Feature Story, Women's Lifestyle

Piper Carter Talks Photographing Erykah Badu and the Advice She’d Give Women Photographers

The 2nd Annual ROCK THAT Photography Conference and Trade Show starts tomorrow. Are you going? The three-day conference will be held at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Michigan from July 25th to the 27th. 

I plan on attending the conference and learning more about what ROCK THAT has to offer. Although I’m not a professional photographer, I do dabble in street photography as a hobby. I’m looking forward to learning new photography techniques and connecting with other photography professionals and enthusiasts!

ROCK THAT Photography Conference and Trade Show
Photo credit: ROCK THAT

I’m particularly interested in attending the women’s discussion panel “Diamonds are Made Under Pressure.” The main focus of the women’s panel will be on how female photographers achieve industry success despite facing various hardships and sexism.

Photographers Audrey Woulard, Kesha Lambert, Kathryn Bethencourt, Victoria Pavlov, Jenn Lewis, Tracy Page, Piper Carter, and Jenny Risher are the featured panelists for the women’s panel. While Robyn Robinson will serve as the moderator. 

ROCK THAT Photography Conference and Trade Show
Photo credit: ROCK THAT

INTERVIEWING PIPER CARTER

A few weeks ago, I connected with Piper Carter to learn more about her photography career. You may be surprised to know I actually didn’t find out Piper was a professional photographer until this past year.

In the four years, I have lived in Michigan, I have always known her as Piper Carter an activist and community organizer. Mainly because I have attended a few events she has co-founded and organized in Detroit, such as Dilla Youth Day (in honor of the late J. Dilla) and We Found Hip Hop (a yearly celebration of women hip hop artists). 

Piper Carter
Photo credit: Piper Carter

Piper’s list of achievements within the photography industry is quite impressive. For instance, her first photography internship was assisting the first Black White House photographer in the first Bush Administration. Her first photography exhibition was at The Majestic and her first photography apprenticeship was in NYC where she worked with top fashion photographers.

Piper’s photography work has been featured four times on Tyra Banks’ VH1 TV show “The Shot.” She is the first Black woman to shoot for high-end publications such as French Vogue, British Elle, New York Times, Spin, & Essence magazines. 

She is the host the Piper Carter Podcast on Detroit is Different. On her podcast show, she discusses social justice and hip hop. Piper is also the creator and editor-in-chief for thestudioarena.com– a sustainable fashion magazine promoting zero waste and international trade. 

And this is just to name a few of her accolades! 

It was a pleasure to connect with Piper and learn more about her amazing work. She is such an inspiration! During our phone interview, Piper shared who her favorite photographer is, one of her favorite photography projects, and what advice she would give women photographers today.

Piper Carter
“…there are so many opportunities. Don’t just get caught up in a couple of different opportunities. Go out there and try to find new things.” (Photo courtesy of Piper Carter)

JENNIFER HAMRA (JH): Why do you love photography?

PIPER CARTER: “I’ve always loved fashion photography. I’ve always loved looking at foreign lands and wanting to travel. Once I became a photographer, I began to have access to travel.

Within the travel, what I really love is meeting new people– learning about them, their culture, the things they do. I really love being able to pull out something that’s really special about people, which means I love photographing people.”

JH: Do you remember the first camera you had?

PIPER CARTER: “Canon AE1 35mm camera. I shot 35mm film.” 

JH: Do you have a favorite photographer who you love or who has really influenced you?

PIPER CARTER: “I would say historically, Gordon Parks, for sure. He’s my number one. I have very many, but if I have to say one, he’s my one. I had a similar path as him. He’s the first Black photographer to shoot for Vogue. He was also one of the photographers that was chosen during the New Deal to go around the country and document people.

There was a group of photographers that were hired to go all over the country to go to different towns and document people. This was right after the Depression. He photographed so many people– lots of Black people and Black life.”

Gordon Parks
Gordon Parks, Self-Portrait, 1941, gelatin silver print, 50.8 × 40.64 cm (20 × 16 in.), Private Collection. Photo credit: The Gordon Parks Foundation
Gordon Parks Photography
Gordon Parks, Washington, D.C. Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman, with three grandchildren and her adopted daugther, July 1942, gelatin silver print, printed later, Corcoran Collection (The Gordon Parks Collection), 2016.117.106

“Before his career at Life, Gordon Parks was a staff photographer for the Farm Securities Administration. Formerly titled the Resettlement Administration, the FSA was a New Deal agency created to assist rural America during the Great Depression. Within the FSA, the Special Photographic Section was established as a means of recording images of Americans devastated by the loss of their livelihood. With Roy Stryker at its head, photographers were given assignments or suggestions, and sent throughout the country. Their efforts produced countless emotionally stirring and unforgettable images that continue to inspire us today. “

The Gordon Parks Foundation

PIPER CARTER: “He has some really famous photographs of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, but he also has famous photographs of different farmers and people all across the United States and different dignitaries and Leadership. He photographed the Daughters of the American Revolution. He photographed Marian Anderson who was the first Black opera singer. 

He’s really a pioneer Black photographer, but just a pioneer American photographer. His place in history is very valued for his vision and techniques and the stories that he chose to tell and his perspective.” 

