Sasha Phyars-Burgess gently observes, and meditates upon, the Black lives around her in her first monograph, Untitled

View Gallery 11 Photos
Reading Time: 7 minutes

This article was printed in the Then & Now issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, available for purchase through the BJP Shop or delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

“I hope that Black people see themselves in [my work] and say, ‘Yeah, I know that’. That’s all I’ve ever wanted,” reflects Phyars-Burgess in conversation with writer and artist Carolyn Lazard

“Sasha Phyars-Burgess’ work is consistent evidence of her ability to know the difference between looking for photographs and looking for life through the viewfinder of lens-based picture-making technologies – looking for Black life in her case,” writes photographer and academic Bill Gaskins in Phyars-Burgess’ first monograph, Untitled, published by Capricious Publishing.

The observation encapsulates the publication in which it features: a multilayered study of diaspora, identity, family and place through black-and-white photographs, which sit somewhere between documentary and fine art. Three series comprise the photobook. Although each project is distinct, together they depict everyday moments observed by Phyars-Burgess’ meditative lens. And it is partly in their everydayness that the images hold their power. They contribute to a photographic archive of Black life created by Black image-makers, depicting the fullness of their existence despite the continual threats against it; threats and violence which otherwise dominate contemporary representations of Black life.

The publication begins in Trinidad. The series There (Yankee) takes its title from Phyars-Burgess referring to Trinidad and Tobago as ‘there’. And Yankee is how anyone with an American accent on the island gets referred to. The work explores aspects of Phyars-Burgess’ Trinidadian heritage as a first-generation American. The book then turns to dance spaces: Untitled or Again, And Again, And Again, And Again delves into these realms as sites for unrestricted expression and existence. The final series, Untitled Part II & III (We all have to make compromises), spans the US, Canada and England (where Phyars-Burgess also has family), honestly observing people Phyars-Burgess knows and encounters.

Below, Phyars-Burgess, who was born in Brooklyn but currently resides in Chicago, and Carolyn Lazard, an artist and writer based between Philadelphia and New York, discuss Untitled and the subjects it explores. The pair first met in 2006 at Bard College, New York, where they were both studying, and have remained friends and collaborators since.

© Sasha Phyars-Burgess.

Carolyn Lazard: For me, your work has always felt like it is about the persistence of Black life; pointing us to look at what is still here: moments of care, embodiment and leisure; just being here, or maybe just being. The three series [There (Yankee); Untitled or Again, And Again, And Again, And Again; Untitled Part II & III (We all have to make compromises)] that make up the new book span varied contexts and sites. The subjects’ age, gender and citizenship vary. Yet, as vast as they are, the bodies of work seem to focus on the interiority of your subjects. Is this question of interiority critical for you?

Sasha Phyars-Burgess: The interior is very important. The second series [Untitled or Again, And Again, And Again, And Again] is perhaps more about the external expression of the interior. The Frantz Fanon quote that starts that chapter is essential because it acts as a kind of setup. The dance circle becomes a way to express the interior in these brief, intense moments of dance. The first series in Trinidad is my interiority, looking and searching into other people’s exteriors. The third series is that more banal-like, ‘woke up this morning and gotta put my pants on, somebody just died, got to brush my teeth, my mum is making a joke, now I’m thinking about a dead family member’. All of these daily happenings filter through diaspora, gender and age. This is important to the work too.

CL: I’ve been thinking about the mundane aspects of your work too. What does it mean to experience the fullness of one’s life, even while the sanctity of one’s life is threatened at every turn: whether you are just sitting in the car, or you are at the grocery store, or you are at the swing set, or you are resting in bed. In your work, all these unremarkable repeated moments in life hold the joy and precarity of Black life simultaneously.

SPB: I was thinking about the coup d’etat [the storming of the US Capitol on 06 January 2021] that we all saw. I was on the couch, watching with my mum. It was a moment of extreme violence by white people against white people. But, of course, it affects Black people in so many ways. However, the experience of watching it on the couch with my mother was super banal. That is what violence is like, for me. A lot of the time I am walking down the street, or sitting in my car. How do I portray the actual mundanity of something, of an event that is not necessarily directly happening to me, but that I am a part of? How do I still try and show that life is going on? For Black people that violence is supermundane. We are used to thinking about people lying in the street, which is a direct form of violence; it is horrifying violence; it is the sensational pornographic violence, which titillates people. But there is also another kind of violence: the super mundane. It is just us living. I’m not as interested in the sensationalism of the moment, but the fleetingness. Living is what I am trying to show. Look at all these Black people living. Now you understand the conditions in which Black people live, right? But look at how fully we live anyway.

