In Focus: Los Angeles Photographer Rakeem Cunningham

EFNIKS celebrates the beauty and diversity of people of color with FACE this month. Rakeem Cunningham has chronicled the many shades, shapes and features of LGBTQ PoC for years. From a celebrity’s last minute shoots to personal self-portraits, Cunningham has captured stunning representation of PoC.  

Cunningham took the time out of his hectic schedule to discuss his personal experiences, muses, and moments that have fueled the engine behind his art.


EFNIKS: EFNIKS is discussing FACE, which celebrates the beauty of people of color and our diverse features. In a world obsessed full of six-pack abs editorials I noticed that your work has focused on different body types. Can you tell us why?

RAKEEM: I think that it’s important that when we talk about people of color, we talk about all kinds of people of color. I think so many times representation is boiled down to skin color, when in fact it’s so much more than that. I remember coming out as gay and being told I was overweight and “fat” and unattractive. I don’t ever want any black or POC queer person to ever feel that way. That’s not to say that being fat is a bad thing, I just mean I want to see people that look like me or are bigger than me to have confidence and see themselves in my work. In my self-portraiture, I often look at myself as a stand in for someone else so that they can see themselves in the composition and feel seen.

EFNIKS: What was the inspiration behind the Trans Professionals editorial?

RAKEEM: I was approached by the LA LGBT Center earlier this year to collaborate on a project and was given a tour, and it just so happened that the center was looking for photographers for this project. The ethos of the campaign is the humanization of trans-people in the workplace. Trans people are your co-workers, your bosses, your waiters, your bank tellers, your engineers, etc. We wanted to honor them and show them that we see you, we appreciate you, and even though the world tells you that you don’t belong, you are valid.

EFNIKS: What is your definition of beauty? 

RAKEEM: My definition of beauty is working towards or having the confidence to be yourself despite being told otherwise. I think of Gabourey Sidibe or Serena Williams or Colin Kaepernick. Beauty for me is so much more than the physical because that is always subjective. But having the strength to stand up (or kneel) in a society that tells you otherwise and unapologetically say “I'm me and you can choke if you don’t like it” is one of the most beautiful things ever.  

EFNIKS: Rihanna recently released a line of Fenty with Sephora, which includes make up shades from dark complexions to albinism. Do you think we're at a tipping point where people of color are starting to get the recognition and products that represent us?

RAKEEM: Yes and no. I think Fenty Beauty absolutely has makeup brands SHOOK. You’ve seen so many beauty companies advertising their darker shades or products for people of color. However, I think that when we talk about recognition, we’re talking about recognition from mainstream, mostly white outlets and retailers and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad just yet. There are so many Black owned businesses like Bevel, Nubian Skin, Fenty Beauty, Just For Me, Eden’s Bodyworks, Tidal (I know some of ya’ll read Tidal and cringed), Ciroc, etc. that have all been working and hustling to make products for PoC and have gotten recognition amongst ourselves. It makes me nervous because yes it’s important for us to be represented in the mainstream, but I want us to be able to keep and maintain our agency when it comes to our brands.

EFNIKS: Can you describe a shoot or campaign that touched you the most?

RAKEEM: I think when I first saw the Vogue Italia Black Issue back in 2008 I cried. It’s the first time I saw something like that and reassured me and how I felt about my Blackness. I was obsessed with Vogue at the time and to see an issue with all Black models that looked like my sister made me feel so happy because I felt for the first time that it was possible as a Black artist to make something unapologetically Black without having it be watered down. It was such a statement.

EFNIKS: What's your favorite city to shoot in? Why?

RAKEEM: Unfortunately, I haven’t traveled much, but my favorite place I’ve shot thus far is Death Valley. I’ve NEVER seen something like that before and want to go back. I think I’d also love to shoot in a place that has lots of vegetation and trees. Being in nature and around vegetation makes me feel at peace. 

EFNIKS: What's your favorite color? 

RAKEEM: Right now it’s a tie between the three primary colors.

EFNIKS: What was the most challenging shoot or campaign that you had to do?

RAKEEM: This is hard. I think the most challenging thing I’ve done was probably this shoot I did for an outlet called Wetheurban where I was brought onto the shoot at 11 pm the night before the shoot because another photographer dropped out I was shooting Tia Mowry and I remember freaking out because it was one of my first celebrity shoots and I had no idea what was going on. It was at a studio but I didn’t know what equipment was rented or anything like that. So I decided to bring my own to be safe and when I get there I was told no equipment was booked, so I had this small ass PLM Umbrella in this giant space and was too poor to have pocket wizards so I had to use a speedlight to trigger my strobe. I somehow managed to make it through the shoot with great images and didn’t throw up. My anxiety is flaring just thinking about it now! 

EFNIKS: When is your next exhibition? What will be the subject matter?

RAKEEM: I don’t have a gallery show planned or coming up at the moment, but I do have some projects coming up that I can’t talk about just yet. I want to focus more on shooting others though. I want to focus more on people with quirks or things that make them different and highlight it. I think moving forward I want to make work that’s a bit more candid.

EFNIKS: With an administration like Trump's do you think this climate allows more artists to challenge his rhetoric? 

RAKEEM: Not only do I think it allows for artists to challenge his rhetoric (rhetoric sweetie, I’m so sorry!) but also I think it’s mandatory. That’s not to say that all the work we produce has to be a painting of his head on a spike or something, but I think it’s up to artists, and especially photographers, to really rise up and challenge themselves. I think for me the biggest form or rebellion I can make is by making work that allows people of color to feel and be human. I want to allow PoC and Black people specifically the freedom to just BE. That freedom means so much with an administration that constantly tells us that our existence is a threat. To that end, I’m going to rebel by being a carefree Black boy, a sad Black boy, an angry Black boy, a queer Black boy, a thick Black boy, a heartbroken Black boy, a Black boy in love etc. I want my work to say that whatever I’m doing, I’m allowing and purposefully giving myself to have agency over the totality of my body, mind, and spirit. I will not let this administration tell me that I am just a statistic or that my life doesn’t matter and I want my work to reflect that sentiment.

EFNIKS: Rakeem, this was a pleasure. Thank you so much for your time! 


You can follow Rakeem on Twitter @bluekeyblade, and on Instagram @rakeemc. Check out Rakeem’s website for his full portfolio and more.


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