Interview by DW MCKINNEY
The lens stared at me emptily, obscuring a small brown face. Click. The photographer quickly scanned the surrounding garden, pulled a rickety crate toward her slim frame, and hopped on top of it.
‘Okay, now straighten your back. Not too much, you look rigid. Ok, stop slumping! Dammit, Des!’
I bristled at her reproach, silently sucking down my frustration. These photos were free, a benefit of the ‘friends and family discount.’ Yet, no matter our professions, the two of us would always resume our designated places in our familial hierarchy. Click.
‘Turn your head to the left a little. No–yeah yeah like that. Good.’
To the left was a large metal planter overflowing with still green water. A field mouse floated in the middle, belly up, as if blissfully sunning itself.
‘Perhaps we should go somewhere else?’ I asked. ‘There’s a dead rat floating in the water here.’
She gagged. ‘That’s f—— gross!’ I cackled. Such was the nature of our relationship.
The photographer was Natoyah Kearney, my big sister. “Toy” and I connected when I was 6 and she 7, sitting in the back of her daddy’s grey Volvo during our parents’ incredibly casual dates in the Laundromat parking lot. We sat across from each other, never saying a word. (Later, we would often bicker, tossing the middle seat’s belt buckle at each other in our arguments over whose seat was whose.) When the date finished, my mother and I packed tightly in her 1991 Nissan Sentra, Toy and I each asked our parents, “When will I see her again?” To cop a phrase my sister says in our interview, the rest was history.
Natoyah warrants much-deserved focus. She is a bastion of creative talents: a hip-hop dancer, an interior decorator, a mixed media artist, and a skilled free-hand artist and designer. There was even a time when I was jealous of her penmanship, a stylized calligraphy that was equivalent to inked elegance.
Many things delight me in the interview with Natoyah, one of which is her modest mention of her disposable cameras. If I were to capture a still of Natoyah’s room in high school, disposable cameras would be one of the fine details, sprinkled behind the standing lamp and atop her dressers, crammed in boxes in the closet, and caught in the twisted comforter on her bed. After she gathered them together for processing, returning with a towering stack of photos, Natoyah would inevitably move a box or open a drawer or a bag to find more cameras.
Natoyah cares not just about the subjects she photographs, but also the essence–the mood and characteristics–of the photograph itself. She can pull out a photo and recall not just the moment, but what happened in the hours before and after it, and conversations she had with people in the photo before and after she took it. Curiously, she can also recall conversations she had with people in her day-to-day life before and after the photo was taken, as well as emotions and scents. This is what Natoyah strives to bring to her photography. Not just an experience – but intimacy archived therein.
For Langston: What inspired you to pursue photography?
Natoyah Kearney: I have always loved to take photos since I was a young girl. I couldn’t afford a real camera so I would always purchase throwaway cameras. I have always been passionate about capturing memories. One of my friends lost his best friend, so I took him to Seaport Village [in San Diego, California] just to clear his mind. I started snapping photos of him on my iPhone and they came out pretty amazing, so I decided I should take photography seriously. I saved up for a professional camera, enrolled in classes…the rest is history.
FL: How would you describe your philosophy behind what you do?
NK: Photography gives me purpose. I love being able to freeze a specific moment in time. I want to be able to create beautiful moments for people at an affordable price. Just because a person or a family doesn’t earn a certain income doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to have amazing photographs.
FL: We’ve talked about this before – when I was researching wedding photographers, it was difficult finding a photographer in my meager budget range who could provide the level of attentiveness and quality that I wanted. You have to sacrifice something: what you want for your budget, the experience you deserve for what is allotted to you, which is why I find what you do to be amazing. You’re filling a much-needed gap. You are giving people a genuine, meaningful experience without hurting their pockets.
NK: I want to capture beautiful moments that people can look back on and smile, recalling the experience and fun they had creating that memory. One day, all you will have left is memories. I want to make sure that clients look back at their photos, even if it wasn’t a great time in their life, and realize how important that moment was to them.
FL: What has been your most inspiring photo shoot?
NK: My most inspiring photo shoot (so far) was my first maternity shoot. Capturing the beauty of a woman carrying life is moving. My client had two boys and never wanted to do a maternity shoot. The fact that she allowed me to create such a beautiful moment that she could [later] share with her only daughter was amazing. Her smile and excitement was confirmation that I am fulfilling my purpose.
FL: And your favorite place to shoot?
NK: Seaport Village. This is my favorite place ever! I have lots of childhood memories here and it is one of the most beautiful places in San Diego…well to me at least. (laughs)
FL: Ideally, what would you like to see happen with your photography business?
NK: I want my business to have the same value as a “mom & pop” shop in the urban community. I want to have a small, independently owned business, providing genuine care and support for the people in the community. It’s possible to value customers and provide an excellent product. That’s what I want to do.
FL: So what does that mean for you now? What’s your next project?
NK: My next project will be taking [high school] senior photos. Senior photo packages in high school are usually very pricey. I have a few parents who reached out to me who would love to have me capture their children’s senior moments.
FL: Let’s switch it up, what do you do for self-care? What gives you joy? There’s a lot of mess going on in our society right now.
NK: I dance and take photos. They both give me joy while clearing my mind of everyday struggles. Photography allows me to focus on one beautiful moment at a time, keeping me distracted from what’s going on in society.
I can create something so amazing in such a difficult time, reminding me that something beautiful can be created in any messy situation.
Natoyah Kearney (b. 1983) is a photographer based in San Diego. She dreams of traveling to Italy because “you can’t put its beauty into words.” She posts (some of) her photos on Instagram (@k.loves.photography).