Kris Nevaeh is a Boston-based photographer of over ten years. Nevaeh discusses her interest in art therapy, the importance of documenting and celebrating Black culture, and some of the philosophy behind her work with Christian Lin. Edited by Julia Ruiz Borys.
CL: Would you mind introducing yourself, what you do, and how you see yourself and your art?
KN: My name is Kris Nevaeh. I call myself Kris Nevaeh because it’s familiar to two parts of my life. Kris, my first name, the name almost everyone in the outside world knows me as. Then Nevaeh, my middle name, what my family knows me as. I’m often asked which I prefer & honestly, it’s whichever feels most comfortable to the person.
A big inspiration with my work is Black women and Black youth. With youth, the arts aren’t really introduced in marginalized communities, even growing up, I rarely saw those opportunities to join art programs. That wasn’t really accessible to me in school. I feel like it’s really important to bring that to youth of color especially in terms of mental health, learning emotional intelligence, & creating outlets for their creativity/ experiences. This is what drives me to obtain my own practice as an art therapist & create a way to use photography as a therapeutic outlet for youth of color.
With Black women, I feel like we’re put into certain boxes within the media, in this society in general honestly, and we’re told how we’re supposed to fit into them. We’re all very versatile, and for me, I feel like Black women are made to feel like we can’t go outside of those roles when we can be anything we want to be all at once. I love that Black women embracing their beauty in every form is being seen a lot more, we’re gaining more representation, & seeing more Black women of many spectrums enter the media but we are only scratching the surface. We have to keep pushing & growing. That is also the inspiration of my work.
Model: Troi Lewis-huff
CL: Are there any artists or photographers that influence your art?
KN: A big one is Carrie Mae Weems, she’s an amazing artist and photographer. Her Kitchen Table Series is my absolute favorite & keeps me in awe. I feel the same way about artists like Kara Walker, Basquiat, & Kerry James Marshall. They tell a story with their work & make such an impact. I hope to have that same effect someday. Although I do a lot more editorial work, I want to create work that tells a story. Mine & others’. I want to make a way to tell stories of Black experiences.
CL: Each of your pictures is usually one individual, how do you describe your intentions of each picture, or your motive for your shots?
KN: I feel like when I create a concept, it’s tailored to that person, who they are, inside & out. So that way I can capture them at their most confident and most comfortable. Sometimes vice versa, I think of the concept then think of someone who would fit perfectly in the aesthetic. If I think of the person before the concept, I have them work with me to build the concept.
I love capturing multiple people at once but there’s something more intentional, intimate, & raw about focusing on one person. You really SEE them, you know? Even if I’m doing a group shoot, I try to capture individual shots where I see they’re at their most comfortable. I look for candid moments like that.
CL: Can you give me an example?
There’s this shoot I did with my friend Sabrina, and she passed away in 2018, but a few months before she passed, I took photos of her. She’s in a museum and she’s wearing a white bandaged outfit. I remember, I was like “I want you to look like you’re a piece of art in the museum, but you stand out.” She’s a stylist so she already had the perfect outfit in mind & I told her she had full creative control of that. Which was the point of my concept, SHE is the art. I trusted completely however she showed up, it’d be perfect. I admired her so much. Still do. & I’m immensely grateful we did that shoot.
CL: Is there a reason why capturing who they are is so important?
KN: I feel like, a lot of times, when it comes to people of color, it’s not about who they are. With Black fashion, a lot of people want what we have, but they don’t ever want to actually be us, or never see us as valuable outside of our culture. To capture who someone is rather than just what they’re wearing is very important to me. It’s like you know this person & you couldn’t imagine this setting, this space, being for anyone else but this person. They are a part of the scene, without them it would be something completely different.
CL: Asking as someone who knows nothing about photography, what’s your process like? I know a lot of it comes to you during the concept, but how do you work through it all?
KN: So when I think of a concept, it literally starts with an idea or an item. So I’ll see, like, a couch, and I’m just going to go based off this couch, and I build off of there. If my cousin, Troi, who I shoot with a lot, has a really cool top, I’ll be like, “Okay, we’re going to build a whole theme based around this top.” I usually ask the muse for input as well. We just build from that one item, and most times, it’s very sporadic. I feel like I’ve never written down what we’re supposed to do, I just go in and once we have it all planned, we pick a day.
