SAMANTHA ISOM: BUSTING THROUGH BIASES
By Claire Sykes
The bright light shoots into her eyes, as if she’s looking straight at the sun. It’s one of Samantha Isom’s earliest memories—from her mother’s 8mm movie camera. That and her Brownie camera, and her father’s Super 8 and Polaroid were always following the family around the house, at the bowling alley and the swimming pool. Growing up, in the 70s in Pemberton, New Jersey, Isom saw it as normal to take so many pictures, and make and show all those movies.
Now a photographer and filmmaker herself [www.samanthaisom.com], Isom has followed the bright light of her passion and it has shined on her with international recognition. In 2011 Photo District News featured her work, in its Photobook NYC; and so did Photographer’s Forum magazine that year and the next. After that she won first place for APA NY and was included in the APA LA Off the Clock awards show; and she enjoyed several annual wins from Creativity International. In 2019, Isom received a Communication Arts Award of Excellence.
Doing photography started for Isom in her teens, pointing her 110mm camera at friends on class trips and in the halls, and learning her way around the school darkroom. With the township’s television department based out of her high school, for a semester she was one of its broadcast camera operators and newscasters. Ever since, cameras have found their way into Isom’s hands. Back then, at lunchtime and after school, those hands also were at the school piano, practicing.
In 1988, Isom carried her love for classical piano to the then-named Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey), and majored in music. While there, her experience doing black-and-white and color photography landed her a job at a one-hour photo lab. She soon gave up her dream of Julliard and focused on photography, instead, seeing herself shooting musicians for Rolling Stone.
But forget about being a professional, commercial photographer. The message for this fiery young talent raised by working-class parents, her mother white and her father black, was, “Be realistic and practical. Be a music teacher, go to law school or work for the government.” Isom didn’t buy it. When it came to photography, however, she also couldn’t help feeling “you kinda go for it and you kinda don’t,” as she puts it.
From her Brooklyn home and studio, Isom talks with APA about her career path, as it wound through New Jersey and Philadelphia, New Orleans and Chicago, Miami and New York, Hawaii and Indonesia—from those first hour-photo-lab jobs and wedding shoots to photographer-assistant gigs, videos and films, and personal projects of her own.
All along as an artist, Isom has been busting through not only the deep-rooted racial and gender biases of the photography profession, but also, with her work, those of the images created within it.
What did you do with photography while in college and after you graduated?
The college hired me to shoot for their paper. And at the one-hour photo lab, where I worked for eight years, I learned to print in color. They also had a family-portrait studio and taught me how to photograph portraits, and weddings, too. I got really good at them. The lab also shot events for companies like Bristol Meyers Squibb and Bell Atlantic, and I started shooting those. That was the beginning of me doing commercial work.
When I got out of college, I was scared to death. I knew I wasn’t going to be a musician or music teacher, but I didn’t spend money promoting myself as a photographer. Wedding companies hired me to shoot, but they didn’t pay much. My car had broken down and I moved between Trenton and Philadelphia, taking the bus to another photo-lab job outside of Philadelphia. One day, the bus driver told me his brother had a wedding-photography business. He ended up hiring me as his assistant and eventually I began shooting weddings with him, as well. I learned a lot from him.
Then I moved to Philadelphia, shot weddings on the weekends, drove a horse-and-buggy carriage and, when my car was working, delivered restaurant food at night. In a camera shop there, I saw a book on how to be a photo assistant. I didn’t know that was ever an option, except for weddings. This photographer came in and asked me if I was a photo assistant and I said yes, and he hired me to help him shoot for annual reports and other corporate work. That was 1995.
How did your career develop from there?
I loved Philadelphia and didn’t want to leave, but I felt I needed to move to New York to have even a chance at the types of photo-industry jobs I thought might be possible. I was so broke, though. I didn’t know how to make it there; I just didn’t see it as a reality. Wedding work and carriage driving in Philadelphia were dead in the winter, and in 1996 my roommate and I went to New Orleans to work as carriage drivers for Mardi Gras, staying with friends. I sometimes tended bar, but didn’t have the confidence to become an actual bartender, so I stayed a broke cocktail waitress and food-delivery person.
