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February 26, 2020
The Spark: Talking to Photographer Shaniqwa Jarvis

Photography courtesy of Shaniqwa Jarvis

You might have seen Shaniqwa Jarvis’ work if you’re a North Face fan. Or maybe you caught her striking photos for the likes of Glamour, New York Magazine, and 10 Magazine. New York-born and bred, she’s a photographer with an impressive resume. She can count brands such as Supreme, Nike, Jil Sander and celebrities such as Mark Ronson and Serena Williams as part of her client list. Watching her interact with her subjects, and you get why everyone wants to hire her  — Jarvis has a way of making someone laugh while creating an intimate and engaging portrait. She’s a creative force who’s unapologetic and outspoken about it means to be a successful woman of color in her industry. 

We caught up with Jarvis when she was in Los Angeles for the Frieze Art Fair. Read on to hear about her personal project exploring black joy, her first experience with cannabis, and the tasty dessert she used to crave.

On her first experience with cannabis: I grew up as an athlete so I didn’t try weed until after I quit swimming. I remember going with a friend to get a bag from a local spot. We smoked it and I was like, whoa this is a thing. We went to the movies after and waking down West 84th Street and Broadway, I kept thinking, Oh my God, this is insane. I felt crazy and I had no idea how much I’d enjoy it. 

On her relationship with cannabis now: I’m enjoying all the ways in which you can use cannabis for healing. I’m more of an edibles person now — I stopped smoking for awhile because I was getting paranoid. I’d be like, Oh my god I didn’t pay my student loan! So I took a break and in the past five to eight years, I’ve regained some love for it. 

On her favorite products: My job is super physical and I use cannabis to keep me from having to lay on the floor, curled up with my knees to my chest in pain. I like to use the Papa & Barkley patches or I’ll do the dosist relief pen. I’m also a fan of the Wyld gummies.

On munchies: I don’t get them anymore but when I was younger, I’d eat an entire Entenmann’s cake with ice cream. I loved vanilla cake with chocolate frosting and scoop of dulce de leche ice cream. I’d get it from the bodega and that was my vibe. Now I’m like I’ll drink two glasses of water and be fine

On her exhibit: It’s called Rituals and it’s a body of work that my husband Raj Debah and I developed a few years ago. It’s a mix of photos and video and we had musician Kelsey Lu provide the soundtrack. The concept is about black people living their life and showcasing that in a relatable, positive way — it really could be any family, regardless of race. So much of how people of color are shown in the media depicts trauma but we wanted to focus on joy. We are happy, thriving, and living.

We found our subjects by starting with a real nuclear family (mom, dad, son) and then we cast the rest of the extended relatives — you’ve got your real aunties, your fake aunties, and everyone else. We shot in Dolores Kerr’s home, and made her the grandmother of this fabricated household. The scenarios are loosely autobiographical and we wanted them to feel authentic. So for example, I made it a point to cast a young girl who’s actually a competitive swimmer. In her scene there’s a sense of it being open ended — maybe she won her race, maybe she didn’t but her family is there to support her after, gathered around the table.

On giving back to the community: Alongside Michael Goldberg and Angelo Baque, we started Social Studies. We wanted to create a space where we can push connectivity by getting kids in the community involved so they understand their worth and value. We connect them to creatives that can facilitate the things they want to accomplish — these are fields that are inaccessible unless you have mentorship. So we’ll ask people like Jerry Lorenzo from Fear of God or De’Ara Balenger, who worked for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, to come in to speak. We did one event in Miami, another in New York, and our next one is here in Los Angeles. 

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