Philadelphia-based Naomieh Jovin’s work explores every aspect of the personal — our bodies, our histories, our origin stories. As a first-generation Haitian American woman, Jovin’s relationship with her family as a young woman was rooted in intergenerational trauma. Her latest photography project, Gwo Fanm, looked at her late mother and her role in the family dynamic. Jovin has also used photography over the years to process that trauma and its impact on herself.
She spoke with BuzzFeed News about developing her love of photography in high school, working with found images and collages, and challenging her own perceptions of her body by photographing friends in the nude.
How did you get into photography?
My baby album! Since middle school, I used to bring my baby album with me and sit at lunch flipping through the pages. I loved looking at the amazing outfits my parents put me in for my birthdays. Dressed like a true Haitian baby! I also enjoyed looking back at old photographs and trying to figure out the story behind them. Being able to tell a narrative with images has always interested me, especially when in book form. The sequential structure of a book helps to form a visual narrative where the images are loud enough to speak for themselves. This is what got me into photography.
What is your relationship with photographing the body?
When people experience trauma, they form a different relationship with the body. They no longer perceive their bodies as functional spaces. These experiences reshape the perspectives of the body, rendering it as useless. Instead, the body is seen as something shameful, powerless, something that needs to be hidden or concealed.
How can I attempt to rid the body of trauma? How does the act of photographing my friends and having them interact and perform in the nude connect to ridding the body of trauma? How is that experience transformative in giving me agency and power?
These are questions I’ve come to explore through my work. The subjects appearing in my work are friends. The process begins where the figures engage in a performance in which they have to walk, climb and interact with each other. Being in a safe space with my friends along with all the things that trigger me happen within a space where I'm in control. That's how it becomes transformative for me. My decision to photograph the body was to challenge my perspective and reclaim agency over my own.
How has your relationship to your body changed through photographing yourself?
That’s still a process. I have ups and downs with how I view my body, but in this process, there’s been quite a bit of growth. This growth has made me aware of the strength and the intimacy of the body, and I’m celebrating that.
What do you want people to see when they look at these photos? What about the friends and people you photograph — what are you hoping to see when they look at images of themselves, and what is often the reaction?
I’m making the work for myself, because this work is very personal and ongoing. I’m not thinking about how other people are going to interpret it. I suppose I’m hoping for an authentic reaction.
Recently, I've been considering what kind of impact my work will actually have. Questions I ask myself are: How can I attempt to create understanding through photography? What feelings does my photography invoke? What perspective leads you there? How do you view the body, before and after being introduced to my work? These questions help me gauge whether I’ve met my goals on destigmatizing the body or if it's even a possibility.
I've read a quote where you say, "A lot of what I do is mental — and the final result is a photograph — a response to what I process.” Once you take or find a photo, what's your process?
Much of my work occurs through observation and recollection, and I try to process the stories that I have gathered about my family history and other subjects into my photographs. Speaking through my photography has become more than just taking pictures — it has a way of making tough situations, like the passing of my mother and life in general, easier to deal with.
What has been the hardest photograph you've ever taken?
Photographing my grandmother. I’ve had an estranged relationship with her since childhood. The year before her death, I wanted to rekindle our relationship. I often replayed moments where I wasn’t so friendly with her and the talks I’ve had with my mother that followed. I remember my mom saying, “If my mom wasn’t here, I wouldn't be here and neither would you,” or how she expressed that my grandmother is queen mother and our history is within her. She is the beginning of life for my family.
Gwo Fanm is a major project of yours, looking at your mother, whom you lost when you were young. Can you tell me more about this project?
Gwo Fanm began as I was learning to investigate my origin stories with a depth that only time could help me access. It’s something that is still growing. The title was inspired by a conversation I had with an aunt expressing how proud she was of me for an important decision I made. “Gwo fanm” translates to “Big Woman” in English — “Big Woman” as in “to take up space.” I immediately thought of my mom and the resilience she embodied while taking space as an immigrant Black woman.
Referencing the images from my mother’s album, I’ve noticed many parallels between my mother’s family photos and my work. These similarities highlight a spiritual connection to my familial history and my present self.
What are some of your goals as we start a new year?
I have some personal goals and intentions I’ve set that I'm working toward meeting, like saying “no” more and controlling what I put out. Besides being more affirming of myself, I’m excited to be shooting my very first music video with a really good friend and amazing singer, Destiny X. I’m more than excited.