The Photographic Journal

Makeda Sanford

Interview 075 • Jan 6th 2020


Venturing with Makeda through her thought process makes you wistful for the hopes and dreams of a young artist while constantly grounding you in her unceasing self-awareness. Her work is no different.

You know immediately when viewing her work that you are visiting the world of a young woman in the modern age, but you are connected to the history of the art and the human experience through her vulnerability with her subjects and the point-of-view she has honed through her potent ability to be honest with herself.
-Paige Mauriello, TPJ Essays Editor

This interview has been edited for clarity and content.


I guess we’ll start officially with like how are you feeling about your work right now?

That’s a loaded question.

We ask only the deep questions.

Haha! I feel like I’m at a turning point with my work, actually. I would say I think I have less stress about defining who I am as an artist and more about, “okay I need to execute these things.”

What kind of things do you need to execute?

I just feel like I need to get my work out there more. That’s almost the easier part because I do feel like when I was stressed out about, “what is my work going to look like? How do I format my Instagram to look pretty? How do I make it cohesive?” That was, the part where I was like, okay. This is an existential nightmare, and now that I’m done with that…

What kind of conclusions did you reach?

I definitely realized that I am a feelings person, that I’m a feminine artist, that my work, no doubt, looks feminine.  It looks like a woman took it, which is a good conclusion to make, now I can lean into that. Now I know who’s who. I really didn’t know for a long time. I was really searching, so I think that I’m at a point where I don’t feel like I’m necessarily going to scream at people, “this is who I am.”


Instead I’m more like, this is who I am in this, in this magazine. Or this is who I am with this artist or with this challenge. I get to like step forward a little bit more.

Are you able to pinpoint when that happened for you?

There were some validations. When I was getting a few commissions and people were saying, “I want you to do what you already do.” You know what I mean? I met a couple of muses, a couple of people that I was like, “this makes me feel good, creating with these people.”

Do you know what it is you like to capture?

I really like to capture black women. I’m of course fascinated by my own kind.

That sentence is fascinating. I like to capture black women! They roam the streets…

Hahaha, grab them! Yeah. There was a point, this is a cool moment, I did a portfolio review for the first time.

With who?

With Blink.LA, they do a lot of production, and they have an online database of photographers. So I created an account there and then they had the portfolio review earlier this year. I went to it, well I got accepted, and Jimmy Moffat from Red Hook Labs, great guy. He told me that I don’t really photograph other people’s stories, I photograph my own. He said that I am a reflection of my work in a lot of ways and it really brought me to tears because I do take it personally and I think that it’s a good point to you know, I’m not necessarily…I studied journalism and I studied to be outside of the frame, to be objective, to be an outsider looking in and I’m not that really. I’m an Insider. I like to be inside of my own work.

What did that change for you?

It just made me feel like all the emotion that I feel from photographing is valid, that it actually looks like I am soft with my subjects and I communicate with them and they feel comfortable. That that was really nice to hear. I heard some bad stuff that day too. But…

What was bad stuff?

I picked to get reviewed by a museum coordinator. Which is very different than my work, honestly. I don’t really shoot for museums. But she was the only black woman on the list. So I felt…

It was important.

Yeah, it was important. She works for the MOMA, and she didn’t like my work and she was the first one and I really respected what she said, some of the things kind of hurt and were kind of false, but I think that a lot of what she said was good to hear because she said that the photographs of black women in my portfolio were very serious or very kind of cold. She said that we have enough.


She literally said we have enough of black women looking angry. We have enough of black women looking like too serious, or too posed, she said, “why don’t you have black women smiling in your portfolio?”


I was like, “well damn I have other photos of black women smiling, black women do smile around me!” But I think that she made a good point. And since then I’ve definitely been shooting more smiley, more comfortable, cozier photos of the black women subjects I do shoot.

But it’s not a critique of the quality.

Mhmm, yeah, it was the content.

What was it that made you switch from journalism to photography?

I’ve always kind of done photography. I started doing it when I was 13, and at first it was really stupid stuff.  Eventually I started doing self-portraits and being interested more in fashion. I had been interested in fashion as a kid. I didn’t really know about photography as a viable thing and when I went to school I wanted to do something very practical, something like technical, and also my school’s photography programs were not really great.

Where did you go to?

