We uncovered Maya Iman’s inspirations, humble beginnings, and eye for fashion and visuals in our latest interview. Through a lens, Maya hopes to evolve the conversation of inclusivity by developing what it means to be diverse. Follow her journey on her Instagram!
I’m Maya Iman and I’m 25 years old. I’m an art director at an advertising agency and for the past five years I’ve been an independent photographer, aspiring filmmaker and overall creator.
When did you first realize you had an eye for visuals and photography?
I knew I wanted to pursue fashion. It became prominent in my life when I started collecting publications as a child and I would visualize a life that wasn’t in my backyard. I was obsessed with the European and Parisian lifestyle as well as Harajuku, Japanese and Asian culture. I wanted to travel so I’d look at magazines to take me there. My eye for fashion came from watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Gossip Girl and Sex and the City. I was in the fashion program at Columbia College, but consistently debating what I wanted to do. I converted to an art direction major and found that it was fun and informative. I was able to explore graphic design, photography and film. I decided to do it on my own and since I was already taking pictures on my phone and camera, I started posting it. It became natural but putting it out there was hard. The initial response was great but it took about a year to evolve my eye and aesthetic.
What was your experience professionally growing in an industry that tends to overlook women of color?
Very difficult. I went through many ups and downs. My experience actually started in retail. My first job was at Zara, which is fast fashion, but I developed a sense of the fashion world. I worked at Nordstrom’s and Bloomingdale’s and was one of the few women of color on the floor. That was when I first received negative attention toward being a woman of color. I was accused of stealing one time and my mom told me, “Being Black and being good at what you do makes you more of a threat.” I later got a job at Louis Vuitton which was beautiful because I thought I had made it to where I wanted to be. I thought I was special but really I was a token Black woman in that environment. They would have me talk to certain people or push the Black clients to talk to me. I was really good at what I was doing but felt the judgment and privilege because I wasn’t white. Even white women would treat me differently. I’m a woman, but they could use their power to get them where they need to go. All women get different access to different things. Eventually I got more involved in school and worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art which helped me understand that I’m different in a good way. I saw more people of color as teachers and activists throughout the museum, but I realized that I’m always going to be a token depending on where I am. Not conforming has been hard but I’ve also learned to navigate it after years of tears and anxiety. I was raised by Black women who tell me that it’s hard, but I need to keep going.
Your first solo project, LOVE/HATE, showcased a male subject and “explored the concept of simultaneous love and hate in the lives of Black individuals.” Within the duality of “cultural acceptance and hatred” of Black individuals, what did you want your work to reveal about Black masculinity?
I wanted the project to convey a sense of emotion. When you see Black men, you don’t get to see a range of emotion. You naturally see anger. I wanted to display metrosexuality and feeling beautiful as a Black man. Especially in the age that we’re in, it’s beautiful to be a woman because our femininity is divine and defined by different things. Outside of being a feminine, you can be masculine too. Men don’t have that access. I saw something in my subject that I wanted to put out there in that light. I was also going through a breakup at the time. The project helped me understand love and hate through different things like my relationship with a Black man, but also being a Black man in society and the push and pull effect. I really wanted to make a story and capture motion. Photographers tend to only think about stills, but really, everything moves in motion, even photos. I showcased it at Block 37 in a group show called Art of Blackness. I wanted to capture the melanin and natural essence of my subject and his girlfriend through black and white photos with no studio lighting and a white wall. Developing the story and the conversation is very important to me.
You told AIGA Chicago that it’s important for you as a Black artist to create work that promotes inclusion and makes a statement about diversity. How do you go about accomplishing those goals?
It’s evolved a lot since then. I don’t want my work to only be of Black people. I’m now in a position where I can allow myself to explore instead of focusing on one Black subject and calling it diverse. In the advertising world, I’m tested in doing that all the time. What is this work saying about our culture and our people? For example, people think Black women are solely into hip-hop and R&B, but we need to expand the range of how we see each other. I try to have those conversations about the human experience and include everyone in my work. It’s important that I keep asking questions and documenting my subjects because I’ve been inspired by Black women who don’t get the attention they deserve. I want to continue to be an active part of that conversation and that work, instead of waiting for someone else to do it. I continue to develop the idea of what inclusion is and what that looks like to different people because it’s much more than just skin, religion and gender.
What aspects of Chicago do you draw the most inspiration from?
