‘A Thank-You To Motherhood’: Quil Lemons on photographing his great-grandmother

For Contact Sheet, Document asks a photographer about the unseen story of a frame that defines their work.

Date: 2018

Location: South Philly

I’ve realized it’s now been two years since [this] photo has been out in the world. It’s crazy, this was from my second ever personal project. It’s a photo of my great-grandmother, Alma May Spencer-Hudson, from my series Purple (2018).

I remember I didn’t take photos for, like, six months before taking it because I had no idea what I wanted to make or what I wanted to do. At some point my family was just pestering around and were like, ‘Why don’t you photograph us; you photograph everyone else, but you never photograph us,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, wait, that could be actually really interesting.’ So I kind of just brainstormed the whole concept from there.

I reached out to dress designer Batsheva Hay. She understood the story I was going after and agreed [to lend me pieces], so I met up with her [in New York] to pick up the dresses then went home to South Philly. I kind of ambushed my family in a way. Like, my mom kind of knew that we were going to shoot, but everyone else didn’t know they were going to be a part of it. I basically wrangled all these really strong, opinionated women and said, ‘We’re shooting this,’ and they were like, ‘We don’t have time for all this glitz and glamour, but okay.’

My great-grandmother [has] sat in the same chair for all 22 years of my life. Everyday she sits in the chair, looks out the window, and that’s how the light frames her face. After I styled her in one of the dresses she sat down in her chair—she was just waiting to be photographed. I went over to her and thought, ‘No, this is the shot,’ and I took this portrait.

The women in my family work really hard, but they don’t have enough time to step back and enjoy the little things—to give all that they give to other people to themselves. For a few hours they got to be something other than a mother, they got to be larger than life in ways they don’t normally get to be. When my great-grandmother finally saw this image she was like, ‘Oh my god, that doesn’t even look like me!’ I don’t think my grandmothers, or my mother, ever really get to see themselves. Black women never get to be centered, they’re always placed at the bottom. It was nice to center my great-grandmother and show the beauty of the black woman.

My great-grandmother is one of the most important people to me. It was honestly an honor to be able to photograph her in this way. I’m really proud to know that [her image] has been cemented in books. That her image lives in The New Black Vanguard next to Beyoncé and Rihanna as a standard for black beauty. Knowing that her existence won’t be forgotten is something I’m really happy to have influenced. It’s kind of a thank-you for everything that she’s provided me in a lot of ways. A thank-you to motherhood.

Quil Lemons is a Brooklyn-based photographer. He was a finalist for Document’s The New Vanguard Photography Prize.