American Gothic by Gordon Parks
American Gothic by Gordon Parks. This is one of Parks’ famous portraits of Ella Watson, a woman who worked as a c at the White House. Photo credit: Gordon Parks, photographer, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [Reproduction number e.g., LC-USZ62-12345]

JH: What is one of your favorite photography projects?

PIPER CARTER: “I was blessed many years ago when she first started– I photographed Erykah Badu for Spin magazine. That one was really important to me because she represented my generation. She represented hip hop and free thought, and she was a Black woman forging her own way at a time when R&B was all about weave, hair, lots of makeup, and being hypersexual. Showing off your sexual body– assets and things. The music itself was all hypersexual.

[Erykah Badu] was talking about romance or struggling in relationships. Her image was very independent and she decided what she wanted to look like. She wore her natural hair and she liked to wear outfits that were designed by local Black designers.

I lived in Brooklyn at the time in the neighborhood she had been living in and it was pregentrification. One of the artists, who was a fashion designer named Epperson, had been creating clothes for her. He created this amazing outfit just for her. And I shot it on an 8×10 camera, which is a really difficult camera to shoot with because you’re shooting with film.

It’s very expensive. It’s not like you can shoot a hundred frames. Each frame costs $10 to get developed. If you don’t get the lighting right or the pose right, you definitely want to make sure all the elements are perfect before you click the shutter because it’s just one big 8×10 piece of film.

When I photographed [her], it was so perfect. The lighting was perfect. Her facial features, the pose, the gentleness. everything had come together perfectly.” 

Piper Carter

PIPER CARTER: “I had set the shot up and I had practiced. And while I only needed the one portrait, I had rented the studio for eight hours. They had been working on her hair and her makeup and her outfit. Her family came. Her son came. We were listening to music. I had set up the lighting. I had done a whole bunch of test shots on polaroid with my assistant. I was proud of myself.

By the time I got her in my chair, we took maybe three shots. I think I shot somewhere between 3 to 5 frames and we nailed it. It was such a satisfying feeling of working so hard on something and having a vision. It all just came together perfectly. In my opinion, it’s one of the best photographs of her.”

JH: Advice you would give to women photographers?

PIPER CARTER: “What’s really wonderful about today– I sound like a grandmother– there are so many choices and so many opportunities and so many avenues that a person can choose how they want to move in this industry.

A person can say that they want to do magazines and can go and send their portfolio. A person can say, ‘Oh you know what? I want to concentrate on creating my own publication,‘ and put that out.

But I would say maintaining your power is really important. And that’s for anyone. Maintaining your power looks like understanding your industry. That means you have to study the industry itself– the business aspect. Understand what the role of an agent is. Understand what the role of an advertising buyer is. If you want to go into that business, then understand what are the opportunities and what are the limitations of working with these different people. I say that because it relates to you being able to have your own power.

Once you understand the power and the opportunities and the limitations that another person has, that helps you to be able to make better and different decisions. People think, ‘Oh I just want to be successful. I just want to be rich. I want to be famous.’ It’s a very fly-by-night type of industry.”

Piper Carter
“Once you understand the power and the opportunities and the limitations that another person has that helps you to be able to make better and different decisions.” (Photo credit: Piper Carter)

PIPER CARTER: “You want to create a level of integrity for yourself. Not only are your images of integrity, but you also want to be of integrity as a business person. You want to handle basic business, like showing up on time and return phone calls and emails in a timely manner. You want to set boundaries. You want to be able to say what types of jobs you want to take and what types of jobs you don’t want to take. You want to be able to say who you want to work with and who you don’t want to work with. You want to be able to withstand rejection. Sometimes a ‘no’ now can be a ‘yes’ later. So you have to have a level of resilience because a lot of these things are political.

Rejection doesn’t always mean there’s something wrong with you. At the same time, don’t be so self-absorbed that if somebody rejects you, you don’t try to go back and try to figure out what you can do better.

Try different equipment. Learn how to fix the equipment. Learn how to troubleshoot. Practice lighting. Be empowered. Ask questions.”

Piper Carter
Photo of Piper and me at the Detroit Podcast Fest 2019.

PIPER CARTER: “Within that, there are so many opportunities. Don’t just get caught up in a couple of different opportunities. Go out there and try to find new things.

What’s happening in other states? What’s happening around you locally? What type of opportunities can you create for yourself? What type of business can you create for yourself? Can you create a portrait business to sustain you while you’re trying to get your other career going?

You’re going to have to network and you’re going to have to send your portfolio out a lot. Just because your portfolio is sent out, doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a job.

Just because it gets rejected, doesn’t mean they don’t like your work. You always want to send a follow-up note even if they tell you they don’t want to use you. You want to send a follow-up note and find out why or why not. And ask them what you can do differently. Constantly be looking for new work.

Just keep shooting. Keep shooting. And keep shooting. Keep refining and keep updating your portfolio. Your portfolio should always be up-to-date with your latest images.”


Special thanks to Piper Carter for taking the time to interview with Good Life Detroit! Visit Piper’s website here to learn more about her amazing work. 

Click here to get more information about the ROCK THAT Photography Conference and Trade Show. 


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