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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Be Worth Imitating: Photographer puts uplifting Black images on display

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As the old adage goes, what they see they’ll be. For photographer Andrea D. Smith, owner of Studio 57, this lesson came very early.

Smith remembers growing up across the street from a woman who, in her mind, was the epitome of class. “I watched her every day, and she probably had no idea that I was even alive,” Smith said with a laugh. “She owned her own cosmetic line, so she was an entrepreneur. She was so classy and looked nice and had a nice car. I was about 10, and in my mind, I thought that is what I want to be like.”

Smith shared that though the woman has no idea the effect she had on her as a young girl, she carried that notion of leaving a positive impression throughout her own life and career. “You never know who is watching you and what kind of impact you’re having,” she said. 

In 2015, Smith started Be Worth Imitating, a socially conscious photo series that showcases young men portraying some of Indianapolis’s most influential Black men from the sectors of community leadership, politics and business.

“It started out with just trying to highlight some of the African-American men in our community, because there are so many negative connotations of (them) with the recent spikes in crime and all of that, so I felt like I wanted to highlight some of the positivity,” she said. 

According to data released by Project Implicit, though Black youth perception of themselves has improved over the decades, 50 percent continue to exhibit some form of anti-Black bias. Experts assert that much of this is due to a lack of media representation.

In an interview with Black Enterprise, Dr. Welansa Asrat, a New York-based specialist in cross-cultural psychiatry, stated that anti-Black bias can be counteracted with pro-Black bias. “In psychiatry, we talk about risk factors for particular disorders. However, there are also protective factors that can minimize or diminish the impact of risk factors. Exposure to anti-Black bias is a risk for internalized racism and low self-esteem. However, pro-Black images can protect against that risk.”

Some of the men featured in the Be Worth Imitating series are Al “The Bishop” Hobbs, Congressman Andre Carson, IFD Chief Ernest Malone and the late William G. Mays.

Smith said her intention was to use young faces to help inspire something in other young people. “Some of these men grew up in the neighborhoods where we have negative things going on, but they were able to beat the odds and do something positive,” she said. “Some of them have (passed) on and other ones are still going. By doing this with youth it would inspire other young men. It’s something they can see themselves in and assimilate to.” 

The photo series has been showcased at various art exhibitions around the city and was most recently displayed at the Indianapolis International Airport. Today, some of the images are plastered on billboards in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. There is one at 38th Street and Capitol Avenue, 10th Street and Massachusetts Avenue, and another at 38th Street and Emerson Avenue featuring Ernest Malone, who grew up in the nearby neighborhood. On 30th Street and Central Avenue, a billboard with Smith’s own son Antonio dressed as the late Amos Brown sticks out as a welcome distraction from the otherwise bleak surroundings.

Smith feels that the billboards can be used as a learning opportunity for families. 

“It’s a conversation piece for adults riding in the car with their kids. It becomes a point for parents to talk to the youth about who some of these people are. Some of them may not know who Amos Brown is,” she said. “It sparks an opportunity for conversation to discuss what he did in the community and what he meant for the community and it also gives children a positive image. They can begin to think, ‘Well hey, I can do that, too!’”

Smith shared that her son Antonio’s appearance in the photo series actually came out of a moment of necessity.

“That wasn’t supposed to be. He was my test, so I had to get everything set up for the shoot with the other boys. I had him come in so I could get everything in position so that it wouldn’t take as much time,” she said. 

The exhibit was set to be displayed at Indiana Black Expo’s Cultural Arts Pavilion during Summer Celebration, but Smith ran short on time and couldn’t find another “Amos,” so they ran with it.

“It was so amazing, and my son was so excited. He couldn’t wait to meet him,” said Smith.

She recounts the moment that her son saw Amos walking into the exhibit as a humorous one. “My son saw him and took off running down the hall and jumped up and hugged him around the neck.” Later, Brown mentioned jokingly to Smith during an interview on his AM-1310 talk show that Antonio was more excited about Brown than Brown was about himself.

Ultimately, Smith intends for the images to act as change agents in the lives of those who see them. “It’s a big thing, if I can help change the direction that one youth may go, then I’ve done my part.”

Currently, she is seeking to partner with other community organizations and is in the process of moving the display from its most recent home at the airport to a different location. She also plans to add more subjects to the collection.

“This goes beyond even just the young men and the men that they are portraying. As adults and parents we have a responsibility to be worth imitating,” she said. “Kids are always exposed to athletes and rappers, and some of them can be positive role models, but many of them are not. It’s the people that kids come in contact with on a regular basis that have an impact on them.” 

To view the gallery online and find out more information on Be Worth Imitating, visit beworthimitating.com.  




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