For two years, I went back and forth between the two cities, some of that time also assisting that photographer I met in the photo shop in Philadelphia. Through him, I found out about agents for photo assistants. I’d never heard of that before. I got more commercial work, and in 1997 I attended my first digital seminar, before there were ever digital-tech jobs.
Then I left for Chicago, in 1999, and began learning more digital. At that time, digital was extremely slow and not well suited for photographing moving subjects. I was called in every week for cheap-paying work, doing about 50-50 film and digital, assisting for annual reports and with catalog-photography studios. One of those photographers was Mel Winer, who shot products, mostly directly for brands, not for ad agencies, when companies were just starting to sell online. And I worked with him for three years.
I still wanted to go to New York and be a successful photographer. But since I didn’t know how to do that, I thought being an assistant there would help. I felt I was good enough to get paid as one, to afford a modest rent, making it feasible to finally move there. Meanwhile, I was building a book of my portraits of musician and artist friends. Before 9/11, I went there and met with Vibe and Atlantic Records, but they just looked at me. I mean, who had I worked for? What work had I done? I got shot down quite a bit. Then the buildings came down and Mel lost a lot of business. I started shooting JC Penney products and interiors for others, for Silver Lining Graphics. I knew I didn’t want to shoot products, though; that’s not what I was in this for.
I wasn’t afraid to go to New York anymore, but after 9/11 I thought I would starve more there than I already had been, so I went to Miami, instead. I didn’t know anyone there, but knew they had a big winter music conference in March, and I convinced one of my photo-assistant friends, Jason, to go with me. I was already an ASMP member; I didn’t yet know about APA. I’d heard that a lot of New Yorkers were in Miami and we could get work, not as a first assistant, but a second, to carry equipment. I could meet New York photographers and have work lined up, once I moved to New York, which I did a few months later.
But until then, still in Miami, Jason and I took pictures of each other carrying all this equipment, with me wearing a skullcap. I’d always dressed butch, but in the photo I looked like a man. “Need a photography assistant? Call Sam.” They’d find out I was a woman, and many photographers didn’t hire women assistants.
The first one who did, through a referral from someone in Chicago, said it would make him look good, me being a woman and black. By then, in 2002, I could count on two hands the number of black photo assistants or photographers I had met, in Chicago and New York, only one of them female. I never saw any mixed-race photographers. All that started happening more by 2013.
Anyway, other photographers from Chicago came down to Miami for a week or two and hired us, too. Then I got on the New York circuit. In May 2003, I left for New York and just bartended into the winter, then I went back to Miami and five months later came back here and stayed. I did digital tech, and did very well with that. I realized it was easier to get that kind of work than as a photo assistant, though I was still doing that and bartending. I was seen as savvy, but also I was sitting at a desk, which people thought women were better at than men.
The digital-tech work lasted until 2009 when the stock market crashed, and I declared bankruptcy. Before then, I had started my photo book of mixed-race portraits, but it was going slow. I bartended in a hotel, making barely enough to survive. But the job was more flexible than other bartending jobs that made more money, and I wanted that so I could continue to shoot and look for photo-assistant work, without reservation. In 2011, I finished my book, So What Are You Anyway?, self-published on-demand.
Two years later, I was working short one-day jobs, few and far between, for photographers who didn’t mind hiring women assistants. Three of them were doing commercial work, and also the types of photography I wanted to do—environmental portraits of musicians and actors. Since the 90s, I’d been assisting in those, piecemeal, and photographing for Essence and Philadelphia Style Magazine. One of the photographers was also shooting people in fashion and for movie posters.
You’ve done a lot of your own portraits in the places you’ve lived, and travel portraits, along with a series you call “The Great Outdoors.” Where does your “Underwater & Beyond” work come in?
In New York, not making much money and having no capital given bankruptcy, at that time I was in my early 40s and I thought, What am I going to do? I was distressed. It was 2014, and I was thinking I should go to LA, do weddings. Then I started dating this man who became a scuba instructor and he got a job in Hawaii. I sublet my apartment and followed him. Before that, I took swim lessons at the YMCA. From when I was a kid, I only knew how to doggie-paddle and do the backstroke.
