Earlier this year, Durham, North Carolina–based photographer Cornell Watson was juggling a full-time job in human resources and conference calls with raising a 2-year-old together with his wife. And then he was laid off.
Within months, however, he had grown his already successful side project in family photography into something much more. Now Watson’s work is being featured in national newspapers and ad campaigns, and he is the recipient of an Alexia Grant for his personal work, a project called Behind the Mask. BuzzFeed News was able to speak to him from his studio space about how he turned a challenging year into opportunities to expand his portfolio and earn nationwide recognition for his work.
What’s it been like going from a full-time job in HR to freelancing for the New York Times and the Washington Post?
It was really surreal. I’m a big news junkie, so is my partner, we both subscribe. Her dad is a big New York Times guy, he goes out and gets the paper and does the crossword puzzles every day, we talk about [the news] all the time.
The last two years have felt like I was on a photography crash course. I took lighting courses, color courses, there's not a class out there I haven't taken. My friend Carolyn Fong, who's a commercial and editorial photographer, was there to help guide me through a lot of things this year. What I love most about the assignments I’ve had is that they are centered around the Black American experience.
How did you get into photography?
I started off as a computer engineering major, and then changed majors and graduated with a marketing degree at North Carolina A&T. For the past eight years of my working career, I’ve been working in talent acquisition in the HR department and recruiting. I got into photography because I wanted to take photos of our little one when she was born. I got a mirrorless Fuji, an entry-level product. I did so much research on the functions and how to use it, and went down this rabbit hole. At first I would practice by taking photographs in the park after work, and then my neighbors asked if I could take photos of them. By the time my daughter Wilhelmina was born, I had taken pictures of two or three families. I went to the Family Narrative conference that was hosted in New Orleans six months after my daughter was born, and met a bunch of great photographers, like Summer Murdock and Creative Soul. All I had been doing was family photography, and after that I was so inspired to do more.
How did that change this year?
I got laid off from my job on the Friday of Juneteenth. That following Monday I had a call with Durham magazine — they were looking for a photographer to do some freelance assignments. The first big assignment was photographing Keith Knight, the coproducer of the Woke series on Hulu. The most interesting part about that whole interaction was that it was one of his first times working with a Black photographer. The experience of being able to show up 100% ourselves, especially with all of the events of 2020, was a validation of the importance of representation. I photographed him and his family, and he called me back three weeks later and said that the Post was going to cover him for the show, and he wanted me to do the photographs.
That opened up the door to pitch the Behind the Mask project to the Washington Post. This then led to opportunities to cover the 2020 election for the Washington Post.
That leads us a bit more back to Behind the Mask, the project you’ve been working on this year. There's obviously a lot of thought behind these photos. How did that come around?
The Durham Arts Council asked me if I was interested in doing a solo exhibition. My relationship with them started in 2019 after I submitted some images to a callout for Durham’s 150th anniversary, which were then featured in the exhibition. For the exhibit I wanted to do something meaningful and impactful. I felt like this was an opportunity to use this platform to do something more.
This year has forced us all to bring the Black experience in America to the forefront of our day-to-day lives. The events of 2020, including but not limited to the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor and politicization of their lives and deaths, made me think about all of the things I had experienced over my life. I thought about how my mother bit her tongue every day to show up at work and perform at 1000% despite the racism she faced. I thought about how the schools are still segregated in my hometown and how they still produce excellence despite lacking the same resources that the majority-white high school has four miles away. I thought about days I came to work and wanted to cry after watching my brothers and sisters be killed at the hands of police, but instead smiling and working alongside people who are blissfully or willfully oblivious.
I thought about a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Maya Angelou — who did her own rendition of it — called “We Wear the Mask.” It ties into the fact that we are physically wearing a mask all the time because of the coronavirus, and then there's this other world where I’m wearing another mask that people can't see. The purpose of this project was to say all of these things that we don't have an opportunity to say in white spaces out of fear of compromising our safety, and this was that opportunity to say that and reflect.
I set up a page on my website asking people who were interested in this project to share their contact information and a little bit of their story of wearing the mask. One of the first concepts for a photograph and one of the last images I created was the drowning. This is my best friend, he has three Black boys. He told me that as he ages the reality of having “the talk” with kids is daunting. Telling them they can't play with toy guns in the front yard and how they have to act a certain way around people outside of the house because of stories like Tamir Rice and Emmett Till shouldn’t be an experience of fatherhood. I came up with a concept of him drowning, because that's how he was feeling as a Black father in America.
All of the images in the series are either based on personal experiences of being Black, or the experiences of the people and families I’m photographing. While some of the images reflect pieces of my experience being Black, not all of them are my story.
For example, for the 35 image, I photographed a Black transgender woman. The 35 is representative of a complicated statistic that’s often written about — that 35 is the life expectancy of transgender women of color. That stat came from a Latin American organization and is actually specifically about WOC transgender women working as sex workers. It's often misrepresented, but it also represents the real fear and violence that transgender women experience in society.
We had a couple of phone conversations that were really difficult to have: She was feeling really isolated and had this fear of going outside and being 100% herself. We finally came up with this concept of a celebration of self-love, but it's a celebration at home, at her home, where she felt the most safe. There's a speck in the mirror that's actually me standing in representing all of those evil forces of transphobia, patriarchy, and racism that's always waiting to snuff out her light — the male figure, be it Black or white. But I wanted to make sure her Black joy was the focal point, the joy she has being 100% herself despite having to wear multiple masks at the intersections of being Black, a woman, and transgender.
What do you think the impact of the grant will be on this project and your work?
One of the initial goals I had set out for the project was about diversity and making sure that these images represent the diversity of Blackness. It's hard to do that with 10 images, but one of the things that I think this grant will help with is getting a bigger reach.
With these images, I often started by thinking really big with no limitations, and then bringing it back down to what I could do with the resources that I had. Now, not having to worry so much about time and money, it allows me to again think big but not have to reduce it down to something based on resources. I plan to spend more time than I did last time thinking through concepts and ideas, and spend more time with individuals and families and digging deeper into these stories.
I’m excited. Sometimes you don't know what's going to come out of your own brain. I'm probably going to go down another rabbit hole next year, and I’m excited for that.