Interview with ‘capital lives’ Artist Sydney Gray

This is the fifth installment of the capital lives artist interview series. capital lives features work by Bo Chen, Sydney Gray, Sarah O’Donoghue, Brea Soul, Christine Stoddard, and Nevada Taylor.

Sydney Gray | Photographer | Exhibiting in capital lives from May 30 to July 4, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Rina Goldman

Can you tell me a bit about yourself, where are you from, how did you end up in Washington D.C.?

I am originally from the suburbs of Philadelphia. I am a student at the George Washington University which brought me to Washington, D.C.. I started photography my sophomore year of high school but my passion for it really developed after I tore my ACL four times in 3.5 years and realized playing sports was no longer going to be in my future.

As a student at George Washington University, how does your environment affect your photography? Is there a direct correlation between the two?

Being a student at the George Washington University has put me in a different environment then I was used to. In high school I would always complain that there was nothing for me to take pictures of for photo class because the only things in walking distance were grass trees and houses. Now, being in the city there is a wealth of interesting subjects to photograph. The people, the architecture, the streets are all available to me with ease. But my favorite type of photos to take are portraits and consistently being surrounded by other students and friends makes portraits very accessible. It also does wonders for my creative process because things feel so much more attainable being in such an open and inviting environment.

Where do you find inspiration? What about photography inspires you?

In many ways I feel I still have yet to grasp my true inspiration. For now I enjoy exploring what I can do and learn through my camera. I feel I can really capture moments and places with my camera, but I can also capture people. The pictures that were on display for this gallery for instance, I took for my photography class. I love how I was able to pair the blurbs that the subjects wrote with the pictures to truly tell the audience about who they are.

In your work, you showcase the “true beauty” of black women, what effect does being a black woman have on who you choose to photograph?

In general, I am not picky about who I take photos of. I love to capture the essence of people from various races, nationalities and ethnicities. In fact, I hope to take photos of a more diverse group of people in the future. With that being said, as a black female I feel a sense of attachment to other black females. In a way taking pictures of other black females is an extension of myself. My favorite feeling is when my subjects can truly see themselves as a strong and beautiful person no matter how they felt about themselves previously. I know that through my photographs I am changing people’s perception of themself, whether it is for a brief second or the rest of their lives I know in my heart I am making a small positive difference in their lives.


Confidence From Behind

Gray, Sydney. Confidence from Behind. 2017. Digital Photography.

Can you elaborate on the process of taking these photos, particularly Confidence from Behind?

Each photograph and scene had its own creative process associated with it. Confidence from Behind is probably one of my favorite photos from the grouping. It is of my roommate and it was actually taken in our dorm room. I knew we were in a safe space so I wanted to take the opportunity to push the boundaries a little. I wanted to display confidence and many times that goes hand in hand with body image so I figured let’s show some skin. On a whim I asked my roommate if she would feel comfortable asking pictures with just a jacket on and no shirt underneath it. To my surprise she said yes almost instantly. Once we finished taking the pictures I was so excited to show her the ones I really liked but she didn’t want to look at any of them. I had to push and repeat how great they looked before she finally gave in and looked at them. In that moment I was definitely struck by how my project could really help people see themselves in a new way.


How are these women an example of D.C. today?

When I think of DC I think so people coming from so many different places. The group of women that I took photos of represent various backgrounds. The backgrounds of those represented in the gallery include, Kenyan from Princeton, New Jersey, half Jamaican from Steven City, Virginia, and Nigerian but lived in Ohio, Texas and most recently Virginia. This just proves that the people that live in DC tend to have very diverse backgrounds and many times aren’t originally from DC itself. That is just one thing I love about living in this city, I have met people from and learned so much about various cultures that I never knew about before.


Flower Girl

Gray, Sydney. Flower Girl. 2017. Digital Photography

Do the flowers you’ve incorporated into two of the pieces have any specific meaning?

The idea behind the photos with the flowers was to parallel natural hair with nature.




Some of the pieces are accompanied by quotes from the models, how did that come about?

Originally I was not going to do this. My photo professor had suggested it early on in a general setting but I had not thought about it again until a couple of days before the project was due. After looking at all the photos as a whole I realized how strongly they oozed black beauty and Black Girl Magic. At that point I thought back to my professor’s suggestion to have quotes that accompany the photographs and I thought having my friends speak to their experience as a black female would bring the photos to life. The quotes that my friends provided exceeded my expectations. They ranged, some spoke on personal struggles, others took a humorous approach but together I believe they really embodied what it was like to be a black female.

Naturally Lizz.jpg

Gray, Sydney. Naturally Lizz. 2017. Digital Photography.
But the best part of growing up so far has been becoming more confident and growing to love the way my body looks and the skin that I have, and it’s crazy to me now that I used to hate myself so much when I was younger. Struggling with body image and acceptance isn’t uncommon, and like a lot of girls my age in America, I definitely struggled.



Gray, Sydney. Lisa. 2017. Digital Photography.


Do you have a favorite piece, or one that was most exciting for you to shoot?

My favorite picture was probably confidence from behind and I would love to reshoot photos like that with better lighting and equipment. I also love the simplicity of Lisa. There also a few that were not in the gallery but part of the full project that I loved as well.

What camera did you use for the portrait photography displayed in capital lives?

I use a Nikon D750.

Are there any future projects in the works?

Currently I do not have any big projects in the works. I hope to brainstorm ideas and maybe carry them out during the summer. I have a list of places I want to have fun photoshoots at around the District however. I am also studying abroad next semester so I am looking forward to the beautiful photographs I know I will take overseas.

Finally, the last question we are asking all the contributing artists is, what lies behind the image of power?

Power can be expressed in so many different ways and it isn’t even all through people. If the subject is a person I believe power comes from within that person and it will exude from the photograph. But if the photograph is not of a person then I believe power comes from the audience. Different things make different people feel power. Overall, I do believe the right balance of power in a key to confidence and success.

Gray’s work is included in capital lives at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from May 30 through July 3, 2018.

For more information on Sydney Gray, visit

For more information on capital lives and related events, visit


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