Melissa Alexander — known professionally as Phyllis Iller — is a veteran photographer from Atlanta, Georgia. Known for celebrating hip-hop and Black resilience, Iller's work was recently featured in Black Light Winter Activation, a show produced by Atlanta-based creative director Ash Nash. It was “an opportunity to bring my dreams to life,” said Alexander of the experience, noting that it gave her an opportunity to showcase photos of a number of exuberant women she admired in her childhood.
We spoke to Alexander about growing up in Atlanta's West End, ’90s hip-hop, and documenting the city's "last bastion of Blackness."
Tell me everything about this project. What does "Around The Way Girl" mean for you?
My project, Around The Way Dreams, stems from my childhood admiration of Queen Latifah, specifically her portrayal of Khadijah James in Living Single, and Big Lez, hostess of BET’s Rap City. On most afternoons after school, I would rush home to see Big Lez interview the big hip-hop stars of the day, a lone female holding her own in a space that was often reserved only for men. Then, on Thursday evenings, my mother and I would spend quality time watching Khadijah live out her dreams “in a ’90s kinda world.” There was something about these women that resonated deep within my 9-year-old heart. In my mind, they were Black women who exuded an indefinite cool. They were smart, approachable, hardworking, self-accepting, and, most importantly, [they] commanded respect because [they respected] themselves.
They were women who were immortalized by LL Cool J’s song “Around The Way Girl” in 1990. The accepted aesthetic of an Around the Way Girl precedes her: the nice hair, the long nails, the bamboo earrings, the fashionable clothing, the street smarts. But she’s so much more than that! I became fascinated with exploring the woman who was once an Around The Way Girl. I wondered if those street smarts proved advantageous or detrimental. What lessons had she learned? I wondered if her impeccable style led to a career in the fashion world. I wondered if she was a mother and what was she teaching her children? In short, I wondered about her story.
How do you choose people for your projects? What are your conversations like with those who agree to be photographed?
The photographs are tied together by color scheme and the usage of the bamboo earring, a ubiquitous symbol for Around The Way Girls — however, I provided no direction on their styling, makeup, or hair. Each woman arrived exactly how she felt most comfortable; this was a strict requirement that was impressed upon each of them. Christina arrived in a sweater and scarf with minimal makeup, Nikki arrived in a floor-length fur and a bold red lip — both are Around The Way Girls.
What was it like growing up in the West End of Atlanta when you did?
I moved to West End about 6 years ago, having lived in metro Atlanta since 1996. However, I can say that being a resident has been a cherished experience. Despite Atlanta’s ability to turn a blind eye to homelessness and the ever-encroaching gentrification, West End is a community where neighbors know each other and are willing to help out when needed. West End gives, if you’re ready to receive.
I’ve dabbled in photography since I was 16, yet never believed I would eventually be pursuing a photography career. In 2016, still very much a hobbyist, I purchased a Nikon and began making portraits of West End, the residents, the landscapes, the love. I felt it was my duty to document the community that felt like the last bastion of Blackness before it, too, succumbed to gentrification like so many other neighborhoods here. I posted my work on Instagram and received a really good response, so I made more portraits.
I was blown away that I could be paid for a service I would do for free. While working in corporate America during the day, photography began to dominate my thoughts. I did whatever I could to remain creative, moving from street photography to studio portraiture. With no savings, no real plan, only an intense fear of ever having to choose between my life or my work, I bet on myself, my drive, and my talent. It’s worked out well so far.
What have you learned about your community through photography?
I always tell folks: West End isn’t a place like New York, Los Angeles, or even downtown Atlanta, in that you go searching for the attraction, or the next new thing. You let West End happen to you. You sit down and watch it unfold, listen to it speak.
My community now extends well outside of the West End. I’ve met people, been places, stepped into rooms that astounded me, all because of photography. The good energy and intention that flows from me through my camera will always attract those who are of a like mind. I’ve had the chance to collaborate, artistically or not, with amazing artists, creating the change we want to see, each of us teaching and learning from one another at the speed of light. It’s truly a wonderful time to be an artist. Community is a chosen thing and I’ve chosen wisely.
Who is Phyllis Iller?
Phyllis is one of my nicknames, to some. The name was born during an intimate kickback at my first apartment, years ago. An animated story was being told by my friend CeCe, a transplanted Brooklynite with an accent so deep there could be no mistake as to her birthplace. Enraptured, we listened to this story about Phyllis, a true character who was always into something. We laughed at all the right parts and, when the story was done, we settled into a comfortable silence. This silence was broken by one question, my question: "Who the fuck is Phyllis?” Confusion lit CeCe’s face.
You see, CeCe, the Brooklynite, had been telling a story about a cat named Fearless, but, she spoke so fast, her accent so deep, it came out sounding like Phyllis. (Say it a few times, you’ll hear it, too.) We laughed and laughed and Phyllis was born. Another friend, Maurice, began to randomly greet me with plays on the name Phyllis. One day, he called me Phyllis Iller, a play on the sassy comedienne Phyllis Diller. Then and there, I promised I’d pay him one day for his great idea.
I’d say Phyllis Iller, as an alter ego, is important to my photography because it informs the basis of my wonder at our collective individuality. It invites both viewer, subject, and creator to ask questions, get intimate, pull closer. Further, this idea of Phyllis is not unique to me. Anyone could be Phyllis, so long as they’re coming from a place of vulnerability, positivity, and good character. In a lot of ways, Phyllis Iller hasn’t varied too much from that night long ago. Phyllis Iller, at the root — taking away the camera, the photography, the film — is a company that is insatiably curious about who the fuck you are and the story that needs to be told.