I’m very big on nostalgia. I love that feeling. Even in terms of like, early 2000s fashion. I think there’s something really nostalgic about it because it reminds me a lot of my childhood. So when I look at it, I think about who I was as a kid, going into my teen years, what was going on around that time, the music videos I watched, the clothes my friends and I wore, all of that.
CL: I can really see that influence in your work, and that sense of spontaneity is there in the best way. What’s something you hope people take away from your work? Is that nostalgia something you want them to feel?
KN: In a sense, yes, I want them to feel that nostalgia. Almost like when you look at an old family photo & you can literally feel the atmosphere as if you were right there. I also want them to not only see what I see in my muses, but get a glimpse of who the person really is, like I was talking before.
I do feel like I want to do more. When I talk about Carrie Mae Weems, I want to really target the Black experience, and like sending a message. I want to tell more stories with my work.
CL: I also want to talk about psychology, since you studied it at Lesley. Your website says that you want to connect art therapy & photography. How did that start out for you?
KN: I started off at Bunker Hill Community College as a Fine Arts major. I decided to take psychology for the science requirement, and the moment I took the first class, I was like, This is something I want to do. I thought I wanted to be a therapist, and just go get my Master’s in Psychology. Then… the more I started talking to people in the social work field and the more I actually worked in similar fields, I realized that I actually wanted to do social work.
I want to bring safety to marginalized groups and inner city communities, especially my own community. I feel very fortunate growing up in a family that was very open minded in terms of mental health. I know a lot of people in the Black community don’t believe in mental health diagnoses because of what they went through, like slavery, or more recently, mass incarceration. Being imprisoned with maximum sentences for minor crimes. I can see why seeing a therapist or seeking mental health can look like just another thing in the system that is just white people telling them that they’re crazy or telling them that something else is wrong with them. I can only imagine how it is, especially with other people of color, where certain cultural or religious practices outside of American and European ideologies aren’t taken into consideration in terms of mental health . To grasp mental health is very different for everybody which is why we need more diversity in the psychology field.
I realized through art therapy classes that you don’t really learn things like photography, and how that plays a role in art therapy. You learn dance, singing, drawing as the only visual art, or acting. Which was all great, I want to do all of that, but I want to figure out a practice where you can use photography. I want to give kids hands-on things to do. The only thing I can think of in my head is things like, getting the funding to rent out cameras, giving them to the kids, then they can bring them back. Teaching them to use editing tools like Photoshop & Lightroom so they can creatively express EXACTLY how they want to. As long as you get the point across that they can take pictures, similar to how you take a sketchbook home and just draw your feelings, or take a drawing prompt, they can take a photo prompt that can be due to show by next session or class.
Essentially that is what motivated me behind pursuing my education. But my end goal is to have my own practice as an art therapist. And I want to start here in Boston, where I grew up, but then hopefully it can expand out and work in my favor.
CL: So as you said, expressive art therapy is still a pretty new field, and even in that field, there’s a hierarchy. Music therapy is pretty established, and then some others before photography, so what is unique to photography therapy that you wouldn’t find in other forms of art therapy?
KN: One thing I’ve always loved about photography, or just images in general, like I have so many family photos of us as kids, and I love them so much. It’s memories and experiences. There’s so many times that I think of memories, and I just wish I could relive that day, or I see an image and remember the entire atmosphere. It’s just like writing, because I write as well, and I’ll go back and reread old journals and understand what I was feeling at that moment, and I can see how I progressed from there. You can do those same things with photos.
It’s easy as an artist to be hard on yourself, because you know you could be better than you are now. But I look back at older photos and I go, “I’m definitely somewhere else than where I started.” I feel photography can have that same effect with mental health & growing as a person, especially when growth is not a linear process. It’s hard to see your progression when you don’t look back to where you started from time to time & reflect on that. Photography allows you to track that. It’s such a bittersweet feeling to realize where you were mentally, and then where you’re at now. If it’s a better space, or even if it’s a worse space, it’s important to give individuals the option to track their journey how they want to.
CL: I have to ask since it’s so foreign to me, how do you look at a picture and see a journal entry in it? Yeah, I journal what I feel during the day, how do you do that with photos?
