Photographer Interviews

Hannah Price Explores Race and Perception in “Cursed by Night”

February 27, 2017

By Dzana Tsomondo

Hannah Price’s portrait series “Cursed by Night” is a stirring examination of race and perception. Her black-and-white photographs focus on a powerful signifier in the American imagination: black men on city streets at night. In one photograph, two men sit in a parked car, caps pulled low, eyes glued to their phones. In another, a white woman and a black man sit on a bed in the dark; patches of window light illuminate his gaze, while her eyes are hidden in shadow. Outside a Popeyes Chicken, as bright as a beacon, a customer stares out of the window at the detritus on the street, jacket hood pulled over a knit cap.

Price began “Cursed by Night” after enrolling in Yale’s MFA program in 2012. Her inspiration came from daily interactions and experiences—friends who would cross the street rather than pass a group of black men at night, or who refused to go to certain neighborhoods. In her work, she sought to confront that which is avoided. “I wanted to create this world of darkness with all the negative connotations of blackness, death, impurity, evil,” Price explains. “I wanted to use the nighttime as a shroud, disrupting the portraits.” An exhibition of the photographs was on view at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center.

For a year Price traveled up and down the East Coast taking pictures in Brooklyn, Harlem, Philadelphia and Hartford, CT. Price would walk around by herself, looking for people and places that she wanted to shoot. The depth of a shadow, the angle of a corner, the lighting on a side street: Innocuous scenes become fraught with danger once a black man enters the frame. With the exception of one indoor photograph, Price used only available light.

“As I walked the streets I would notice the way the light looked, hang out and watch people walking by and watch the effects the light made on them. Then I would wait for someone else to walk by and ask to photograph them,” she explains.

Price grew up in Ft. Collins, Colorado, one of four mixed-race children in a predominantly white community. “I’ve always been very conscious of people around me, and how they react to me, because of how different my family looked from everybody else in the town,” Price says. She credits that hyper-awareness for her love for photography, her need to capture those moments, to see what others miss. Despite the bucolic reputation of the small Rocky Mountain city, Price did not have an easy childhood: Racial slurs from neighbors, harassment from the police and ostracism at work were basic facts of life. When she was seven, her father was disabled after being struck by a car and a local hospital refused to admit him for reasons she still suspects may have been racially motivated.

© Hannah Price

“Lexington Group,” Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, 2012. When Price was studying at Yale, she noticed that friends would cross the street at night to avoid black men, or stay away from certain neighborhoods. This inspired her to make photographs that explore that psychology. © Hannah Price

Price took her first photography class in seventh grade and, along with basketball, it was her only real hobby as a child. Eager to fly the coop after high school, she studied photography at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Price moved to Philadelphia after graduation in 2009, determined both to keep making photos and not to return to Colorado. This was her first time living in a diverse environment and there was a clear adjustment period. Price had spent most of her life as the proverbial fly in the ointment; now she looked like everyone else. Also, she had never before experienced the sort of street harassment that, sadly, is common in a big city like Philadelphia. Price turned her lens on the men who catcalled her from cars, bikes, even fire escapes. The resulting project, “City of Brotherly Love,” brought intense critical attention, which helped push her in another direction.

“After ‘City of Brotherly Love’ went viral, several people called me a racist. I made ‘City of Brotherly Love’ documenting my life as a female,” Price explains, “I was not thinking about race when I made that project…the fact that people called me racist helped inspire me to talk about race directly.”

Price shot “Cursed by Night” with a tripod-mounted Mamiya RB 67 with 65mm and 90mm lenses. She works exclusively with film, which means that her subjects have to remain still for the 12-second exposure.

A woman exploring marginalized neighborhoods alone and approaching men in the middle of the night requires equal parts chutzpah and discretion. Price has both. “I have never been afraid to approach strangers,” she says. “Of course, I was very aware of where I was and who I was approaching. I might watch someone for ten minutes, then decide whether to approach them or not, but it wasn’t a big deal.”

Beyond the ominous title, there is an ambiguity to the images in “Cursed by Night” that emphasizes how our projections influence how we look at the world. Depending on who is viewing these photographs, one could see a dangerous environment and potentially threatening people, or one could recognize their own neighborhoods, their friends and family. Perhaps it’s even possible to see both. “I want people to think about how much perception can affect someone else’s life,” Price implores, “we have seen with [tragedies] like Trayvon Martin that people lose their lives because of it.”

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