaceutical sciences from Campbell University, over the past 10 years, Dunston’s career in the medical device industry has had an impressive trajectory. “I think I had always kind of thought that I was going to just do creative stuff on the side because I worked in the medical device pharma industry full time. My plan was to climb up that ladder and be creative when I could,” Dunston said. At the end of 2019, the day before Christmas, she decided that the traditional path of a 9-5 job in a corporate setting was no longer fulfilling. To be her authentic self, it was important that she express herself in creative mediums.

By February 2020, Dunston had purchased her first camera and her journey in photography began. The Light Factory’s mentorship program helped her home in on the ability to find purpose and tell stories through photography. “At the beginning of my photography [journey], . . . I focused on taking pictures that looked good to me. During the mentorship program, Titus really pushed us to use [photography] as a vehicle to tell stories. . . so that's really where I am right now. Wanting to tell stories, specifically Black American stories. . . We have very specific things within our communities and within our culture that are ours. That’s what I want to honor and tell the stories around,” Dunston said. For Dunston, the mentorship program, under Heagins’s guidance, catapulted her into a new understanding of the projects she desired to work on. The photos that are on exhibit at the Light Factory are a part of her Carolinas with Love photo project. The series centers on North Carolina- and South Carolina-rooted Black people and their relationships, whether mother-daughter, romantic, or platonic.

Photos below by Jessica Dunston [@fbvisualss]

 

Reflecting on the mentorship program, Tuttle said that the Light Factory, despite its 50-year history, struggled to attract photographers of color. “We grew to be very old and very white,” she said. The program gave the arts organization an opportunity to expand its audience and invest in emerging Black photographers by making its resources available and creating a welcoming environment. According to two of the mentees, the program succeeded.

“Resources are what stop people from getting into photography because it's not cheap. The printing, the darkroom aspect of it if you're developing film, buying the film--it is extremely expensive. And so having [Kay] opening up [The Light Factory’s] resources is important. And I think she also just realizes the importance of having a Black mentor, mentor us. She understands what is needed for [young emerging photographers] to thrive, and I appreciate that,” said Dunston. Everyone at the Light Factory did so much work under her direction to get us to this point. So, I'm just appreciative to have her and Titus in general.”

The Light Factory recently updated its mission and vision and rebranded itself and added the words Photo Arts Center to its name to attract diverse audiences. “We want the community to know that the resources are there for them,” said Tuttle. The center has a 44-inch printer, a print lab, a dark room, a lighting studio, and a lot of rental equipment. “We are putting film cameras in the hands of photographers and encouraging them to use [the cameras], while offering some guidance. We also try to make everything affordable so that there are no barriers for people to come and learn,” Tuttle added. “Everything was open to all the mentees at no cost.  They could use the facilities during the mentorship and, hopefully, beyond.”

The BLACK GAZE: Representation, Identity, and Expression features the work of emerging photographers Cheryse Terry, Jessica Dunston, DaRemen J., Gavin Boulware, Cordrell Colbert, and Phillip Loken. The exhibit will be on display at the Light Factory until February 28th.

The Light Factory Photo Arts Center is supported, in part, by the Infusion Fund and its generous donors, and by the N.C. Arts Council, a division of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Kyesha Jennings

Kyesha Jennings is the content director for the North Carolina Arts Council where as a part of the marketing and communications team, she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. An award-winning hip-hop scholar, Kyesha is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where her research primarily focuses on Black women writers, hip-hop feminism, and popular culture. Her writing has been published in both academic and non-academic outlets such as LifeHacker, HotNewHipHop, Vulture, Indy Week, CLTure, and Scalawag Magazine.