Chanda Hopkins On Using Photography As A Gateway To Life

“I shot in Brooklyn, when people weren’t shooting in Brooklyn. Well…when people WERE shooting in Brooklyn actually! Chanda softly laughs at the double irony of the times, as Kings County was an entirely different land only a few years ago, and black women photographers were barely thought about in the genre. Her gentle voice is a subtle reminder that there is such a quiet strength in being a black woman and a creative in a world that is still trying to process exactly what that means. Chanda Hopkins is a renaissance woman who embodies the full definition of ARTIST, creating through many different mediums, though photography is her consistent passion.

Ms. Hopkins is an abundant artist/photographer who has been shooting all of her life, her earliest recollection being utterly fascinated with a square flashbulb that belonged to her mother’s Kodak 126 camera. “I remember just turning it around over and over because I was just obsessed with the light.” When she was nine years old, she was given a 110 camera and produced her first photoshoot with a group of friends on the army base they lived at in England. Her passion for photography continued when her family moved back to the states, where she also found a newfound love making up the models she had in front of her camera. “I remember doing a photo shoot with a friend, when I was thirteen and it was a mess, blue eyeshadow EVERYWHERE.” Chanda’s face lights up recalling the memory. As her love of makeup grew, Chanda eased into making her own crafted works by styling models, doing their makeup, and shooting them. She worked in a salon and obtained a celebrity clientele (Billy Dee Williams and The Bush family were among her patrons). Ms. Hopkins has also shot images that have been featured in Nylon, Essence, Time Magazine, and Modern Bride. Her reflection on her career is quite a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs. However, she views it as an ultimate triumph, as she discovered photography as an extension of herself and her spiritual growth. Here are some tips on how to elevate and express your life through photography.

At times Chanda’s work reflects a deeper message that always occurs through happenstance.

Your art is always an extension of your soul– Here’s a tip. If you want to get to know a photographer, you can gain a lot of insight into who they are by taking a look at what they happen to capture. Chanda believes that the camera is literally a physical manifestation of the spiritual connection. (That sounds kind of heavy doesn’t it?…but in a good way…) “I saw it, I captured it, and it came into being.” Your photography is all about YOU capturing life as YOU see it. Because ultimately this is your life, so you’re capturing events that are frozen in time, and are also eternally alive. (Deep I know…)

Use What You Have– Chanda explains this matter of factly. “Don’t let anyone tell you about what you don’t have. I remember back then in the 90s, it was unheard of for anyone without formal training to do photography. Especially if you were a woman. ESPECIALLY if you were a black woman.” But I just knew what I loved. So there used to be the “Black Book” which noted all the black talent in production at the time. I was nominated as the “Top emerging photographer in New York,” and the creative director, a white guy, viewed my portfolio and called me in to tell me he really liked my work and he was interested to know what camera I was using at the time. I’m sure he expected me to say something expensive and fancy, but here I was using a Kodak EasyShare point and shoot camera at the time. I was embarrassed to say it, but when he heard that, he said well you’re really on to something because people spend thousands of dollars to achieve what you have here.” You don’t have to a super fancy camera. As you continue to work on your path, it will come.”

Much of Chanda’s work expounds on aesthetic perfection, as she crafts images that rich in color and curation.

Participate in an artist’s collective– Chanda believes being around like-minded individuals will only make you stronger. “So I was afraid of doing photography within a studio setting, and I’m so grateful that I participated in an artist space because it gave me the opportunity to learn something I was terrified of. I also still have some amazing relationships with artists to this day. It’s an invaluable experience.

Don’t Be Stingy With Your Greatness“- Bible verse Matthew 5:15 came to mind, as Chanda said this over the course of our interview. “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” If you feel the fear of starting out, consider this. You have this bright light inside of you and it is ultimately reflected in your art. Can you be so humble as to let your artistry shine for the world? Chanda often speaks on the force of God in her life and artistry, and how she felt led to document things happening by chance.

Black Art Cannot Be Contained In A Box– According to Chanda, your art doesn’t have to be defined by an overt show of blackness. “There was a time when I was inspired by Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, and people would actually get angry at me because my art didn’t look black. I thought about it and thought, my art doesn’t have to have some kind of Kente cloth for it to be “Black art.” I’m black. Therefore, all of my art is black regardless of the subject.”

“I took this picture on 9/11 just moments before the second tower fell. I was heading to the World Trade Center that morning because I was going to get my tax ID. I had just started selling my art. All of a sudden my friend told me that it was Red Dawn and to grab my camera. I did and we ran out of the house. So we walked to this little boardwalk where we could see the second tower burning and my friend just dropped to his knees and started praying. A few minutes later the second tower fell and the police cleared the area because they had received a possible bomb threat because there was a baseball field with a flag flying. When I came back to myself after all the devastation, I gave the pictures on that roll to a gallery in Soho. I didn’t want them at the time. It was too much pain.” 

Chanda recalls documenting the turmoil of 9/11. This photo is currently featured in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas.

You Don’t Have To Be Good at Everything-After fourteen years in the business, Chanda’s work is highly requested and demand has surpassed her as a sole proprietor. The future of her freelance photography business involves expanding to hire another individual to tackle the back-end parts of her operation. She believes that you don’t have to do it all yourself. “Listen black women have been told they have to do everything, and look I’m a photographer, I can sew, I can cook and bake, do I REALLY need to know how to fill out a spreadsheet too?”

Considering the fact that black women have been the most silenced voice PERIOD, and photography has been catered to and defined by the completely opposite demographic. Even though black women have made fantastic contributions to the art, they are just now receiving the attention and accolades they deserve. Chanda Hopkins is a black woman photographer who is a force in the industry as she tackles all genres of beauty, editorial, lifestyle, and fashion and we are excited to see what she will be producing in the future. You can view her work here as well as on Getty Images!

Chanda Hopkins in her glory!

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