My then-boyfriend taught me how to dive. It took me months to learn, then I got my PADI Open Water Diver Certification. I’d stay in Maui for a few weeks at a time, shooting marketing videos for small businesses here and there. There was zero work assisting photographers. I returned to New York with my videos and landscape photos, going back and forth. That’s when I started getting awards.
Then my boyfriend got a job as a cruise director on a scuba boat in Indonesia and I went with him, staying for a month at a time, Indonesia being way more affordable than Maui. The dive shop he worked for saw my landscape photographs as very different from others. “But we can’t afford you.” So in exchange, they paid for the PADI Advanced Open Water Diver Certification I’d earned. Next, I got my Rescue Diver Certification, and I bought a Sony a7S II and Ikelite for scuba-diving photography.
By then, in 2018, I was shooting for two dive shops in Indonesia, photos of divers in a swimming pool, standing and floating half in the water, half out. My photos were a selling point for them and for getting work in New York; I went back and forth several times. Those in the scuba industry were used to seeing beautiful underwater photography, but not environmental portraits of divers like the kind I shot. Neither were advertising agencies in New York. I plan to go back to Indonesia and photograph, once this COVID-19 clears and the economy improves.
Your book, So What Are You Anyway? features portraits of people who are mixed-raced and their experiences concerning it, handwritten across the color photos. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful pairing of image and word. How else has race figured into your work?
I’ve always noticed there was a problem around the globe of people of color being ignored in advertising, as if we don’t exist. Where are all the black folks diving? In 2017 I joined the National Association of Black Scuba Divers [NABS]. That year, I also created Brown Passport, a blog, online journal and video travel show on YouTube [www.brownpassport.com]. It’s a conversation on race, faith and gender around the globe. A year later, I was selling Brown Passport stories on CheapOAir’s blog. And by then, I’d also gotten my PADI Divemaster Certification, the first professional one where you can work as a diver. It made me a better diver and I got more serious about shooting in the water.
In November 2019, NABS held its annual summit, in Egypt. I’m a black scuba diver, I need to go to Africa and shoot a Brown Passport story on that. And I came back with all these pictures of black scuba divers from the States. Right now I’m working on a series of black skiers. The National Brotherhood of Skiers had seen my work and they needed someone to shoot at their annual summit in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 2019, and I needed money to go out there, for my Brown Passport piece on them.
What’s the story behind Brown Passport and what’s most important to you about it as it relates to photography in general, and your work in particular?
The seed of it goes back to 2004. I was photo assisting in Jamaica. To the local, black Jamaican kitchen staff, I was an anomaly, paid to come work there. They pulled me aside and asked how I got my job. How did I get there, and how could they do the same? Then from Indonesia I was back in New York for an advertising job, and basketball players were one aspect of the shoot. They were all black. Another job, jazz-musician shots, again all blacks. In 2016, I realized I had to talk about this issue of the misconception of race that just kept getting reinforced for me.
When you ask, what does a scuba diver look like?, the majority of people will say white male. What does a surfer look like? You may be a black surfer, but unless you’re really thinking about it, you’re probably going to see a guy named Chad with blue eyes. What does a jazz musician look like? The first thing that might come to mind is Ella Fitzgerald. And when it’s a football player, it might be 50-50, black-white.
I want to help change the narrative. It’s a big calling. By that I mean there is no choice. It’s like breathing; I have to do it. I have to show it. I have to share it. And Brown Passport is where I can. In my photos, I’m showing from a perspective of traditionally marginalized groups of folks, people of color. My goal is to continue getting my work out there to be seen, to contradict the longstanding narrative. Eventually, it’ll be a book and a docuseries. I’m investing every penny into it, as I get more commercial work, actively pushing it to editorial directors and advertising agencies.
As a kid, I was one of the few black skateboarders. In high school and college, it was unusual to be a black classical pianist, and then a black artist, a photographer and filmmaker. I need to keep being the change I want to see in the world. And that’s what I’m shooting.
© 2020 by Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.