Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe (b. July 9th, 1951) is a photographer, a mother and an activist who seeks to bring social awareness through not only her imagery, but her words. Her love of the arts stems from being raised by an interior designer mother and architect father in Chicago, Illinois. Jeanne’s childhood was flooded with Picasso prints and watching her father draw for hours on end. This set off a spark and soon enough, she was attending weekend art classes as a child at the Art Institute of Chicago. Jeanne was introduced to her first camera at the age of 15 and attempted to apply to Cooper Union for college, yet was rejected the first time around and told to study with Garry Winogrand at the Art Institute of Chicago for a summer. She went on to attending Cooper Union and then later, in her junior year, taking an independent study to photograph in West Africa.
This study set the pace for the rest of Jeanne’s career as she started to delve into the culture of the fishing villages in Ghana and making connections to historical slave journeys from Africa to America. Greatly intrigued, she took this idea and sought out communities on the southeast coast of America. These communities consisted of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, such as Daufuskie, Edisto and Hilton Head. Jeanne made her way through these communities, being taken in by the inhabitants and forming relationships, making her images that much more real and captivating. These people were descendants from slaves, they were the Gullah community. Since there was not a bridge to the mainland, these communities were isolated and maintained their original African heritage, having their own language and economy. Jeanne sought to preserve and document these people by photographing them from 1977 to 1981, as their land was being taken over by developers for resorts, vacation homes and golf courses. Jeanne went on to quickly publish Daufuskie Island: A Photographic Essay in 1982 because she wanted people to see this culture, to understand the Daufuskie people before they were pushed out of their land. This book has since been republished with additional photographs, and the collection was purchased by Bank of America and then donated to the new Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture which was opened in September 2016. Moutoussamy-Ashe speaks on the subject saying, “To give this just incredible, warm, giving, nurturing community of people recognition that they were able to thrive as long as they did, that to me is a testament to them and to our culture.” (source)
During Daufuskie research, Jeanne had befriended photographer and researcher Deb Willis over many talks of black women photographers and their representation in the world. They started to research the history of black women photographers, digging through old archives and phonebooks. Back in the 1800s, black people would be listed in the phonebooks with a letter “C” next to their name, so Jeanne would use this as a guide when searching through the business directories for photographers. With compiling all of this information on black women photographers from 1839 to 1985, Jeanne published the book Viewfinders in 1986, making it the first book ever written about women photographers. This book touched on how women photographers were viewed throughout history, how their roles as photographers were once limited to photographing for the Women’s Army Corps, being camera girls in clubs or apprenticing other photographers. The shift throughout time is so evident as now black women photographers are seen in museums all over, making their own waves in the photography world.
This book was a labor of love for Jeanne, and it surely shows her great passion for preserving history in a way that informs future generations while also showing honor to what is being preserved. All of Jeanne’s work intends to serve a greater purpose, to provoke thought and feeling, to initiate conversation.
Back when Jeanne was still studying at Cooper Union, she began to work as a graphic artists for NBC, then later began to photograph assignments for them. Due to her friend Gordon Parks’ suggestion, Jeanne went on to get credentials to photograph the United Negro College Fund Tennis Tournament held by 1968 US Open champion, Arthur Ashe. Parks’ suggested Jeanne’s attendance due to him thinking that Arthur would find a liking to her...and he was right. Jeanne went on to marry Arthur in 1977 and then later in 1987, they brought to the world their daughter Camera. Jeanne and Arthur were a beautiful pairing, as they had both made way in their professions but also both felt a deep care for the world and a drive to create a voice for cultures not spoken for. About 19 months after the birth of their baby girl, Arthur was found to be HIV positive due to a virus from a blood transfusion in a previous heart procedure. Jeanna continued to photograph her husband and her daughter up until Arthur’s death. These photographs turned into a tender and emotional series of images later published in a book called “Daddy and Me”. This book helped to start the debunking of social stigmas that are associated with AIDS and to present a real-life representation of what goes on in a family when an illness is in their lives. The images include Camera helping her dad take his medicine, while also images of them doing everyday tasks such as reading bedtime stories. Jeanne has continued to preserve and share Arthur’s legacy through the online Arthur Ashe Learning Center and the Arthur Ashe Inspirational tour in 2013, which was an interactive exhibit about his legacy. Arthur had a saying of “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can”, which has become a core value for this foundation as it helps children to see the potential in themselves, despite their circumstances. To show people that they can make a change, even if it’s just in their own home at first. The Arthur Ashe endowment has also been training health-care workers across the globe, working towards the defeat of AIDS. While Jeanne is a fantastic photographer, she is also a brilliant preserver of history and advocate that you can make a difference in the world, no matter how big or how small, just by putting your heart into the things you truly believe in.
Written by Emilee Prado
Sources: Linked in article.
Copyright: Jeanne Moutousammy-Ashe, unless otherwise stated.