Bright Young Things: Alexis Hunley


Photos by Alexis Hunley 

Age: 29
Hometown: Los Angeles

The fact that Alexis Hunley only picked up a camera less than three years ago is kind of bewildering when you consider the depth and quality of her work. Seemingly effortlessly, the LA-based photographer manages to express movement in moments of stillness, encapsulating an entire mood or feeling in a single frame.

Inspired by her grandmother’s creativity, Alexis began pursuing photography seriously as a means to feel connected to her after she passed. Over the last three years, she’s produced some incredible bodies of work for both personal and professional projects. Last year, she created a stunningly intimate series titled Lovers or Friends?, highlighting the importance of physical touch amid a national epidemic of loneliness. But then a new affliction swept the globe, locking us inside our homes and forcing us to keep our distance from one another. Now, it’s as if those images have taken on a new meaning—serving as both pre-COVID relics and post-COVID goals.

This past month, Alexis has produced some of the most important and powerful photography to come out of the Black Lives Matter protests in Los Angeles. ‘I arrive at each protest with the understanding that I am not there simply to document, but that I am also there protesting for the rights of my community, my family, and myself’, she says. In the midst of an emotionally turbulent time, she was kind enough to answer some questions about her work, her peers, and how she keeps predicting the future through her lens.

Hey Alexis! First, let’s start with the basics. How long have you been shooting photography?

A friend of mine bought me a little 50mm lens and I started teaching myself how to shoot at the end of 2017.

What made you want to pick up a camera in the first place?

I had opportunities to pursue art but ran from them because I was scared to fail. So the more I avoided spaces where I might ‘fail,’ the more I found myself drawn to friends that were freely expressing themselves as artists. I was always so happy to be a support system for the artists in my life, providing structural and organisational support in any way possible. Remaining ‘art adjacent’ so that I could be near the art I secretly wanted to be creating without ever having to expose myself to the vulnerability that came with being authentic. And so, I played it safe.

But about three years ago, I had a moment of clarity after my grandmother passed. I was grieving and feeling lost and was searching for a way to stay connected to her. She had always been the artist of the family: taking photographs, developing film, sewing, laying tile… she did it all. I stumbled upon some old pictures I had taken over the years and they weren’t half bad. After a little more coaxing from family and friends, I decided to just go for it, and it was the greatest decision I’ve ever made.

What, or who, are some of the biggest inspirations behind your work?

So much of my inspiration has come from my contemporary peers—other Black photographers navigating an industry dominated by White men. In particular, the work of Dana Scruggs and Devin Allen have been instrumental to my growth as an artist. Learning about how they’ve managed to build such prolific bodies of work and navigate this industry while always reaching behind to pull other photographers up with them has really opened my eyes and pushed me through many difficult moments as an artist. Their work is raw and authentic and resonates with me in such an emotional way that I cannot help but be inspired.

Over the past couple of weeks, you’ve been documenting the Black Lives Matter protests in Los Angeles. What has that been like?

Documenting the protests is very emotional for me. I’ve found myself on an emotional rollercoaster riding waves of rage, despair and hope. I arrive at each protest with the understanding that I am not there simply to document, but that I am also there protesting for the rights of my community, my family, and myself. This is personal, and I carry that weight with me every time I show up with my camera.

Your photos from the protests are so powerful, and there’s a real vulnerability to some of them, too. Have you had some pretty incredible interactions with people on the streets these past couple weeks?

Honestly, direct interactions have been minimal due to COVID-19 and social distancing precautions. It is still important to me that the people I photograph feel seen and respected though, so there are lots of head nods, waves, and thumbs up exchanged.

With so much going on around you, how do you know what to focus on or where to point your camera?

I just take a moment to breathe and follow my gut. I’ve learned to trust my eye and what I am naturally drawn to—emotion, eyes, shadows, sunlight, color, and connection.

People all over the country—and all over the world—have joined the call to action, but I feel like LA has really shown up every day. Have you felt a new kind of connection or affinity to the city?

If anything, my love for Black people in my neighborhood and throughout LA has deepened. LA was the first place I felt truly deserved the title of ‘home’ and that feeling has only intensified in the past three weeks.

Moving on to some of your other work, I’d love to talk about your Lovers or Friends project. I really love the photos I have seen from it. How did it all come about?

Lovers or Friends was my opportunity to merge my love for science and art within a body of work that ties a visual narrative to the psychological facts and figures that fascinate me. Lovers or Friends is a story about the importance of intimate connections via touch in the midst of a national epidemic of loneliness. From a psychological and scientific perspective, physical touch and emotional intimacy are integral to both psychological and physical well-being. Simply put, we cannot live happy and healthy lives without them. I started this project well before quarantine began, but I think it’s safe to say that many of us have been recently reminded how important touch is to our physical and mental health.

You also just published The Inbetween, a series of images featuring your family and friends in their everyday lives. Is it hard working with people so close to you, or do you love it?

Photographing the ones I love brings me the most joy. Their pains and their joys resonate with me on the deepest level and so I truly believe that they deserve to be recognized by me for their hand in shaping my life and view of the world. I want them to feel seen and loved just as they are.

You’re able to communicate movement so well in your photos—like they are stills that move. Is a lot of your work candid? How much direction do you like to give your subjects?

Most of my work is candid. If I’m working with folks or on sets that require more direction, I’ll set scenes and give characters to help my collaborators emote and tap into an authentic emotional space.

Finally, I feel like you might be a bit of a photographic clairvoyant! In early April, you shared a photo from Pride 2019 with the caption ‘Anybody else ready for a revolution? … We cannot go back to “normal” after this’, and last year you launched Lovers or Friends and then COVID hit. What’s your next premonition? I feel like we should all be paying attention.

I didn’t even realize that, that’s a great catch on your part! Honestly, I’m not sure. As of right now, in this very moment where I’m hearing loud, explosive, seemingly commercial-grade fireworks go off at 10:08 am, I’m sensing some dark days ahead. As we head into November and the election, I am honestly nervous for what is to come. I don’t want to manifest anything negative by speaking it so I will say this—I am claiming a bright future fuelled by revolutionary change rooted in love, compassion, and accountability.

@byalexishunley

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