UNC Asheville. I just didn’t vibe well with one of the professors and there were two in the whole photography department. That was a weird feeling. I was thinking that I can study what I love doing, but I did love journalism just as much. And then I tried to incorporate it as much as I could.

Did you initially want to be photojournalist?

I actually did want to do photojournalism, yeah. I got disenchanted by it. A lot of job cuts were happening while I was in school. Like the New York Times doesn’t have many staff photographers. Freelance was almost the only option you know, so I was like, “well I don’t want to be freelance immediately. I actually do have a job right now.”

Oh yeah? Where are you working?

Gizmo Media. I do social media editing for them.  So I do journalism a little bit. Eventually, of course, I am just going to do photography. I would like to kind of put my energy all into one thing. I feel like it would feel better. And not so much stress, haha!

Where do you go for criticism?

Criticism…honestly, close friends. I typically have very honest friends, friends that I have creatively collaborated with, so I usually go to them. And then I’m definitely looking for more of a mentor now, living in New York, just all that comes with it.

You talk about trying to be happy about having found your style, is that something you were always trying to develop?

Not super-consciously, it was this mantra in your head as a photographer, you hear, “develop your portfolio, you have to get paid because of your portfolio.”


And “what have you done outside of weddings” or whatever, and I knew that was what was going to put me in a good position once I got here. So it was more, at the time, stressing about “my portfolio needs to look great.” And in that I think I’ve developed my style, developed my mood.

Were you conscious of it being cohesive?

Yeah, definitely was, I think it was super-important because a lot of my inspiration, you know, a lot of photographers that are getting paid, their work looks consistent the entire time. It changes per client or per subject, but it’s really similar and I can’t just like switch up all the time, like slap a BSU filter on stuff and not be conscious, you know.

What kind of people were you looking at?

Recently I was looking at Renell (Medrano), I was looking at Petra (Collins), Harley Weir, the edgy ones… I felt like my work wasn’t super-edgy but I felt like if I strive to be a little edgier, I feel like something cool could come out of it.

What does edgy mean to you?

Unafraid to be gritty and confident in that, you know, I feel like first I was really inspired by the technical perfection, I was inspired by… “this photo is very crisp, the bokeh is super beautiful, the equipment is just top tier,” that kind of stuff. And then after you get and I was like, “how did how did these edgy women photographers do this shit so cool??”

Did you find that the people you admired changed as your appreciation developed?

Yeah, early on I was a Flickr person, back in the day, and I was looking at specs all the time. I was like, “this quality is beautiful.” The really annoying metadata. It’s great to look at. You need it at a certain point. There was a point where I was like, emotional quality, you can’t buy that. Or you can’t learn the right settings for that, you know, and I think that’s when I started aspiring more in the direction of these women who can pick up a point and shoot and make it look fire.


And now I don’t necessarily look up to them, but I do really really appreciate what they did for the culture and what they do, yeah, just fire.

Moving to New York, did you find a photo community here?

Yeah, I do have a little photo community. It’s little!  I  began building it before I got here, through social media, and I’ve met a lot of people. Miranda Barnes I would say is one, she’s really good at just putting herself in the right places, in the right positions, and doing work that honors her. Her and a couple of other people just inspire me, just for their work ethic and for talking to me! The fact that they talk to me!

I really like them because they talk to me.

They actually talk to me! Haha, I appreciate them.

How have you found the city, in terms of artistic inspiration?

I’ve always been inspired by New York, for sure. I take more walks here. Even if I don’t have to. I work from home, for the most part, so I would walk around a mile. I’ll go explore a little bit more here, which has been really good for my head, too. For my mental state. And people are just interesting in New York. I’ve seen more art, more culture, you know, who would have known!

How long were you in Asheville?

I was in Asheville for five years. In college, I took a break, so it ended up being five years. Hopefully I can make five years in New York. It’s been a long year, haha!

Does this feel like a place you can put down roots, or is this a stop on a longer journey?

I would like to stay, yeah. I don’t feel like I would feel normal anywhere else now, haha! I might like to move after awhile, maybe after the five year mark, that might be an okay time to leave. I’m not worried about getting tired of it, it’s hard to get tired of. You can get frustrated with it, you can get very frustrated.

But not bored.

Yeah, not necessarily bored.