Handkerchief, Port of Spain, Trinidad, 2013 © Sasha Phyars-Burgess.
Joanne and Cherry, Trinidad, 2013 © Sasha Phyars-Burgess.
© Sasha Phyars-Burgess.
Drying in Chacha’s Yard, Tunapuna, Trinidad, 2013 © Sasha Phyars-Burgess.

CL: It’s interesting because we also live in a world littered with images of Black people; where images of Black people circulate as seamlessly as they do. In this context, what does it mean to produce images of Black people in this way?

SPB: The photographer Bill Gaskins used to always say to me, “The sheer amount of images made of Black people by non-Black people is so immense that we have not even gotten halfway up to matching that archive.” So for me, producing these images is about the act of matching that archive. It’s people of African descent making photographs about ourselves so that when people want to look at images of Black people, they can go to images that are generated by us. Also, I just like to make images, it’s something that I enjoy.

CL: There is pleasure in it.

SPB: Yeah, I don’t know if it has any value really, sis. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, you know what I’m saying?

CL: There needs to be a record left that supersedes the record that has already been created about Black people without our consent. Pleasure doesn’t need to justify its existence or pursuit, and this extends not just to the subjects of your work, but also to you and the aesthetic pleasure you derive from the practice. There’s a lot of leisure in your work: floating in the ocean, resting, liming, as Caribbean people like to say. That’s my favourite Anglo-Caribbean saying.

Hand, New Orleans, 2018 © Sasha Phyars-Burgess.

SPB: Liming? Where does that… I still don’t know where that comes from. Do they say liming in Barbados?

CL: Yeah, people say it in Barbados all the time.

SPB: They stole that from Trinidadians!

CL: Lol! I was wondering if you could talk about the Black Caribbean as one of the many landscapes in the body of work. What does it mean to have photos of people in that landscape next to photos of people in some parking lot in central Pennsylvania or Chicago?

SPB: I want to stop thinking theoretically and start thinking about things in actuality. The African diaspora is not theoretical. It is not a thing that exists outside of me. It is my axis. The landscape of the Caribbean: understanding people there, hearing the way they speak, seeing the way they live. The heat, the verdancy. And then, of course, my movements from there to here. I’m interested in what it means to be a Black person in America, a Trinidadian person in America, and a Trinidadian person in Trinidad, and an American person in Trinidad. I’m also interested in what it means to be a former British subject, and what that connects me to. In series three [Untitled Part II & III (We all have to make compromises)], many of those photographs are situated in England and Canada. I’m trying to map my understanding of Blackness and being in these different landscapes, so I go to them and I look. Often I’m there because I have family in England and Canada and Trinidad and America, which makes no sense. And it is only because of how being from a former European colony then navigates you in the world.

CL: You move through the world as one body. But it’s layered with these varied relations to how you’re interpolated, or how your identity is produced. Even though there are these differences of context in the work, fundamentally it’s images of Black people in space.

Untitled #12 , Ithaca, New York, 2016 © Sasha Phyars-Burgess.
© Sasha Phyars-Burgess.
Untitled #5, Ithaca, New York, 2016 © Sasha Phyars-Burgess.
© Sasha Phyars-Burgess.

SPB: I don’t even want it to be so theoretical when thinking about diaspora. Because you’re right, fundamentally, I went to see some Black person in England and took their photo. Fundamentally, that is what happened.

CL: What does it mean that a photograph of a Black person in England could just as easily be thought to be a photograph of a Black person in the United States?

SPB: Right, it could, and it couldn’t be. It’s the same, and it isn’t the same. How do I begin to talk about this global project? When we talk about globalisation it’s always in the context of the fear of China’s expanding economic reach! And that’s like a whole thing in and of itself. But the fact that I have family members in Canada, the US, the UK and Trinidad somehow doesn’t seem like it should be possible. But it’s already happened! What is that? I’m curious about that.

CL: Conversations about globalisation are often so anti-Black. We can’t really understand the current global condition of the world politically or economically without locating its roots in the global slave trade. There is no globalisation without the history of slavery.

SPB: [That conversation] doesn’t exist. When we think about globalisation, we think about the circulation of goods across borders, but we were the OG goods!

CL: I think because of that, it is critical to imagine the consequences and to understand why and how we are spread across the globe. And that fundamentally anti-Blackness is a global phenomenon.

SPB: Thank you for that.

CL: What? No, thank you. You helped me understand this critical component of your work. And, finally, how do you want people to respond to your work and your practice?

SPB: I hope that Black people see themselves in it and say, “Yeah, I know that”. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.
Untitled is published by Capricious Publishing. 

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.