Interview with guest judge, Jacque Jackson

Jacque Jackson is a Texas based documentary family photographer and was a DFA guest judge for the 2020 V2 Awards.

The following interview takes a detailed look into the emotional and creative process behind her recent multi-media piece, “I Am Not A Strong Black Woman.” The thoughts and insights she shares are so valuable for anyone wanting to push themselves into creating work that feels personal and vulnerable. Just as importantly, the interview explores further the theme of her piece, her experience as a black woman and mother.

Molly Menschel: Can you please introduce yourself?

Jacque Jackson: My name is Jacque (pronounced Ja-kee) Jackson and I’m a stay at home, homeschooling mama to four little people. I raise my camera throughout Houston, Texas as a Documentary Family Photographer specializing in Motherhood photography. 

Can you talk about the origin of this project?  How did the idea for this piece come to you?

One day I was sitting in the middle of my bed breastfeeding my (at the time) brand new baby boy when I heard the words “I am not a strong black woman” really loudly in my head. I was in the bedroom alone and totally confused but I forced myself to open up the notepad on my phone (because breastfeeding life, right) and typed the words. 

I didn’t know what this meant and I struggled with that bit of not knowing. When I took some time to think about that moment, I knew I recognized the voice as who I believe to be God from whom I have heard from in the past.

Hearing this string of words still didn’t resonate with me until the next year around the fall when I was blessed to take part in a workshop with Felicia Chang and Kristine Nyborg. We spent a lot of time looking into ourselves and pulling on loose threads to see how they unraveled…then BAM! I realized that the words spoken to me almost exactly a full year earlier were the title of the project I was going to be making. 

What was it that made you want to turn this idea into a project? 

I don’t know that I really wanted to create this piece willingly. It’s been feeling like more of a purpose that I have been running from fulfilling. I had something totally different in mind from the moment a “personal project” was going to be the goal, and this piece really had to be drug out of me. likely because I was hoarding my true emotions for fear of how real they might come across and how intimate and revealing things would end up. 

©Jacque Jackson

How has your life experience contributed to the creation of this piece?  

I was born black. I was raised by a black mother and taken care of by a black grandmother and grandfather. I have black daughters, cousins, and aunts. I have a black father, black sons and black uncles. I have walked this earth in this skin and befriended and sat with black people. That’s just the intro to how my life experiences led me here. 

Tell me about the recurring theme, “I am not a strong black woman,” and why was this a message that was important for you to share? 

Ah yes. I am not a strong black woman is the most important string of words in this entire piece. It’s permission and validation at the same time. It’s something that we don’t always allow ourselves to say or feel. It’s the space between intentional introspection and self affirmation. We are called strong so often that I believe we have absorbed our true selves and made a shell around us with the word as armor. Sadly, our armor is choking us and not letting us breathe. Saying “I am not a strong black woman” is taking the breath and saying it over and over again is breathing. 

This message is so important to share because we have a lot we are carrying and holding in that people don’t know about. Those of us who recognize this don’t want to be called strong anymore and want you to know, understand, and respect our experience. There is an every person in this message despite it being about black women. People want to be seen and heard. And right now, with this piece and future additions, it’s time for the invisibility cloak to be dropped on our lives, hearts, and minds; black mothers. 

Is this a topic that you have seen before represented in art?  

So far, I haven’t seen anything represented like this in art. In my research there really aren’t many representations of black motherhood and strength that I have found. Other than maternal mortality rates and the killing of black mothers’ sons I am not finding much. And with those, I believe that my project is the core starting point to these extended ideas. 

The piece is narrated by you talking to the listener. Who are you hoping to reach and what impact would you like this piece to have?

I am talking to you, the person who is taking a chance with this piece and feels inclined to be part of the conversation. This piece has many layers and the first and most important one is the black mother (woman). I intend for her to know that it’s ok to tell the truth about who she is and what she calls herself and proclaim it openly. She doesn’t have to take on the societal descriptor. The second audience is everyone :the black women who aren’t ready to shed the appearance of strength and declare that the she’s had enough already of the strong black woman script, the non-black who is curious but afraid to ask, the non-black who thinks they know and have no idea, the system that needs to change. 