KN: I saw this in a show once where there was a person who had been physically abused, and it had done a number on their mental health as well. What they did was, they took pictures over time of their outer body, of their bruises. As their bruises healed, and he saw physical changes in his body, he saw changes in his mood. We often tell ourselves when something traumatic happens that it’s temporary, but you often don’t feel it. When you can actually see that progress, this character for example, you could see that not only their bruises went away, but you could see it in their face. They are starting to feel better and that they’re working towards getting to a better space.
CL: A lot of your pictures are of other people, though. Do you take pictures of yourself to track that?
KN: I actually started this quarantine! I thought it was so weird that my biggest muse is Black women and I don’t take pictures of myself. It’s not that I don’t like to, because I really like having my picture taken. I’ve always loved artists, and if they’re interested in making me their muse, I love to see how other people see me. And I don’t judge that either, I don’t think of anyone as a bad artist. But, I never thought to be my own muse. If I thought of a concept, I always thought of someone else.
It wasn’t until quarantine where I wasn’t shooting and I wasn’t doing well mentally. I I had the urge to shoot but felt like I couldn’t. Until I thought to step out of my comfort zone & take my first self portrait series. I hadn’t really taken self portraits unless it was to test out my camera until around April of 2020. I’ve done 6 or 7 series after that. It’s definitely taught me a new found love for myself and creativity.
Self Portrait for Leica’s ‘Leica Women Foto Project: Inward/Outward’
Models: Kris Nevaeh & Cameron Teleau (Instagram: @Cameronteleau)
CN: You talked about how there are so many stereotypes within the Black community. But on a larger spectrum, it’s as if racism is not thought to be as present. So media has a large effect on how people perceive racism and what’s actually happening. Where do you see your art or photography influencing the larger societal understanding of race relations?
KN: It’s easy, especially when you’re in a group that isn’t marginalized, when you see successful people of color, like, Beyoncé, it’s easy to go, “Look, these people are succeeding here!” And of course there’s been progression through decades but that doesn’t mean that systematic oppression has been changed & is dealt with. It doesn’t change the fact that inner city school systems are severely disadvantaged than suburban schools, and it’s no coincidence that those in inner city schools consist of majority Black/PoC students. Those in a higher class and better school systems, they’re majority white. We can’t deny that this system was not built with the intent to help Black people and PoC to succeed. At least not easily. And that’s what I mean when I say I wanna make a bigger impact when it comes to those topics, specifically, when I create work. That’s the impact I really want to make, in terms of hitting on those societal standpoints. I want to send a message, even if it may not be the most popular message. It’s just something that needs to be said.
In terms of my editorial work, there is definitely racism & colorism. Black fashion is always deemed too much or “ghetto” when it’s on the Black person themself. But it’s cooler or trendier on someone else, who doesn’t even own that culture. Then Black fashion is depicted on Black bodies. It can sometimes be exaggerated like “this is what real Black people are supposed to look like” No, I’m Black everyday, I’m versatile. No matter what I wear or do, I’m still back. Speaking of lack of versatility, colorism is something that plays a big part in the media. Black people and PoC come in many different shades which are not depicted a lot in editorial work or media in general which needs to change.
To me, it’s more than just what I’m wearing or the concept I’m doing, it’s me as a person. I want that to be seen everywhere, I want that versatility to be everywhere. And that even goes into like, the stylists; who does the hair, who does the makeup. There’s so many times in industries where Black women have to do their own hair because the stylists that are hired don’t know how to work their hair. Like, have you heard of ‘The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’? It’s a revamp of the show ‘Sabrina the teenage witch’ from the early 2000s, and there’s a Black girl on there, Tait, Gabrielle, who plays a witch named Prudence, who has finger waves. Everyone asked her who her stylist was, and came to find out that she had been doing her own hair. That’s happened a lot with Black women in the entertainment and modeling industry. They end up being left to do their own stuff. That’s why it’s important to have representation in every aspect. As the photographer, I’m someone who likes to be involved with the concept and the styling — like if I’m being hired as the photography & that only, of course I’ll just show up, but if I can have a say in anything, and I had the money to do it, I want the stylists and makeup artists to be Black and PoC. People of color deserve that when they’re being tended to because they know their hair is gonna be treated right, and they’ll know the best ways.
CL: It seems like you definitely do your research when it comes to your projects. Is there one that comes to mind when you think of representation and versatility, and the impact of the experience of collaborating?