Are there other specific places you want your work to be seen, that you’re aiming for?

That’s a good question. I would like to go to Europe. I would like to spend some time in Europe. And I would like to try LA, mostly just because I love film and I’ve been doing behind the scenes for some movie sets. And it’s been exciting, so I wouldn’t mind trying it out. I wouldn’t mind the weather you know, it’s a little plus. I also think that my work might do well in LA, I don’t know, it might transform a little bit from being in New York for so long, but you never know. I’m a very open person, so if somebody tries to sign me or something and I happen to be in LA, like, okay!

Do you have a vision of what kind of career you want?

You know, I thought I did, haha! I thought I was so sure but this past year has been a lot for me.

What did you initially envision it to be?

I thought I was going to be a studio photographer, I was going to have a nice, cute studio here and just like be in the model/fashion world. But when you’re poor and you only have access to nature…hahaha. I really love being on location and being more explorative with stuff so that’s not really me anymore. And being…just multifaceted, being a writer and doing film sets, having this whole other side of me, I think that it would be cooler if I was maybe in production or if I did a little bit more hands-on stuff. Create a career kind of thing, haha!

What are the pieces you want to put together?

I would probably love to be like a director, too. I’m leaning more into that. Producer…

In terms of narrative stuff or documentary work?

Narrative, yeah. It’s a completely different head space than writing journalism, writing articles, so that’s what I’ve been trying to transition out of, but yeah, I think it would be cool to do more narrative work.

Are there directors that you’re looking up to?

I have some directors I really like. Melina Matsoukas, have you ever heard of her? She used to direct music videos a lot back in the golden age of hip hop stuff. She’s doing her first feature film this year. She’s dope. If I can do something on that level, I would love to do something fun like that. I would like to do fashion film, too. I really like fashion films, I will literally sit and watch them, I don’t feel like a lot of people just sit and watch fashion films, but like, Kenzo, they do amazing fashion films, just weird stuff. Music videos, maybe.

I’m very analytical, I think that would help being a producer. I’m not necessarily only an artist, you know what I mean, so I think that I should lend a hand to the artists that don’t have that other side. Because I feel their pain, haha.

And you’ve been getting into that world more?

A little bit, yeah. I’ve been dipping my toe a little bit. I was asked to be on a feature film last year as a behind the scenes photographer, and so yeah, I was really asking lots of questions! I was sitting with the producers the whole time, like, “what is this world like?”

And you liked it?

I really liked it!  I was very grateful that I just got randomly asked to do it.

Are you worried about being pigeon-holed at all?

Yeah, I am but I try…it’s really funny. I was with a photo editor and I was doing my questions. I was asking a lot of questions and she told me, “your work is…there’s a lot of black women in your portfolio. You need to like, you know, change it up a little bit.” She said Diversify to me.

Which is funny when it’s being used to say “more white people.”

Literally! And I was just thinking, “before this year, I only shot white people, besides my best friends.” And so it’s really funny that I’m being asked to shoot more white people.

Why do you think that was?

Well, it was because of where I was, and it was easier, more white people than anything else and it was just easier to be like, “okay cool I’ll shoot with you.” Then you look down and you’re like, “I haven’t shot a black girl in two years!” So yeah, I really pulled the chord on it for a minute and that’s the work that I show, the work with my black girl friends. So it’s so funny that she’s like, “yeah you know, I don’t want you to feel pigeon-holed eventually, and people only ask you to shoot when there’s a black woman cover.” and I was like, “you’re right, but also, I’m good off that for a minute. Like dang!” Haha! But yeah, I do try to mix it up a little bit sometimes.

And finally: which do you prefer: the process or the result?

Yeah, hmm. The process. I think that, being in this place of, I don’t have a lot of interactions with…I don’t go out a lot.

Well, you’re old now!

Right right, I’m old now! A lot of the times the photo shoot is my social time, it’s my communion almost, it’s fun for me. And then I love editing. The time before editing, I get like, “oh god I have to edit, it sucks,” but once I’m in it, it’s fine. I do really like it. The result kind of gives me anxiety, haha!

Why is that?

Sometimes it’s hard to share. And then you have a response…when it’s yours and you have it and you’re excited, it’s fun, it’s better for me. Sending my finals I’m like, “oh gosh, okay.”