Viola Davis’ Vanity Fair cover was shot by a Black photographer — a first for mag

On July 14, Vanity Fair dropped its latest issue with cover star Viola Davis. Seeing the cover, I was completely and utterly mesmerized by the ‘How To Get Away with Murder’ star’s radiant skin and luscious curls. But there was one thought I just couldn’t shake: Davis’ cover was shot by a Black photographer for the first time in the magazine’s history.

Yes, it is 2020 and we are still having “first” professional opportunities extended to Black and brown communities.

According to The New York Times, Dario Calmese, the photographer behind the lens, didn’t know he was the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of Vanity Fair until about two weeks prior to the release.

“To the best of our knowledge, it is the first Vanity Fair cover made by a Black photographer,” Radhika Jones, Vanity Fair’s editor-in-chief and a woman of color, wrote in her editor’s letter. In the letter, Jones tallied up the numbers, pointing out that before her takeover of the publication over two and a half years ago, there had only been 17 solo covers featuring Black people. Since then, she’s added eight to the brands repertoire, and an additional two covers featuring interracial married couples.

Yet, I still couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that none of these cover stars, or any of the magazine’s covers for that matter, were shot by a Black photographer.

Calmese joins the rankings with Tyler Mitchell, who in 2018 became the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of Vogue, and Dana Scruggs, the first to shoot the cover of Rolling Stone in 2019.

Still, we should not still be celebrating firsts for Black culture.

Viola Davis’ cover is both weary and majestic, a juxtaposition that is carried synonymously with being Black. While we are killed in the streets and fight for our lives each and every day, we still define culture in a way that is unique, refreshing and non-replicable.

Speaking of replications, you may recognize the pose Davis takes for the Vanity Fair cover, an ode to the infamous 1863 portrait “The Scourged Back,” which displays an enslaved man whose back has been ravaged by whipping scars. The photo displays the unjust and simply horrific reality of Black ancestry in America, but Calmese and Davis used that photo to tell a story of strength and resilience.

“Not only around slavery, but also the white gaze on Black bodies, and transmuting that into something of elegance and beauty and power,” Calmese told The New York Times.

However, let’s not lament on the negative but focus on the positive this moment brings. To see Viola Davis, a talented, dark skinned Black woman with kinky coils and curls, pose unabashedly in her skin is a means of protest. To see someone who looks like me on a cover with her accompanying cover story focusing on how she’s using her own production company, JuVee Productions, to give young Black actors a platform in every stage of their careers, is motivational AF.

To see someone publicly discuss championing Black stories while inadvertently helping make history in front of and behind the camera is culture-shifting.

Read Viola Davis’ entire Vanity Fair interview now.

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