Womanism 1.9 // Courtney Yates
by Juliet Cangelosi·
Brooklyn-based Photographer and Director
Interviewed by Juliet Cangelosi
On this particular Sunday, seated comfortably on her bed, Courtney Yates’ speaking voice sounds like a prayer and release. The sun is filtering through an ivy-strewn window in her Bedstuy apartment, casting a soft spotlight on her. Framed images of her late father and friend stand with a presence upon the radiator, directly across from her as we talk. In the weightedness of her tone, it is apparent that she carries within her an old soul and timeless intuition that is ever-reflected in the work she creates as a photographer and director.
I walked away from this conversation wholly encouraged as an artist and human, with many of Yates’ words stuck in my mind. She spoke from such a strong sense of grounding in something beyond herself that it was almost tangible—her perspective a potent reminder to root oneself in something deeper than the created work alone. We hope you’re able to glean some of the same encouragement as we introduce the next installment of our Womanism series.
Tell me how you would describe the work you create.
The work I make is a variety of things. The undercurrent is always wanting to provide some sort of ease to the viewer about having an emotional landscape and really facing that… I’ve definitely had really high highs and really low lows and I’ve learned how to use that.
From a really young age I was really sensitive… I think my sensitivity was portrayed [by others] as something that we needed to get over and find a way out of. I’ve realized there’s no way out of that for me. I’m really grateful I experience life in that way and it’s what gives me a lot of meaning in my life. I try to make work that speaks to people who experience that or maybe inspires people to not turn away so much from what they’re feeling.
As a viewer, I always feel like I can sense you a lot in the work you create—not in an egotistical way, but in a way I can only describe as soulful. Do you feel a soulful connection to the work you make?
Soul is the ethos of everything that I do, absolutely. It’s awesome to hear you say that, so thank you. I would definitely say the soul and the spirit are really central for me... Even when I was in middle school taking pictures, it was a compulsion and it was the only thing that let the pressure out of the valve. Soulful is such a funny term because I think everyone has the capacity to be soulful, but there are certain temperaments that just don’t prioritize that exploration. We can be socialized in so many ways about how we’re meant to portray what we’re feeling. For some reason I got stuck with this temperament of being super emotional.
When I think about soul I definitely think about my dad—and even if my dad hadn’t passed I would still say the same— his soul was in everything that he did... That soul motivation feels like something that was in my DNA, just kind of given to me through him.
I remember just a couple of years ago talking about really wanting to make this choice to not just make beautiful images. I felt like there was a good bit of time where I was needing to prove to the people who observed me that I was capable of making something that looks good or satisfies the eye or the brain and ended up making a lot of images that felt pretty empty. I think I was also just figuring out my technical skills. And now, even the show I was [recently] in, that to me was the first time I was able to make work truly from the soul with no restraints… Very much hoping that that continues the rest of my life.
How do you stay true to your own style and creative visions in an Instagram world?
It’s really hard to not be referential to your contemporaries and I’m sure that was always the case, but it’s especially the case now. I try to watch a lot of movies and I really try to digest what it is about a movie or film that hits my soul and I try to stay there. There are certainly commercial jobs where you know what they want and they’ve hired you in reference to your peers... It’s really easy to just go—the wheel is turning and you just go and go and go. You need to be able to put a rock in front of the wheel and just be like I’m doing it this way, because this is me.
It can be hard when you’re dealing with a lot of people’s opinions to just keep believing in yourself. What’s been your journey with that?
Believing in myself—self-confidence—that’s a really, really long journey for me. I suffered a lot as a kid with really bad self-esteem, especially around my intelligence and ability. I had a really hard time in school and it is not something that really went away… It really started to get better I would say, honestly, four years ago. I was in such a lifelong cycle of not being able to call to action what it is that I wanted to do with my life. I was surrounded by women who just knew what they wanted and went to it with, I’m sure, so many insecurities themselves but they just named it. I found that to be truly the most—it sounds so cheesy—but that is the thing I take with me on every job… Truly I’ll be in a situation and I’ll think to myself: what would they do? I remember I was on the Nike/Naomi [Osaka] job and it was so stressful for me. And I was just like, “What would she do right now?” and it really helped me to push.
How did you get into photography and then directing? What drew you to both?
I can’t really say what drew me [to photography]. I remember I took this Photoshop camp... and my parents bought me this little digital camera. I was in Photoshop for the first time and I was messing with this picture of this open field… I remember being so excited about it, like holy shit, look at how I just made this picture look... I think from there I was really, really hooked and was just like, this is the medium for me… I just latched onto it.
I photographed a lot in high school and then I took a big break in college and didn’t really photograph at all. I was really depressed… When I moved to New York I got a job at a publishing company… and I was really confused. I knew that I needed to be in that world but I did not know how.
… One of my good friends Madison, she is a fucking powerhouse. She’s from New York so she really believes in herself— that’s in her practice. We went to dinner one time when I was still an assistant [at an advertising agency] and I knew that I wanted to be a photographer but truly was not admitting it. One of her peers was like, “So what do you do?” and I said to her, “Well, I’m an assistant but I also photograph.” Afterwards [my friend] texted me, she was like, “Never introduce yourself as an assistant ever again. You have to introduce yourself as a photographer.” I never introduced myself as an assistant again. It was really uncomfortable for a while calling myself a photographer with no clients but truly the most impactful thing to me at that point in my life.
...Film and movies are such a gift that humanity has given itself. I’m always amazed. I’m mostly amazed I spent so much of my life not digesting films. It’s like literature… American films of the past few decades don’t serve you. It really just blew my mind how much people across the world have always been exploring how much it fucking sucks to be alive and how beautiful it is to be alive in all these different ways. I was just like, oh my god— that feels like me.
...Directing is so hard to get into and if you ask someone how to get into directing, they don’t know… Truly my gratitude is so high to the people who have opened that for me.
…I definitely think there is a big element of blind faith in yourself. Just kind of like, I’m so nervous but I’ve been so miserable in my life knowing that I wanted to do this and not fucking knowing how to do it, so let’s go—let’s have some fun.
Where are you finding inspiration these days?
I’m finding inspiration from love, definitely. Still from the losses of the two people who have left me in the past two years— I find inspiration from them daily.
You can find Courtney's work at courtney-yates.com
Interview by Juliet Cangelosi
Transcript by Juliet Cangelosi
Video Directing by Juliet Cangelosi
Video Editing by Sam J. Roberts of InBlume Media
Producer: Selva Negra