French-Senegalese photographer Delphine Diallo lives for life’s surprises. Little did she know, a chance meeting in Paris with famed photographer Peter Beard, who is known for his African wildlife shots, would come full circle, and he would become her mentor. In February 2008, Diallo received a call from Beard, and he asked, “What are you doing in April? Please come to Botswana with me to be my assistant on the Pirelli calendar.”
Diallo said yes, and the transformational trip solidified that photography was her calling. She later moved to New York, quit her full-time agency job, started waitressing, and moonlighted as a photographer. Randomly bumping into a lost Chris Rock in her Brooklyn neighborhood led to photographing Rock for a recent comedy tour and resulted in a huge career breakthrough. Clients have been coming ever since, including The New York Times, Nike, and Swizz Beats.
Her striking portraiture and mixed media collages combine artistry with activism to champion women and challenge societal norms through the exploration of anthropology, mythology, sexuality, identity, and race. “To make it in this male-dominated industry, you must be strong,” says Diallo. “I build my physical and mental strength by studying martial arts and reading constantly.”
You grew up in France—what was your earliest exposure to the arts?
My mother has always been an artist at heart, but was never able to make a career of it. Every weekend, she’d take me to the Louvre Museum, and an artistic aesthetic was always around me. Therefore, my photography today is very close to a painting or portraiture.
You worked as a graphic designer in Paris. What did you enjoy about it, and what led to your realization that it wasn’t for you?
Society tells you that to be an artist is not something you can do for a living. When I graduated, I applied my art skills as a graphic designer and video editor working for companies and branding musicians and artists. I did it for seven years, I did it well, and got the respect. But, as new technologies emerged, I spent more time keeping up with technological changes that I felt limited creatively. These frustrations led me back to photography, which I had studied in school. I wanted to be great at one thing, so thought, “Okay, if this is the beginning, why not give myself 10 years to do this?” When it comes to your vision, you don’t have to stop for technology.
How did you make the move to New York City?
In 2008, I received an O-1 Visa [artist visa] from a creative agency to work on graphic design and video editing projects. It was good, but I felt stifled by the office environment. And, I barely had time to create for myself because I was constantly producing for them.
How did you go from getting back into photography to being mentored by photo icon Peter Beard?
Crazy, right? Sometimes you need one good dinner in the right place at the right time to lead you to a world of opportunities. My friend and actress Aissa Maiga was in Paris for the holidays in 2007, and we had difficulty coordinating our schedules. So, Aissa invited me to tagalong to a dinner event on the Avenue des Champs- Élysées, and I struck up a random conversation with Beard. It felt like a meeting of creative minds, we talked for hours, and I showed him a photo I shot of my family in Senegal that made me proud. I remember he said, “You capture something that I’ve rarely seen—what you capture is full of life and energy.” When he called me a year later to work on the Pirelli calendar shoot in Botswana, it felt like a magical call.
What made this trip transformational?
It was an eye-opening experience to be in Botswana—ten days felt like six months of training. One day, we’re in the middle of a village with elephants coming out of the water and the next night, we’re in the desert surrounded by two bush men and a boar. Botswana is very close to the equator, so when you look at the sky, it feels like the stars are touching your face. I can’t explain it, but when I laid down and looked up at the sky, I began to cry, and boom, I knew what my mission was. After the trip, Peter said, “Please use your gift and photography tools to wake people up.”
When you returned to New York, you quit your agency position and started waitressing?
Yes. This was the beginning of my journey to pursue photography full-time. I knew there would be struggle, but I asked myself what I needed to produce and make money. The answer was I needed three days a week to only take pictures, and waitressing afforded me this.
How did you juggle your schedule, and what skills from waitressing are applicable to photography?
I worked at a very popular restaurant, and had great hours working four shifts from 4 p.m.-1 a.m. This meant I could create during the day, and still have three days to devote entirely to photography. It’s difficult to deal with rude people, but you learn to understand them more. I spent a year and a half studying human behavior, and served people from all over the world. It was an adventure and this experience informs my photography today. Waitressing teaches you empathy, not to take anything personal, and teaches you to be social, in a good way. It was tough, but it was necessary for my photography work to be created. If I had to go back, I would do it again.
