Amber Pinkerton never intended for her work to be a commentary on racism, classism or colorism, but perhaps more than any other medium, photography has an uncanny ability to reflect our reality back to us in ways both beautiful and stark. Pinkerton grew up in a creative family in what she describes as a comfortable “bubble” within uptown Kingston, Jamaica. As a child, she would watch her mother making mosaics in the courtyard of their home, her aunts sewing clothes and her older brother sketching anime characters.
By the age of 5, she knew that she, too, would become some kind of artist, but it wasn’t for another eight years that she began taking photos of her (mostly light-skinned or white) friends and her surroundings — quick snapshots of everyday life captured on that most immediate of devices, a smartphone. Recognizing her interest, her parents gave her a Nikon D3000 camera as a 13th birthday present. Over the next five years or so, Pinkerton, now 22, would regularly borrow clothes and accessories from her parents’ closet (a green turtleneck, a beige double-breasted blazer), usually with their permission, and fashion some of her own, cutting hair ribbons out of paper and once repurposing a black-and-white shag rug as a faux fur coat. She would then drive to the top of the hill in her neighborhood and stage exuberant D.I.Y. photo shoots, capturing her models (friends and acquaintances who struck her as particularly stylish) in these looks as they approximated poses from the editorials of the fashion magazines they all pored over. “I had no real intention when I started out,” Pinkerton said recently over the phone from London. “I mimicked until I found my own voice.” Nonetheless, she shared the images on Facebook and quickly gained a following.
At 19, she moved to London to study filmmaking, an experience that led her to see her home in a new light. “The socio-economic climate in England was totally different from what I was coming from, and I developed this keen interest in the dynamics between people,” she said. “Once I analyzed the society I grew up in, I became more aware of how the people in the lower class, who are predominantly dark-skinned, are looked down upon and never represented.” A legacy of British colonial rule, which lasted, nearly contiguously, from the mid-17th century all the way to 1962, colorism in Jamaica, as it is across much of the Caribbean, is so embedded in the society that those in power typically have light skin and dark hair, and skin-lightening products are popular drugstore purchases — but there is a growing resistance to these age-old biases to which Pinkerton has proudly added her voice.
Today, Pinkerton shows darker-skinned people in a way many locals have never seen: within an art context. She selects backdrops that are vividly evocative of the country’s architectural and design vernacular — the white wrought-iron fence of a residential compound, the bright chartreuse wall of a vacant house — without revealing enough to allow a viewer to make assumptions about who someone is based on where they are. Rather, it is Pinkerton’s sitters, who typically appear at ease and return her gaze, staring directly into the camera, who seem to hold the power.
Last year, Pinkerton photographed a portfolio of rising models represented by the Kingston-based agency Saint International for i-D magazine, focusing on her subjects’ faces and personalities. She considers herself both a fashion and a documentary photographer, and the images demonstrate her sensitivity not only to glamour and fantasy but also to lives as they are actually lived. Pinkerton strikes a similar balance in “Girls Next Door,” a series she shot in London for Dazed magazine earlier this year. In one image, a woman in an extravagantly ruffled pink blouse sits before a brightly iced birthday cake, looking bored, as if awaiting her long-overdue guests; in another, the subject lounges, in a ’70s-style orange swimsuit, across a bed in a pastel-colored room that immediately suggests the house of a parent or older relative.
These days, Pinkerton makes it back to Jamaica several times a year. “It’s a paradise, but it also has deeper issues,” she said. “Every time I go, I see things differently.” She also receives mixed reviews of her work when she’s there, with some viewers asking point-blank why she doesn’t photograph lighter-skinned subjects. “Some people are stuck in their prejudices,” she said, “but I’ve learned not to let them change my vision.” And while her images have been embraced for their stylishness and heart abroad, that doesn’t negate the fact that representations of Blackness in international fashion magazines can be fraught in their own ways. (Last month, for instance, the photographer Annie Leibovitz and the mostly white editors of American Vogue were criticized for failing to properly light the gymnast Simone Biles in a cover image.) Pinkerton’s life experience may not mirror her subjects’ exactly, but she is a Jamaican woman invested in the culture she is depicting.
As she contemplates the year ahead, she hopes to host educational photography workshops around Jamaica and is looking forward to having her first solo show, at London’s Alice Black Gallery. For now, though, she’s hunkered down in London and thinking, once again, about how she interacts with the world around her. If photography has been able to telegraph so much about a place she thought she knew, what power might other mediums hold? “My work will continue to change,” she said. “I’m still young.”