Tastemakers: Gioncarlo Valentine

Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Gioncarlo Valentine is a photographer and all-around creative whose work is threaded by his passion to advocate for representation on behalf of people of color. In a recent sitting, he opened up about his recent move to New York, his inspiring story, and the pursuit of perfection and true artistry in everything that he does. 

Genteel Flair: Tell us about your introduction to photography.

Gioncarlo Valentine: At the end of 2010, I was obsessed with taking photos of my then best friend on my 3GS. He had such a strong beauty about his face that was completely androgynous. When we would go out we would always do mini photo shoots in the mirror. I became very aware that I had a talent for capturing beauty. I had never made these connections before but I was always taking photos. I went to a visual arts high school, I took and maintained all of my family photos, and I was always a fan of photography, I just never made that connection. So when it finally happened I over drafted my bank account buying two cameras, A Sony Nex5 and a Pentax KX in ruby red. I started doing shoots in my house, taking pictures of all of the people in my life. Slowly but surely that work turned into my obsession. I began spending hundreds of dollars per month on Vogues and V’s and W’s to curate the images I wanted to create.

GF: Talk about your upbringing in Baltimore and how that has influenced the direction of your work.

GV: My upbringing in Baltimore was very tough. My family was homeless a lot. We moved about 20 times. In my life I’ve moved about 32 times in total. It made making connections to people and places jarring and disheartening. I had an amazing mother who raised us to survive. Everything I have done and will do is for her. My love of Black people was fostered in the streets of Baltimore.​​​​ I didn’t appreciate it much while I was living there.  I’ve wanted to move to New York since I was 7 so finally getting to live here and work here is a dream come true, but there is a bittersweet taste to leaving Baltimore behind. It made me who I am. My experience was so black and so convoluted that it has left a beautiful stain on every picture that I have taken.

GF: Was photography always the career path that you envisioned for yourself, or was there potential for something else? 

GV:  I wanted to be a dancer, forever. I taught dance for 6 years. I danced in college and in high school. I wanted to be a fat choreographer. That was my oldest dream. Photography sort of fell upon me. I’m so thankful that it did. I couldn’t imagine waking up and fighting everyday for a dream outside of making photos.

GF: Your work focuses primarily on representing people of color. How did that decision come about?

GV: Well when I started taking photos and buying all those magazines I noticed that it was rare to see Black people in them at all. I even developed a game where I would get a Vogue magazine and count every page that went by without a Black or Brown model. Sometimes I would count 60 pages without a single face of color. That wasn’t my reality, I doubt it’s anyone’s. Fashion photography these days is about the illusion. The illusion of wealth, the illusion of cool, the illusion of superiority and thinness, and whiteness. In reality I never wanted to be a part of that. I think there is a way to tell beautiful fashion stories with people of color. I think the tokenistic approach that fashion has taken is dangerous, racist, and damaging. When I became a Black Nationalist I made the blanket choice to closely curate the message that my work sends to the world. I think people of color deserve just as much representation and I think creatives and photographers of color have a responsibility to that.

GF: What are your thoughts on the socio-economic and political landscape of today’s society? 

GV:  I have very strong opinions on this. I’ll tame them a bit. I think for Black and Brown communities there needs to be more self investment and support. I think so many of our issues are tied to this notion of trying to escape where we are, instead of trying to invest in it and rebuild it. We need to stop seeking outside validation from other communities and focus our efforts on our own. This step, as difficult as it may seem, would curtail so many of the issues that we face. We are up against so much in this country, if only we understood the importance of unity and self love. That is the only way for us to begin truly rebuilding. This seems a bit vague but I strongly believe that the root remedy for the continued poverty and disenfranchisement of so many Black and Brown people face is genuine unity and support.

GF: Who (or what) has been an inspiration to your journey as an artist?

GV:  I have so many inspirations, like from all over. Writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates inspires me to project my voice and to use my gifts to change the landscape. My favorite photographers: Andre Wagner, Dana Scruggs, Gordon Parks, James Nachtwey, Gabrielle Basilco, all so incredibly different but insatiably passionate, have inspired me to develop my own way of doing things and to organically follow that. My friends: Khir, Edy, Adam, Megan, Aniah have all inspired me to keep going when I have been so close to giving up. I’m inspired by my mother, my family, the kids I work with, old heartbreaks, the history of this country, the resilient and endless beauty that is being Black. I couldn’t pinpoint any single person or thing that inspires me. I find inspiration from everything I come in contact with.

GF: Are you currently working on any projects or assignments that you wish to make public?

GV:  I am. I’m continuing work on my Importance Project. The Importance Project (The Importance of a Sitting) was something I started earlier this year which discusses and showcases the importance of portraits in the Black community. It started as a Baltimore exclusive series, but I’d like to bring it to New York for a few weeks, and then a few other places. I want to get this project published. It’s going to take a while but it’s so important to me, no pun intended. I’m working on a portrait project about my journey to Blackness and Black Nationalism, and the people who have inspired my steps. So far I am shooting with a few very significant friends.  I’m also shooting Jahvaris Fulton (Trayvon Martin’s older brother), Raymond Santana (from the Central Park 5) and a few other people. This project is so new that it doesn’t even have name yet, and I love naming things. So that should be exciting. I also have a few other things in the works. I’m stepping into street photography at the start of the year for a project that is sure to be exciting and unique. So yeah, I’m working.

GF: What is an advice you would give to anyone in the process of pursuing their passion?

GV: Hmmm. Advice is not my place. I am struggling alongside some of the greatest artists I know to be true to myself, my vision, and my realities in a profession that truly doesn’t validate Black and Brown voices. So it’s difficult. I will say this much, if you feel like you have a unique perspective and there is no representation for you in your field of artistry, you be that representation. Work hard constantly, don’t settle, and don’t contort.

GF: What would you say is your purpose in life? How are your crafts helping to fulfill that?

GV:  I’m hoping that with photography and writing I have found my purpose. I think it is to use my voice, in whatever medium I have, to bring attention to inequality where I find it. I believe in the power of representation so I’m working to be better at representing the experiences of not just Black and Brown people, but Gay Black and Brown people and Trans Black and Brown people. Next year I plan to dedicate the majority of the year to shooting Documentary photography and photo essays. I really want to dedicate all of my efforts to telling important stories.

Follow more of Gioncarlo Valentine’s work at gioncarlovalentine.com