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'Moment Of Reflection' From The Series Ancestors, 2021, By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler Mitchell explores ancestry and Black identity

The recipient of the RPS Award for Editorial, Advertising and Fashion Photography 2021 tells the story behind a recent image

‘Ancestors’ from the collection An Imaginative Arrangement of the Things Before Me by Tyler Mitchell 


Tyler Mitchell was the first African American photographer to shoot the cover of Vogue, with his landmark portrait of singer Beyoncé for the September 2018 edition.

The achievements of the New York-based photographer go way beyond this career-defining moment, though. At just 26, he is helping to carve out a whole new aesthetic of Blackness.

He was one of 15 artists whose work featured in Antwaun Sargent’s high-profile book and exhibition The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion. Now, Mitchell has been honoured with the RPS Award for Editorial, Advertising and Fashion Photography, joining the likes of Lola Flash HonFRPS and Bruce Davidson HonFRPS in an impressive line-up of recipients for 2021.

Here, the Atlanta-born photographer shares the story behind one recent image.

“‘Ancestors’ is part of a body of work I made called An Imaginative Arrangement of the Things Before Me, a show that’s at the Gordon Parks Foundation in New York until January 2022.

“It depicts a young photographer, Denise Stephanie, and her mother, looking at each other and looking at themselves in a mirror, both in front of images of their ancestors.

“The whole body of work is sort of inspired by Parks’s images of Black families. It considers or reframes the notions of the Black home as the centre of Black life, but also considers the importance of the photographs we display in our homes as central to the way Black folks form a sense of self-determination and identity.

“The power in that image is the power of looking. As I reframe the home as the centre of Black life, there’s the act of looking between the daughter and the mother, and the act of the ancestors looking at them. There’s a huge conversation around the idea of the gaze – the camera’s gaze, the subject’s gaze, and the people who have long gone in all of our lives. This image, for me, really encapsulates looking backwards, being present, and looking forward all in one.

“There’s also a playful idea of dress. You see them putting on their earrings. You get transported to the moment where they’re about to go out of the house to who knows where, perhaps a ball or a dance. The moment is constructed, but you get immediately transported into this moment of women dressing themselves, this idea of fashion and beauty, and the power in that for Black folks to determine for themselves how they want to present themselves for the world. There’s a reclamation in that act that I think is powerful.”


Read an interview with Tyler Mitchell in a special issue of the RPS Journal celebrating the RPS Awards 2021.

The RPS Journal is available exclusively to members. Join us to receive our award-winning magazine and read more inspiring features. Explore full member benefits here