I am hoping to reach everyone, really. My intention is to tap the black woman (mother) on the shoulder and invite her to come along and share with me and then all of the rest of the world, I want you to watch with your hearts and your minds open. The impact I hope this piece will have is a conversation starter in the black community amongst ourselves and then with others. There is so much guarding and so much internal chaos that we either acknowledge or we don’t. 

It’s really past time for people to truly see us and hear how we see ourselves and what influences those perceptions and creating a platform for that in and audio/visually feels like the right kind of opening. Maybe as we go through this experience, we can start to heal ourselves and any generational impositions so that the future of black motherhood looks totally different.

©Jacque Jackson

In the piece you say, “I’m not supposed to tell you this.” What is it you are revealing that is not supposed to be revealed? 

You know that statement “the first step is admitting that you have a problem?” That’s what this is. It’s the admission that there is a problem. There is a barrier between what we as black women and people share openly and what we keep behind closed doors. There is a public persona and then there is the “you better not never tell nobody but God” persona. Whether intentional or not, we have a generational tendency to minimize and protect. We aren’t supposed to tell you that we aren’t strong and discuss the truths of who we are…but so many of us want and need to tell you (the world) that there is way more and that we are beyond ready now. 

How did you anticipate people reacting to this?  

I anticipate a bit of shock, frustration, overwhelm, sadness, relief, anger and so many more emotions depending on where it hits the viewer most personally. I anticipate negative reactions for sure, as I consider people will feel betrayed but relieved and others might just claim indifference. Some might even feign understanding and connection but will forget about it as soon as the screen fades to black – and that’s ok. 

Most of all I look forward to the positive that will come from taking bites of the elephant in the room from trunk to tail. It will be a feast, and I am excited for it. 

Putting a project out into the world that is so intimate and honest is huge. Did you feel like there was a risk involved in making this piece, and what compelled you to take that risk?

Absolutely. I feel like there is a huge risk for making and putting this piece out into the world. In the first place, it’s me; my face, my words, my voice and my experience that folks are taking in right now. I don’t want to misrepresent anyone, ever, however, I do feel like the curtain has to be yanked right now and I am willing to do it. There may be black people/women who are offended that I would do something so provocative and also there might be those that feel betrayed at my and any other participant’s open admissions. 

But that is the point. 

For the sake of the many of us who have something to say, it’s worth upsetting a few folks and ruffling the feathers of others to encourage deeper thought and social change.

Even though it’s wildly intimate, there is a level of freedom that comes with being vulnerable and I believe that other black women need to experience that. 

My own mental prison compelled me to take this risk.

I just know that I have to jump with my eyes open so that I don’t miss the beautiful process and pray that I stick the mark. It feels like when you are wearing a straitjacket, trying to find a way to pull one arm out and then the other and getting nowhere and then all of a sudden you realize that you were never wearing the straitjacket. I am open to stretching myself and this is that moment. I am taking off the jacket I was never supposed to wear. 

©Jacque Jackson

What advice can you give to other creatives who have something to say but either don’t know how to say it, or are afraid to say it out loud?

The best advice I could give another creative is to be honest and ok that you might be the only person saying it and that sets you apart. It’s the difference between making work that comes from passion and work that comes from duplication. 

I’ve learned that the place where you feel uncomfortable and afraid is likely exactly where you are supposed to be and you are being stretched to fulfill something that maybe only you can. The worst thing you can do is have something to say and never say it. 

What emotional process did you go through while putting this project together?

