Last Updated on 02/19/2023 by Feroz Khan
“It was my goal to really capture the spirit of the person,” says talented portrait photographer Jaimie Milner about the people she photographed for her book over the last decade. She noticed that there was already adequate coverage for talented black men in cinema and music. But the everyday black man wasn’t consistently recognized for his skills or even his presence. Jaimie set out to change this and, over the course of a little over 10 years, published a book of portraits called The Gifted Project. In this interview, she tells us what inspired her and why there’s still a long way to go for black men to have a well-deserved spotlight on them.
Sometimes I find it hard to focus when doing a simple photo project. Multiple distractions mean that the project often meanders aimlessly during its course. Sometimes this is to the benefit of the project, but I often wonder, “If I block out those mental dalliances more firmly, would the end result take on a better finish?” I can only imagine the dedication and concentration it would have taken Jaimie to work on The Gifted Project for over a decade. Especially considering the various hurdles she encountered along the way, she’s overcome a lot of self-doubt and external setbacks to come out with a book that showcases the stories of people who deserve them.
The Essential Photo Gear Used By Jaimie Milner
- Canon 1D
- Canon 5D Mark II
- Canon 5D Mark IV
- Zeiss 35mm lens
- Canon 24-105 mm f4 lens
- Canon 24-70 mm f2.8 lens
I shot (The Gifted Project) on digital and film. Mostly more film in the beginning and literally the film just got expensive. I had to switch to digital: more cost efficient.
The PhoBlographer: Hi Jamie. Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.
Jaimie Milner: I got into photography in high school through an elective that I took in a black and white (photography) introduction class. And I loved it. I had a really great teacher who noticed I had a talent and a skill, and she encouraged me to keep going. That’s why I kind of fell in love with photography from a young age.
The PhoBlographer: You began photographing black men out of a desire to know more about them and share what you discovered. Tell us how that evolved into the Gifted Project.
Jaimie Milner: I think that men like my dad and my brother and my friends, the truth of who they were, was something I didn’t see reflected in the media. And so I wanted to create a body of work that showed the world how I felt about black men, to show what all the beauty that I felt was. But also, I wanted to give them a platform to share their own voice. I was having these intimate conversations while I was shooting them, and I thought it would be so cool to bring the audience into that, into those conversations and that dialogue that was happening. So that’s where I developed the five-point different questions that I asked them that go along with the images. I think we saw them as athletes with entertainers, but just the everyday guy; we didn’t really see the depth. And even artists; a lot of the men in my book are artists.
We didn’t know the depth of who they were. Like why did they do what they do? What were they trying to face in their work or their music? All that was interesting to me. I want you to know the why behind what they did. So there’s ordinarily a label or a tag to them, but there’s no story behind what you’re seeing about the person.
The photography for the book took me about 10 years. It started in 2010, then about 2 years to get the book made.
The PhoBlographer: The struggle for black men’s rights has been ongoing for decades. How is the Gifted Project aiming to make an improvement?
Jaimie Milner: The book aims to change things just through its existence. It’s a book that celebrates the beauty of black. And the genius of black men. That’s something that we don’t talk about in our society.
A lot of people talk about black men, whether it’s police brutality or entertainers and what’s going on with them, but we don’t actually ever listen to black men. So having a body of work that ask all these different men, these five simple. Intimate questions allow us to see a deeper layer into them that we haven’t before because other people aren’t asking them that. I cared to ask them that, and therefore it allows other people to see the depth that I saw.
The PhoBlographer: Were the initial days overwhelming? Who were the first people photographed for the Gifted Project? how did you choose the rest of the subjects?
