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Rising Stars: Meet Leslie Robertson Toney

Today we’d like to introduce you to Leslie Robertson Toney.

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
I’ve been a photographer for many years. I started photographing Trinidad carnival as far back as 2002 and continued to photograph carnival and other Black cultural festivals in the Washington Metropolitan Area, Baltimore, and New York, and whenever I traveled, especially to my homeland, Trinidad and Tobago. Before I got my first SLR camera, my parents gave me a point and shoot, and I documented everything. What motivated me to pursue photography further was my love for Black culture, especially carnival culture in the Caribbean, and a desire to document and educate people about it. I realized that when I spoke to Caribbean-American youth in Maryland, where I lived, that they didn’t know much about our culture. In 2009, I had a website developed and I began a blog series where I posted images and talked about the history and Diasporic connections of carnival.

Also, I have had the honor of photographing traditional African religious ceremonies, particularly orisha worship in Trinidad, but also in Washington DC. I use my photography to tell stories of Black people in the Diaspora, to document and highlight the connections between people living outside the continent and their ancestral heritage. For this reason, it has always been important to me to document Trinidad and Tobago carnival and to incorporate information on the history and function of the festival in retaining ancestral culture as a source of joy, healing and pride, and a mechanism of resistance. My photography has been sustained by commercial work such as event and portrait photography and the sale of prints. However, I have simultaneously had a career as a psychotherapist, teacher, and researcher in mental health. After several years as a clinician I pivoted in a different direction that helps me to better integrate the photography and cultural research I have been doing. I returned to school to pursue my PhD and I am currently a doctoral candidate in Sociology with a concentration in Women’s and Gender Studies at Virginia Tech. My photographic work is integrated into my scholarship as I place the subject matter of my images in conversation with Black, decolonial, and transnational feminist frameworks and take a sociological approach to understand the structures that shape carnival.

In 2010 I hosted my first exhibit where I focused on Trinidadian queens of carnival and women band leaders whom I interviewed and photographed for the project. Since then, I have exhibited my work in Washington DC at Children’s Hospital, Art Impact USA’s Light of the Ancestors exhibit, and in Cuba at the Caribbean Studies Association conference. My current show, entitled Syncretism, Picong and Mas: A Two-Faced Resistance is a solo exhibit at Virginia Tech’s Perspective Gallery. It runs until December 18.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
The most challenging thing about being a photographer has been to maintain the practice while working full-time in another demanding field. Also, the demands of photography do not stop at composition and the actual taking of a photo. Pre-and post-production, particularly as digital media and software have become more advanced, pose a challenge in terms of staying current. As digital photography becomes more accessible and technology more advanced, it is sometimes challenging to keep up with new skills. Additionally, digital photography has allowed many more people into the field, which can be both beneficial and challenging. However, I look at the trajectory of my work, and my portfolio evidences significant growth in technical skill and perspective, and I have created a niche that suits my values and intentions.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
My photographic style is journalistic portraiture. I focus on Black life in the Diaspora, specifically carnival in Trinidad and Tobago and in the Caribbean diaspora, Black festivals, and rituals. I am known for narratives – I am a skillful storyteller – and for my composition skills. I am proud of the consistency and breath of my work on carnival and Black life and the blog series I hosted for more than seven years. The series still serves as a resource for young learners and their families as demonstrated in my site traffic and the personal comments I hear from followers, especially parents. That gives me pride because it means that my work is still fulfilling one of my original intentions: to serve as an enriching, educational tool to share the value of my cultural heritage.

How do you think about luck?
I have been fortunate to know many artists and patrons of the arts who take an interest in and support my work, to have the resources to pursue photography, in part, a full-time career outside of photography that allows me room to take a more artistic and not market-driven approach sometimes. I have the freedom to halt commercial activity in order to pursue more creative, less commercially viable projects from time to time, which has expanded my skills in my niche.

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Image Credits

Portrait of Leslie Robertson Toney – Kearra Amaya Gopee All other images copyright Leslie-Ann C. Robertson Toney

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