Oh boy! Avoidance is the first thing that pops into my head when I think of the process I have experienced and continue to set up shop in  I had to learn how to start letting myself feel the messed up parts of me more fully instead of placing them in the toxic positivity box or in the hands of Jesus for the sake of acknowledging my beliefs. I allowed the thoughts to come in that I typically try to reverse and then I did exactly what we are taught not to do….I stewed in the mess. I chewed on it. I talked to it. I breathed it in and then out onto paper. I asked What Would Jesus Do?, then I ignored that and did and said what I wanted to. I asked myself why I wasn’t a strong black woman and really just lived there. 

And can you talk about your creative process?

Writing has always been difficult for me to do because I edit myself so much. I find it difficult to write freely and just let the streams of consciousness flow. I laugh now at the irony in that; this is what it’s like to be a black woman….editing yourself or thinking about editing yourself or not editing yourself and wishing you had. I started a new journal that fall, set out to work on a project, and have written the things that popped into my head without thinking about it too much. I found writers online and did some of their exercises with timers and/or prompts. I challenged myself to complete them without erasing, scratching out or pausing. It worked out really well. Also, I made it a routine to keep my journal, sticky notes, and pen together and with me at all times and to pay close attention to those words that came to me out of nowhere. 

When it came to creating this piece, I had to realize that the images I originally wanted to make didn’t fit and that I needed to explore what it would look like to make something that made sense to me, even though it felt a little scary.   

©Jacque Jackson

You tackled such a huge topic in a 6 minute piece. How did you organize your thoughts into a cohesive narrative? 

When I started really thinking about how to make a project surrounding black motherhood, the word strength kept coming up over and over again in my soul. It was like everything was hinged on it. So I did a mind map a little more than a year ago to discover it. 

And as I mentioned in my process, I wrote down my random racing thoughts onto sticky notes and then started to record myself saying whatever had come into my heart. It took a super long time to put anything together because it just felt so overwhelming to declare any of it.  The topic was like eating an entire elephant’s knee, so at the suggestion of a colleague, I sat down to write out the emotions I wanted the audience to feel and at what point in the piece. I had a vision of the beginning and end and when I thumbed back through my notes at a couple of writing exercises, I saw the perfect fit looking back at me. I compared it to my mind map and realized I had said the things! 

I knew that I needed to be brief and not lose anyone but still be the real version of me in getting it out. I also knew how important it was for my audience to hear the internal conversations and feel the chaos and overwhelm all at once, the way it feels when you are living it out. I had worked on a mind map as I was doing personal research on the word Strength a year before and kinda looked at what those veins were. So the natural flow just kinda came together by adding in and adjusting the pieces I had written and knowing what the beginning and end would look like.

What was the hardest part about putting the whole thing together?

I think there were two things that were equally the hardest. The first was really just getting it out of my head and letting it be ok that I was going to say many things in just a tiny bit of time in both simple and complex ways. I had to essentially get out of my head and allow myself to be very, very uncomfortable and honest. The other super hard part was saying what I wanted to say and letting it be done, knowing that I was putting something together that would carry a huge impact. I had to be ok with how that impact landed. 

Why did you choose multi-media as the form of storytelling?

Pictures can be truly amazing at bringing an audience into the photographed experience but adding audio to this just felt right here. I want the audience to be able to hear and see, then feel immensely regarding the subject of the story. When you can hear emotions in a person’s voice that connects you in a totally different way. 

This piece is the first exploration into a larger project.  Can you talk about what you are hoping this will turn into?

Sure. So very simply, I am sharing the stories of black motherhood and opening up a space for black women to have a voiced stake in how they present their truths in motherhood to the world. I am hoping that the things that we discuss behind closed doors to one another or within our minds with ourselves comes out into the open for a larger conversation both intra and interpersonally. The way that I do this for others is still being worked out.

©Jacque Jackson

Revealing a truth a personal truth can have a powerful impact on creating new understanding between people. What new understanding do you hope that your audience will come away with, how do you want them to feel – after viewing your piece and from your larger project as a whole?

