Deana Lawson might be my favorite photographer of people. Ever. On one level, her photographs are remarkable environmental portraits, capturing Black people around the world in spaces that suggest ambiguous narratives surrounding them. Lawson’s subjects are often posed inscrutably or theatrically, bringing them into a heightened tension with their mise-en-scènes. This points toward the second level upon which Lawson’s photographs operate—one in which they aren’t really portraits at all, but rather heavily constructed images that make us question our assumptions about portraits and photography in general. We think they reveal their subjects to us, but do these works actually obscure them? Or build an unreadable façade upon which we just cast our own projections? Lawson’s suggestion of intimacy in her photographs belies the fact that her subjects usually do not know each other before her photo shoots. This casts our awareness to the codes the govern interactions between people and their performing bodies, allowing subtle disruptions to seep in that give the images an uncanny, alienating quality. The presentation of domestic spaces from around the world—the Caribbean, North America, Africa—makes us inclined to find commonalities between these different spaces of the African Diaspora, at the same time revealing this practice to be at best arbitrary and at worst essentialist.

Deana Lawson, Family Portrait, 2007