KN: There’s one that was important to me. It was one I took of my cousin I took at the Museum of Fine Arts, and she’s wearing a sequined dress. The whole point of it was “Black women in white spaces,” like predominantly white art spaces, taking up that space. When you think about it, Black people are always more conscious about white feelings or white tears than our own, and we’re always afraid to take up space. We’re always catching ourselves to have that second thought before we react, or say things in the kindest way possible especially in moments we have the right to be angry or frustrated. A lot of us have been conditioned to think about how to make everyone else comfortable even when we were the ones made to feel uneasy. So I wanted to make her look as dolled up as possible. I had her wear heels and did her make-up really nice. She even wore her afro out, which is something that was very important to me because she barely wears her afro out. But I also made sure she felt comfortable with her appearance because I wanted her to feel confident.
Model: Troi Lewis-huff
CL: I can see the shameless energy in your pics, too. Even if the model’s expressions were blank, they’re still very high energy. It exudes in each of your photos. Speaking of being Black in white spaces, I want to talk about the art scene here in Boston. What changes do you think need to be done to support artists of color?
KN: Um, well one thing I already know from being raised in Boston is that Boston is a very historical town, or maybe just Massachusetts is very historical. We’re not really known for our art. But growing up, I’ve always been around artistic people, before I picked up photography, I was into dancing. I was always around dancers and visual artists. It’s a very weird thing for me to see a lot of those meet & greets, table talks, or pannells, with artists where they discuss the arts scene in Boston, and they say, “The art scene in Boston is very recent, new, up & coming.” And I’ve just felt like… it’s always been here, I’ve always seen it. but at the time it was just… Black. It was literally just people of color who were in these art scenes, and really young too. What’s good is that I feel like the people I grew up with, I get to see them get their flowers basically, and seeing them thrive in this art scene is amazing. I do think we need to work on how… competitive the scene can be, it very much has this energy that there isn’t enough “space” for everyone. It just doesn’t feel like the most supportive art city.
There’s this energy that’s like, there’s only space for a set amount of people, who’s in this crowd, or had this clout…it becomes kind of hard to bring in new people — who could possibly bring something new & innovative to the table. It’s not a shared space, which can be kind of hard. It comes to a point where it’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know. It makes you realize who is really there for you and who is not, and who is really about your work and supporting your work.
I definitely think we should actively make more space for people from Boston, Like, Pro Blak. I’ve known of his work & how talented he is for about 20 years now when my friends would go to Artist for Humanity. To me, he’s just now getting the flowers he deserves. Or Rob Stull who literally was an artist Marvel AND DC comics, Boston bred, yet why don’t I hear his name more? I feel like there’s a lot of the times when we highlight Boston artists, especially when they’re white, they won’t be from Boston. I’m not saying you have to be born here, but oftentimes they don’t know the city, the people, or what it’s like to be a person in Boston and the impact that has. If you haven’t been here long enough to make an impact in Boston then how can you even talk to someone about your impact here? I don’t want to take away from anyone’s work or what they’ve been through, because they’re really great artists regardless & should get their flowers in some way, shape or form. I’m not even trying to say it should be me, I’m in my own lane, I focus on my own things, and what’s meant for me will truly be for me. It just strikes me weird to see these Boston artists and they talk about their impact in the “new” Boston art scene when, quite frankly, if they were really a “Boston artist” they’d know the art scene has ALWAYS been here what it’s like for that to finally get recognition instead acting as if they’re apart of a new movement.
CL: Looking ahead, with the upcoming projects, how would you draw within the past two years or so over COVID but also just 2020 to now in 2022, how has that changed anything you want to do in the future? Also is there anything you want to spotlight that’s coming up?
KN: I definitely will be doing more self-portraits. I feel like that’s something that’s now becoming more of a series of mine that I’m getting excited for. I’m trying to dig deeper and push my limits for myself, because everyone has their own comfort zone.
Like I said before, I also want to do more long-winded series about the impact of the Black experience, especially in Boston. Now that I’m more used to creating more from home, and now I have more photo space that I didn’t have before. It’s definitely getting me going on ideas on how I can portray all of that.
CL: Well thank you so much, I appreciate the time you took to speak with me. I wish you the best!
KN: Of course! Thank you so much for letting me talk to you and thank you for letting me ramble a lot. I enjoyed it.