I draw inspiration from the architecture and visitors. I’m always looking and observing. Even though I don’t shoot complete strangers, I’m always inspired by what I see in them. If I see a great outfit, I’ll want to recreate it in a certain way. For the longest time, I resented where I grew up but it’s been a boomerang effect. I never left Chicago, but now I have my own space on the South side where I was born and raised. I see so much beauty there even though others might not. I grew up in Bronzeville and that neighborhood got its name because of all the Black people that lived there. Everyone’s bronze. It’s amazing to see all the work and art we can create when we have so little. I want everything to feel organic and true, not like I’m selling out for the sake of a name or a dollar. I try to evolve my work, otherwise it’ll look the same forever. Artists run away to New York or LA because they think their goals can be obtained simply by being there. It’s a little too easy for us to go where we know a lot of people, but in fact it’s harder to grind it out when you’re competing for the same thing. I want to try to leave the country at some point. I’m up for the challenge if I get the opportunity.
A year ago, you showcased FLAWED, which was a very raw portrayal of women. What was your vision for this show?
The vision was a little broader. I wanted to showcase all women of color but I ended up focusing on three: a Black woman, a Korean woman, and a Puerto Rican woman. We all have similar experiences, struggles, and stereotypes to overcome. I wanted to talk to everyday women who were going through what I was going through. I was very depressed and alone. I was dealing with the breakup from LOVE/HATE, uncertainty in my career and I had gone through a domestic assault. I was alone and didn’t want to talk to anybody about it. With this project, I felt the need to open up and talk to other women to get their perspective and experience. I wanted to focus on body empowerment, being naked and allowing yourself to control how your body looks. We live in a time where we’re constantly trying to change our appearance. I interviewed the girls first to get them in the mindset instead of capturing them first. Some directors want to expose their subjects for the sake of art or a dollar amount, but I wanted them to feel connected to me. I only did as much as they were comfortable doing because comfort levels are very important in that space. In the digital age, we don’t showcase our work in a public setting enough so when I did it, I was very overwhelmed by the love and gratitude I received. It kept growing and evolving. It became a series from 2017 to 2018. I’m honored that people have come to me to explore that with them.
Through your work, specifically FLAWED, you’ve said documenting women of color has become a healing process for you and your subjects. What kinds of hardships are you trying to heal from?
We deal with struggles on a daily basis. I work in a multicultural environment but I still deal with issues of being a Black woman every day. I’m consistently trying to work toward the person I want to be someday, which means I have to work through my flaws and problems. With FLAWED, I went to therapy and started meditating and exercising and really taking care of myself because otherwise, that wouldn’t come true. I’m trying to heal from love and loss, and while it’s a battle, I’m willing to take it on to become the artist I want to be. I struggle with my ideas not being heard or feeling valid, or going to different social settings and being judged for how I look.
How do you hope the healing process will change as society progresses?
I hope that we aren’t looked on as a burden or that we’re sensitive to our matter. Sometimes men say, “Oh, she’s upset because she’s on her cycle.” We all need to be true with our emotions and be honest with them instead of packaging them and trying to cover them up because we’re not ready to face them. Everyone deals with different things. I’m now at a point where I want to hibernate for a while because I’ve allowed my work to overcome me. You have to give yourself self-love or you’re not going to make it, unfortunately. I look at artists that I admire who have passed away that were dealing with substance abuse or depression and they couldn’t heal because no one was listening. Even today, people don’t listen. It takes a while but it’s also something I want to try to fix within the Black community. When I was younger I told my mom I wanted to go to therapy. Black women tell you to go to church or take a walk, but that’s not real healing and next thing you know, you’re hearing about someone taking their life or doing something harmful to themselves. It’s sad because we don’t listen or hear each other out. We need to open our eyes and ears and stop being so self-absorbed. I’m no expert; I struggle with it and I know I have to evolve or I won’t be able to go overseas or become the woman and artist I want to be someday.
Your first commercial premiered at the BET Awards this year. What did it feel like to premiere at such an esteemed event?
It was crazy because I didn’t realize the volume of what I was doing. It was surreal. We had our end of the year meeting at work and almost forgot how much work we got done! Advertising is crazy because it’s a lot of turnaround. I went to Mexico and then LA so it didn’t sink in for me till I got back home and was getting all these calls and emails. Everyone was proud of me. I got to highlight Shala and Jean Deaux. Being in this position, I wanted to make sure I was highlighting other artists. If I respect you and your work, I want to be able to put you on to get the respect and recognition you deserve. It reached a volume I never thought I would touch.
With every photo you take from here on out, how do you want others to react to them?
I want to be unapologetic and make sure every piece of work I make has integrity, passion, soul and ultimately makes you feel something. I’ve gotten great compliments that my work does that and I want to continue to do that even if I’m not photographing a person of color. I want to make sure that everything I touch feels raw, true and authentic. It’s hard to find that in this day and age where everything is retouched and re-edited. After all that, I want it to still feel real. Right now I’m going to try to take a seat and absorb everything that I’ve done. Be on the lookout for me possibly leaving Chicago, but always coming back and growing with the city and my audience as much as possible.
Written by: Andrea Carrillo