After a while, your photography gigs began to compete with your waitressing schedule. How did you make the transition to full-time photographer?
Before Instagram, I had a WordPress blog in 2009, and it was very popular. I took lots of pictures of New York City, and posted constantly. I always have someone who is watching my work, and an art director from Nike, Stanley Lumax, was a fan. He hired me because my street photography pictures were cool, and they wanted me to recreate this aesthetic with Nike’s athletes. I was hired regularly for Nike shoots, which allowed me to make consistent money, and led to work with Converse. I never want to be typecast as one type of photographer, so my portraiture photography led to editorial work with The New York Times, Inc., Esquire, and The New Yorker. The key was finding consistent clients.
You created the cover art for Chris Rock’s Total Blackout Tour. Walk us through landing this project and your creative process.
It’s a funny story. Chris Rock discovered my work two years ago. I saw someone from the back walking in my neighborhood, and could tell they were lost. So, I shouted, “Hey, are you lost?” And, it was Chris Rock, but I didn’t recognize him at first because you don’t recognize someone famous, especially if they’re in your neighborhood. Before recognition sunk in, I jokingly said, “I know you’re looking for something. And, you don’t know it, but you’re looking for me.”
We kept walking and talking, and he was incredibly kind and humble. We continued talking about life, and I invited him up to my Bushwick photography studio. Before he left, I gave him a copy of my photo book, The Gift, and he said, “I’ll work with you next time I have a project.” A year later, he called and said, “Hey. Can we work together? My tour is starting, and it’s a big deal.” I was like, “See! I knew you were looking for me.” Then, I asked him to send me portraits of pictures he liked, and we’d work from there. It takes a while to get portraits right, and I wanted to push to envelope beyond a shot of him holding a microphone.
During our shoot, I asked him to give me a screaming attitude, and used smoke to make it edgier. You have choices to be more like portraiture, still photography, looking at the camera or sitting, but the screaming shot was perfect. Therefore, the title, The Total Blackout Tour, came after the image—so it was a total creative collaboration.
How do you make your finances work as a full time photographer?
Most people believe that a photographer is making good money no matter what, but it’s not true. When it comes to editorial projects, magazines don’t pay much unless you’re on staff. The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Esquire cover your expenses and day rate, which is around $500, but by the time you’re done editing and retouching images, and deduct your taxes, you’re not left with much.
There’s a level of prestige shooting for these publications, so when I was starting out, it was great. However, when I’m commissioned for campaigns from creative agencies, organizations, and celebrity projects like Chris Rock’s tour, these provide for me well beyond any editorial job. I own the copyrights for my images for multiple years, and it can be renewed. I receive royalties for any marketing and promotional use of the image whether it’s used online, on a poster, T-shirt or mug. And, when images I’ve shot are part of a global campaign or worldwide tour—this helps my work reach a wider, international audience. This meaningful work also helps fund my personal projects.
Finally, you’ve launched your personal project, Women of New York. What’s the inspiration behind this?
For the past eight years, I’ve been shooting women and girls, so the idea is to create visibility through classic portraiture. One day, I woke up after the We the People campaign, and felt like, “Damn, I’m lazy—I didn’t shoot enough women.” To develop structure, I realized I need to create a book, so I’ll shoot 200 women in New York, and cut it down to 111, because I love that number, and it symbolizes oneness.
For the first time, I’m blind casting for this project. I feel like if I select women, then I’m discriminating against other women who want to participate. I’m not going to do that. So, my assistant handles the model calls I post on Instagram, and 30 women might reply, and because they’ve expressed interest, they are part of this project.
I want to give each woman who has felt defeated, unprotected, ignored or degraded, a new light to shine on her brilliance and beauty. And, for the women who have always felt empowered, despite society dismissing her in the workplace, educational institutions, media outlets, and even in her home, I want Women of New York to illuminate her strength in ways she may never have imagined.