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Know Thyself: Kenny Sang Defines Black Masculinity on His Own Creative Terms

By Brogues - 4 min read

Based in Frankfurt, Kenny Sang uses his artistic ability to enact positive change in the realm of representation, intent on subverting narrow depictions of black masculinity. In this guest post, the fashion photographer explores how self-actualization is key to creating – and expressing – for the greater good.

Being of Kenyan and Jamaican heritage really shaped my transition from boy to man. Growing up in such a setting – where traditional values, religion, gender roles and sexuality are somewhat intertwined – I had a lot of experiences related to masculinity within the black community early on in life. I also spent the better part of my teenagehood in boarding school, and I believe it was here that I was unconsciously introduced to different types of masculinity. It’s a jungle-like environment; only the fittest survive. So, like many others, I joined cliques, took up vices considered “manly”.

“Society teaches men to dominate in every aspect of their lives.”

At the same time, I also took on leadership roles, such as being elected the school’s bell ringer, then later on head boy, which I’m still thankful for. These roles helped cultivate qualitiessuch as punctuality, communication with people of different backgrounds and ages, a taste of power, as well as the art of listening before speaking – a valuable trait in a society that unfortunately teaches men to dominate in every aspect of their lives.

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“You can either conform to perceived standards of black masculinity, or choose to create your own definition.”

As I moved onto higher education, and later the job market, it slowly became clear to me that society’s perception of black masculinity (and femininity) was very different to the reality of our white counterparts. I was constantly reminded of both my blackness and masculinity. When confronted with such situations, you can either conform to the general public’s perceived standards of black masculinity, or choose to create your own definition. I chose – and still choose – to create my definition of what I should be. It’s a process, not a destination; every day I learn something new.

Through photography, I’ve become more self-disciplined, more self-aware. I always had some sort of curiosity, combined with an obsession for detail in visual art – but it wasn’t until two years ago that I became aware how much photography was “the thing” for me, and a lot has changed since then. I pay close attention to my surroundings. I’ve come to appreciate humanity more than ever, because every subject I shoot has a different personality and I get to learn a lot from each individual.

“Photography has prompted me to capture narratives that will challenge people’s perceptions.”

In turn, it’s prompted me to capture narratives that will challenge people’s perceptions, stereotypes and misjudgments that have constantly been placed on certain groups of people through visual media. When the brain is exposed to an image, it indulges in emotion and imagination, developing attachment to what it understands, as well as fear and hatred towards what it doesn’t –which is why proper visual representation is very important.

Growing up, there weren’t so many images of people that looked like me on TV or in magazines, and the imagery or stories that were being shown reinforced a pre-existing stereotype. This affected my self-esteem and confidence in achieving my desired dreams, since I couldn’t find or see someone who I could relate to. Stories about black people that made an impact in the world’s history were either suppressed or never told at all.

“I feel lucky to live at this particular time, where people are taking action and inspiring others to do the same.”

I believe I speak for many people who have been affected by toxic representation of black masculinity (and femininity). It wasn’t until late into my teens that I versed myself with the topic of representation, and it’s been an exciting journey. I stumble across information that inspires and motivates me to be part of the conversation and enact change where necessary. I feel lucky to live at this particular time, where people are taking action and inspiring others to do the same. The internet and social media platforms have made it easier than ever for people to share their personal experiences, which in turn enables individuals from all walks of life to connect with each other –regardless of where they might be.

That’s the beauty of channels like Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms, but it’s also important for us to check and recheck our sources at a time when “fake news” is very much prevalent. As a fashion photographer, it warms my heart to see people of color, people of different shapes and sizes being featured in high-end fashion campaigns, blockbuster movies and in other forms of art. What a time to be alive.

“My mission is to use this platform to celebrate diversity across the board.”

My mission is to use my platform to celebrate diversity across the board, exercising my creative skills to speak about challenges that halt us from fully becoming the best versions of ourselves. In the near future I want to tackle topics such toxic masculinity, mental health in the black community, black feminism and how it differs to white feminism. “Knowledge of self is the beginning of all wisdom.” – that would be my message to the wider world.

This guest post was written as part of#NotYourCliche, our movement away from antiquated stock stereotypes and towards a more relevant, inclusive, representative view of global culture and society. You can exploremore of Kenny’s work on his EyeEm profile or Instagram feed.