Jaimie Milner: The very first guy I photographed was a legendary guitarist. And he went to the church that I went to growing up. The second I met at a book fair with my mom randomly. He was one of the first black men to be hired by a major US orchestra. A French horn player named Robert Watt. From there, I asked different friends who are musicians and other people that I photographed, and they would recommend me to other men, which was really cool. For some people, I sent a cold email to a big agent at the time and told him about the project I was doing. He got back to me, and he referred all these different people to me. Some men were in finance, and some men had worked in the White House. Different actors. So then I started really growing, and these men started recommending other men, and it kind of went from there. So it’s weird because I say that as much as I was celebrating black men, it was kind of like the men that I met were celebrating one another by recommending each other, you know, for the project.
And then just different men just came to me. Some people I knew had someone that was connected to me. I sent them an email to ask, and they said, yeah, but I got hardly any nos. Like, I got so many yeses.
There were two brothers that I photographed. They were some of the first people that I photographed, and I remember I shot them on film and digital. As I was developing the film print, I remembered how I felt about them in person. We spent a whole day together. When the images were coming out in the chemicals in the dark room, I was wowed. Like the spirit of who they were is what I felt in the image, the same way I felt in person. So it was my goal to really capture the spirit of the person every time I shot them. While that’s a great goal, it’s also a hard one to accomplish because you have to connect so deeply with that person. And a lot of these men I was meeting the first time when I was shooting. I didn’t know them or was able to build a rapport in advance, so I had to do all of that in one sitting.
The PhoBlographer: You’ve dedicated over 10 years of your life to finesse and polish this project into a book. What were some of the challenges you faced?
Jaimie Milner: So the questions were developed later. The questions were developed about five years into it. I emailed people; some people I had to hop on phone calls with and then transcribe them. But for the first ones, I was just photographing them. It was extremely nerve-wracking. I think because I was still very new to photography, and I knew I loved it, but I was so concerned about getting the right image.
The biggest challenge was my own self-doubt. Wanting to share the stories of these men, but wanted to honor them and make sure I was doing it correctly. I’d say one of the biggest challenges was working by myself. I made it work. I would hold a reflector myself while I was shooting. It was just a lot of different things that I did. Sometimes it would’ve been helpful to have someone there to even talk to the subject, to put them at ease.
I think there’s a lot of beauty in having a team. But I also learned a lot doing it on my own. And when the pandemic came, as like all the self-doubt that I had before was definitely enhanced a few times.
I had reached out to a printer, but the images came back really muddy, and they just weren’t great. I then got in touch with a family friend of mine, and he connected me to a master printer who was like a good friend of his. And while I’m working with him, I find out that he used to print for a photographer named Hel Newton. So he had photographed for some really amazing top photographers, and we got our first sample made. Then the print house shut down because of Covid, so we had to find a new printer. We found one, and they were good, but they just were a little challenging to work with. In the first batch of books I got, they didn’t do a proper quality check on them. You work on a project for 10 years, and the book is finally done, then you have this hiccup about when you’re gonna get them. They told me in the first print more than half of my books got ruined.
So I had 150 books they sent me, and I open up the books, and they all have blue lines on them. I was beyond frustrated. Reprinting them took another three months. It was just a lot of waiting. To sum it up, essentially the delays in production due to the pandemic and not having the right supplies or the paper, that really just took a lot of things out of my control.
That was the part that I wrestled with. Having to surrender to the process of it. I realized that I would get my books eventually. But people were messing things up, and it just took way longer than I expected. A lot of my pre-order customers were really understanding, and I’m thankful for that.
In the beginning, it was self-doubt that was a huge obstacle that I faced. And then, during the pandemic, it was just the lack of control. The lack of control that I had in the process, really, and in getting things delivered in a certain timeframe. That reflected inside me as wanting to have control over things. It makes me feel safe. The art of surrendering and learning how to surrender is something that I learned more of during that process, which I feel is priceless.
The PhoBlographer: More than representation, is this project also about starting a conversation regarding the lives and complexities of the average person in the black community?
Jaimie Milner: Absolutely. It’s giving them a space to see themselves. I love photography because it makes me feel empowered, and that’s what I’m aiming to give black men through this project. It’s about letting them know that I see you, I hear you. I think you’re beautiful. And I think that your complexities and the depth of who you deserve to be seen.