That would have to be an acknowledgement of the simple things first; we are human, we are not an adjective, and we are worth exploring. Humanity itself is nuanced. But somehow when it comes to black mothers there appears to be some sort of mirage effect happening where our being is often assumed, ignored, or criticized. I want people to come away from this piece with more compassion and enough emotional and mental discomfort to continue thinking after the 6 minutes are up. I would like for the audience to feel gripped and even a bit tormented in the places where their own connections or disconnections arise. The stuff that bubbles up in you while you participate in the piece is what I believe needs to be discovered and contemplated. Walk away feeling free to dive into that for yourself and consider how being present for someone else and how they might have experienced this differently can further the compassion. 

Lastly, I want the audience to feel 1. That it’s ok to be vulnerable themselves. I mean I never thought in a million years that I, Jacque Jackson, would be sharing something so intimate with the world – but there is a real freedom that comes with that. 2. I want folks to know that I put this out so that questions and conversations can be started. And this part is just me, but I know for a fact that there are more of us who have something to say and as I continue with the project, it’s highly likely that they can participate in those stories, too.  

Why is art one of your chosen ways of communicating your truth, of sharing such an important message with the world?

If you haven’t noticed yet, I am a talker. I always have been (I have proof dating all the way back to my second grade report cards). But really I have never felt like my words truly convey my feelings like art does. It’s very subjective and when we get into discussing truths and messages, it’s important to get them out when we don’t always have words. In this way, I can show folks what my words feel like and that makes the experience quite a bit different. Luckily for this piece, I had words, but if I hadn’t, the artistry in making pictures to tell a story is a perfect substitute. 

Did you learn anything new about yourself by working on this project?

Oh my goodness yes. I learned that my process is important. You hear all the time how artists do this or that or how they don’t do this or that. I am seeing more and more what those things are for me and to respect them. For example, I do not like writing, but I am learning how much I enjoy what I have written once I get it out and that it’s generally related to a mental and emotional disconnect. 

©Jacque Jackson

I always like to ask people, how do you, personally, connect with inspiration?  

I’m not going to pretend here, I really keep my head down and don’t spend as much time searching for or intentionally tapping into certain so-called inspiration. So then, by default I would say I don’t have a particular process in the way that one might expect. I am not oblivious to all of the amazing things that can spark inspiration and encourage ideas but I am more consumed with being real and doing what is in my lane to do!

My ideas come from my personal experiences and really blossom with direction from God. I genuinely believe that the more I express my desire to walk in the purpose that He has for me and His will, the more my “ideas” align with what I am called to do. I could say I want to make this or I want to participate in that, but what it boils down to is what seeds He has planted in me and asked me to water with His guidance. In a more direct sense, when I hear a certain voice, I know that’s something I need to pay attention to. When something continues to come up in my spirit, I have to tune my ears and my heart. Sometimes I run, but other times I surrender – like now. 

You’re a single mom with four little kids. How do you find time for creativity, for photography, for nurturing yourself as an artist?

Finding time for yourself as a mom is hard in general, but the most challenging part is not feeling guilty when you do. 

I have learned that it’s important to teach those boundaries to my children and explain to them what I am doing and relate it to something that they understand for themselves. It is also important to me that they know that all people have a purpose and calling in their lives and that though I am their mom, I also do things other than be their mom!

If I leave it up to “finding” time for creativity, photography, and nurturing myself as an artist, I would never really do anything. I have had to “make” time for those things. I make sure to act on those soul pulls when creativity strikes or something stirs in me by stopping what I am doing to make notes in my phone, planner or journal.  I have been a night owl since forever, so I spend a lot of time in the wee hours of the night/morning working on things and building out the bits and pieces from the day. When I am enrolled in a course/workshop, I show up with all my children in the background like, “we’re here.” I decided a couple of years ago that if I have to take off my mom hat to participate, then maybe that thing is not for me, and that will have to be ok. 

Follow Jacque on INSTAGRAM @jacque.m.jackson and view more of her work on her WEBSITE

The Documentary Family Awards is an international competition in search of the insightful and meaningful ways that documentary photographers explore the interpretation of family.