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Black Love inspired me. Making these portraits renewed my spirit

When the pandemic arrived stateside in early 2020 and our lives were unceremoniously ordered online; online became a lifeline in unimaginable ways.

The robust activity in the digital space included dancing until daybreak in Club Quarantine, the ingenuity of the Don't Rush challenge in all its everlasting iterations, learning how to be a billionaire on Clubhouse and our favorite singer-songwriter-rapper-producers battled it out in Versuz.

Amid the array of content, there was something that surprisingly and frequently crossed my socials. It was the discussion of a book published nearly 20 years ago, a book written by bell hooks called All About Love. I listened to discussions on All About Love in Clubhouse, watched live talks on Instagram and Facebook, and read excerpts of it on TikTok.

Back in 2000, bell hooks, a scholar, feminist theorist and author of over 30 books, embarked on a trilogy of books that explored the concept of love. All About Love: New Visions was the first in the series, followed by Salvation: Black People and Love in 2001 and Communion: The Female Search for Love.

All About Love is a compelling text that not only engages ideas around love, but also family, justice, gender, forgiveness, worthiness among other concepts and societal constructs. hooks, who uses a lowercase convention for her name, frees up the definition of love from a static noun and repurposes it as a dynamic verb: "To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients - care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication," she explains.

I encountered the works of bell hooks as an undergrad at NYU. I remember when All About Love was fresh off the press. I purchased my copy from the long-gone Barnes and Nobles on Astor Place and devoured it the same night. It was radical and honest. I felt seen — and challenged.

So, it was pleasing to see during the height of the pandemic so many people in the digital space were leaning in and exploring ideas about love with hooks' work as a reference. And specifically regarding the reckoning and uprisings around race in this country and abroad, and knowing that there is "There can be no love without justice...abuse and neglect negate love," as hooks states in her book, that there was a collective centering of love.

I knew then that once the world opened back up, I would endeavor to see how people were approaching and experiencing love and how this might look in photographs.

In all transparency, I was processing my own heartbreak. (Heartbreak can be some serious mourning) So, this series of photographs leaned heavily on the personal side; these would be photographs made for the sake of healing, witnessing.

I put out a call on my socials and asked if anyone wanted to sit for a portrait series on Black love. My friends and a few referrals arrived in my inbox.

I dedicated August, my birthday month, to making the photographs. I asked everyone to wear white, I deemed it a celebration. They were to be modest environmental portraits made in natural light, mainly on 35mm and some digital. The plan was to keep the project between us, photographer and sitter. Afterwards, I would give the portraits to the sitters, and that would be all.

But, I loved being in conversation about the journey of love, I felt inspired to share the works, with permission from the sitters. Whether it was from a committed relationship, singles or recently uncoupled, the perspectives affirmed love as a powerful and divine force. This experience proved to be a masterclass in reclamation of self, just as I imagined. So, I decided to publish this iteration of the project with the intention of continuing the series in the near future. Through the pairing of photographs and text, I wish for this work to encourage self-reflection, grace and love, of course.

"When we work with love we renew the spirit; that renewal is an act of self-love, it nurtures our growth. It's not what you do but how you do it." - bell hooks

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn is a documentary photographer and writer from Brooklyn, New York. You can find her on Instagram at @LaylahB

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Laylah Amatullah Barrayn