The art of surrendering and learning how to surrender is something that I learned more of during that process, which I feel is priceless.
The PhoBlographer: as a portrait photographer, How important is it to connect with the person and their story in order to get a really good photograph of them?
Jaimie Milner: I feel like when I’m photographing someone, I have to be in control of my energy, but also, I’m literally directing their energy. I’m trying to pull it out, to create intimacy, and make them feel safe. Also, to create some freedom and possibility for them to express the truth of who they are and for them to feel free at that moment so that I can capture that. It’s a lot, energetically, but I love it.
I was super nervous to ask questions. I remember, too, I felt very nervous photographing someone cause I was going into their homes. I photographed them in their homes or their workspaces. I felt I was very cautious of not being intrusive in their space, respecting and honoring their space. I wanted to tiptoe lightly. I felt like I had to like blend in, in order for them to be the star in that space. To create a setting where they’re comfortable to fully shine. Just understanding and developing that connection within the first few minutes is so important.
I have a little thing that I do. Sometimes I’ll have them close their eyes for a little bit, and I’ll talk to them. I do that so they can like reconnect to their selves, right. So that when they come back and open their eyes, they’re fully present, and you can fully see who they are.
The PhoBlographer: Was there one standout moment or absolutely unforgettable experience with this project?
Jaimie Milner: I think I have two. So many of them were amazing, but I remember photographing this actor named Y’Lan Noel (pronounced Elon). He was an actor on Issa Rae’s HBO show, Insecure. I photographed him at my home before work, and he came over at 7:37 AM in the morning. We took a walk in my neighborhood and just had a great conversation. It’s before everyone’s going to work; it’s quiet. I remember the dew on the grass and walking with him and stopping and sitting and then talking. I remember going back to my apartment, asking him the questions, and I just felt like he really opened up. He was himself with me, and I appreciated that connection. For me, the connection is the most important thing. That’s why I love photography because of the connection, and the photograph is proof of the connection that was. It was so beautiful just because I remember the morning so well.
Then there’s Nate Parker; he’s a director who a great film called Brook of the Nation. He also released a great song in 2020 called American Skin. He’s just a really powerful creator to me. I was interviewing him while I was photographing him, and there was this moment when I asked, “what do you need as a man in order to succeed?” He began talking about how he needed space to be vulnerable. Sometimes that was with his family, sometimes that’s with his friends, but he needs that space. And he was talking about his, he started talking about his father, and his eyes just completely welled up. I captured this image, the one that introduces him in the book, the very first. He’s sitting there on his porch, but his eyes are welled up. I just thought it was my first time meeting him. And it’s just proof of connection that he felt safe to be vulnerable with me while talking about the need to be vulnerable and have the space to be vulnerable. To me, that was just super powerful.
These are the moments when the men I photographed connected deeply with me, and they were able to be themselves around me; that feels like an honor.
The PhoBlographer: As a POC who’s doing a lot to uplift the black community, how can other photographers help make a difference?
Jaimie Milner: I think the answer’s really simple. I think photographers just need to be themselves. Even for myself, I had this moment where I was sitting with myself and thought, all you have to do is explore your own mind, your own interests, what you care about, and what you think is beautiful. Photograph those things, and explore those things because it’s authentic to who you are. The Gifted Project was a very authentic thing for me. The intention that you put into your work goes so far. It allows people to get it, to love it, to like it because they can feel that there’s real intention in it. So if you do things that you care about and are of true interest to you and your own heart, it will be felt by other people. I think the answer is simply to just photograph the things that you are drawn to, not what everyone else is doing, not what you think is popular at the time.
I think being yourself is like a radical act because you’re not conforming to the world around you, and you’re having the courage and the bravery to be yourself and who you are.
All images by Jaimie Milner, used with permission. To see more of her work, check out her website and her Instagram page. Want to be featured? Click here to see how.