Danielle A. Scruggs
Chicago born photographer Danielle A. Scruggs represents why the person behind the camera must understand the communities in front of it.
Welcome to the world through Danielle Scruggs's lense.
As with many influential artists, their parents are an intricate part of how they gained exposure to their field. This northside, Rodgers Park, Chicago born resident, is no different. "My dad was a photographer when he was in the army...(as a child) I remember always being surrounded by cameras, books, and art," laughed Scruggs.
A pink and black rectangle camera was her first at age seven before she began using her father's old Pentax k1000 for her high school's darkroom classes.
After attending predominantly white schools, the majority of her life, she decided to attend an HBCU for college - Howard. Feelings of being lonely misunderstood and isolated as the only black person in grade school were not something she wanted to replicate in her collegiate experience. Scruggs found a sense of comradery within the HBCU institution that she had never experienced anywhere else. "I felt at home, is the best way to put it," said Scruggs.
After taking a few courses in photography, during her junior year, she knew this was the career she wanted to take more seriously. Meeting people who looked like her: photographers and photo editors also made this seem like viable employment. "That's when it became concrete to me - that oh, this is a career path - this is something real," said Scruggs.
Scruggs met Sharon Farmer, a former White House photographer for the Clinton administration, while obtaining her Print Journalism degree from Howard. She also had significant interactions with acclaimed photographer Harlee Little. "He (Little) saw something in me that I didn't even see in myself," proclaimed Scruggs.
Scruggs also has a graduate degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art. This experience put her back in a majority white space even though it was in the middle of "Chocolate City." Danielle, though valuing her education, describes the place like a bubble that didn't "interact with its surroundings." The connections built-in HBCUs are said to be stronger than PWIs - when asking Scruggs if she had experienced this same narrative, she paused for a moment then remarked with excitement.
Her first position as a Copy Aid for the Washington Post after grad school happened on a previous roommate's tip. "It was my old Howard roommate who gave me my first job," said Scruggs. Danielle explains the role was very insular, and you had to "know someone who knew someone" to get a foot in the door. Scruggs was able to gain raw exposure to the photo editors' desk while making her rotation. This role was imperative to her establishing a career in photography.
The Washington Post published the Midwest creative, The New York Times, and ESPN, to name a few. "I don't change my style depending on the publication," said Scruggs. Danielle also works as a photo editor, and the Howard Alumnae encourages photographers to maintain their identity because if the publication wants a different style - they will hire another person. Scruggs is adamant about not changing her photography style, depending on the paper she is shooting for. "Conveying the feeling and energy, I get in a place...and going off that feeling...that's that goal," said Scruggs
This interview took place after white police officer Derek Chauvin's murdered unarmed black man George Floyd by kneeling on his neck in Minneapolis. A 17-year girl, Darnella Frazier, filmed the entire incident. This tragedy prompted the conversation about should we continue to film these events and distribute them. "We don't need to show images of black death to get across the point - we're under siege," said Scruggs. Scruggs elaborates on the unequal amount of care provided to visually representing tragic events surrounding black people versus their white counterparts. As an example, she references the CoronaVirus pandemic. "How the ebola epidemic was captured is a very stark contrast..when the Corona Pandemic was mostly in Europe, you saw (images of) people clapping on their balconies.. (not) the horrific effects, but you get the idea," said Scruggs. Omitting images of body bags, terminally ill patients, and gore does not make the severity any less visible. This African American artist does not feel the level of care provided to countries like Italy during the 2020 pandemic translates to black people when documenting issues like police brutality. "I understand the sentiment 'we have to show people so they'll get it,' but at this point, if you don't get it - you don't want to," expressed Scruggs. Danielle is apprehensive when displaying someone's last moments on earth, and urges the public to consider the psychological effects of repeatedly viewing these images.
Danielle approaches photography from every standpoint, but architecture and portraits are some of Scruggs's favorite avenues. Growing up in Chicago, her love of architecture is apparent through her work, and she can make inanimate objects feel alive. Her love of portraiture comes from a pure love of interacting with fascinating individuals. "I enjoy meeting people and talking to them and getting to know - what's their story. When you have a camera in your hand, you have a great excuse to talk to people," exclaimed the slightly shy Photographer. Scruggs feels like it allows you to skip over small talk and get straight to the "moments of connection."
Scruggs feels her experience being a black woman is reflected in her approach to photography.
"I am aware I am working in a medium that started with dubious origins - a lot of early photography was used to perpetuate harmful racial stereotypes," acknowledges Scruggs. Danielle doesn't want people to forget that there is also a history of counteracting and using the camera to dispel myths and racist tropes. "I try as much as possible to make sure I am not recreating harm," said Scruggs. She captures what she is feeling and witnessing - not preconceived notions.
Amplifying other black women in film and photography is nearly a second job for Scruggs - one she enjoys very much. She operates an organization to highlight Black Women Directors and is involved in more, including Authority Collective; their tag line is "Reclaiming our authority in a Visual World." Scruggs sits on the board at Authority Collective. Her Instagram Black Women Directors are also used to share essential resources such as food banks in Chicago. "I just wanted to highlight black women filmmakers and directors because so often they get left out of the conversation when people talk about black film and diversity in film," explains Scruggs. This social media page and official website shed light on black women directors throughout the world, not only in America.
At one point, she tried to list additional sources of celebration for black women in film and came up short besides Sisters in Cinema. In 2020 there are still very few resources for black people of the diaspora who identify as women in film.
There are still not enough black and brown people in executive photography positions. Organizations and advocacy will hold corporations' feet to the fire and make them act on promises of inclusion. Scruggs' goal is not just to create diversity but also equity.
Scruggs is currently on a social media hiatus - except Twitter. "I didn't like how I was feeling on Instagram - like we have to perform," said Scruggs. She feels social media is restrictive and requires her to self-censor out of fear in how future audiences will perceive her prior thoughts. Instead, the former D.C. resident wants to revert to previously popular mediums such as blogs, email, and newsletters for contact purposes.
Check out her curatorial programs in collection with Authority Collective coming up soon.