Transient photographer Jade Lilly feels like late-May sun on your hair during Spring’s first flirt with Summer. Her voice crackles before pausing, just a second, until her words continue their husky melody. Authenticity and verve radiate from her photos, bold and vibrant with backbeat. Jade’s work elevates the Black community with themes of happiness, beauty, strength and grace.
Jade started taking photos in 2016 while still living in Miami, where she grew up. Shortly after college, a close friend pivoted from photography to modeling. “She taught me the technical side,” Jade recalled. After helping her friend capture test shots by commandeering the camera, Jade provided further assistance to her sister, a plus sized model. Jade’s work found its enthusiastic audience, and her freelance journey began.
“At first I was doing it for blogger vibes,” she remarked as we rattled along the L Train towards Jefferson Avenue during her 12-day NYC soujourn. “To me, that was very superficial.” Photography as a medium became truly her own when Jade realized “with photos, you can create a voice without having to say anything.” Her work became more vocal about its love for Black people, for Black women, for Black mothers. “It was a space I created to start conversation,” she explained.
In 2017, Jade photographed her Goddess series envisioning Black women as the true deities they are and dedicated to “free the bush, free the nipple, the intimacy between women and warrior Goddesses showcasing the strength and grace of women.” Intoxicated by the act of completing that work, Jade decided, “Okay, I’m not doing any more unrealistic things — it’s gonna be either something that needs a louder voice, or really showing the essence of Black women to feel proud about that…To bring something beautiful, but also therapeutic for us as well.”
The natural evolution of Jade’s creativity impacts her personal growth. “Before, my work was very bold, unapologetic, loud, in your face,” she stated. Now she’s more into letting the moment dictate her movements and “showing more of the vulnerable side.” Her focus on creating work with a presence keeps her present -- working becomes more like meditation. The act of holding space for someone else to visually express themselves lends another dimension of meaning.
Jade told me that she’d recently done a photoshoot in Chicago two weeks prior with a friend. “She looked so serene. It didn't really matter what was around her, but you could still see that she could feel the presence of outside. The sunrise in that one for me was just everything I wanted — to pause time and just be with this moment.”
“My spirituality is my court, my advisory board, and my best friend,” Jade continued later, sitting outside of Dock Asian Eatery in Bushwick, surrounded by murals and by life unfolding on the paint-splattered streets. “I like answers, and spirituality brought me answers.”
In fact, as she confronted the cultural foes facing the Black community, she found that spirituality held even more answers. “Whatever you think is what you will manifest in your life,” she explained. Jade visualizes the world she wants with her work. The women she devotes her lens to carry their chins parallel to the floor. They drape themselves in exquisite materials. They know their worth and don’t apologize for it, don’t shrink from the shuttering flashbulbs. Jade noted that oftentimes when the media is “showing the essence of Black women, we see a lot of hardships between us all. We're always hearing the bad end of things-- how we're not protected, how we're getting killed, how we're getting raped. But not enough of the good side.”
“I like to do things that bring representation, but bring a future representation,” she finished. “If you see it, it’ll be. You need to see it first. So I try to implement that through my art.”
Her recent images celebrate Black mothers engaged in the miracle of breastfeeding, highlighting this natural and divinely feminine act’s beauty. The grace, composition, and colors present throughout these photos offer viewers a new measure of candor not readily available in mainstream media. “Now that's opened your mind, now you're curious about it, now we're talking about it,” she explained. This is how needless taboos are destroyed.
A recent series of Jade’s that struck me was a shoot featuring two parents cuddling, kissing, and enjoying intimacy in bed with their adorable infant close by. Jade noted that this shoot sparked controversy — some people wondered if the parents were exposing their kids to inappropriate behavior.
“It wasn't even the act of sex,” Jade pointed out. “It was intimacy.” She lamented her own lack of meaningful avenues to understand love through as a kid, explaining, “I understand the love between my parents, I understand the love between my friends, but to actually have intimate love, I have to learn that from movies? Why can’t I learn that from my own household?” Her cadence kicked up, her passions ignited. “That should be something that we're comfortable with because then in turn, we won't be as fucked up when it comes to us expressing love in a relationship.”
Jade also pointed out that this work is important to help mothers retain and revel in their sexuality after giving birth. “It's a whole new body that you have,” she stated, “whether it's extra skin, stretch marks, more weight on you.” For all women, though, Jade acknowledged the importance of reclaiming sexuality, “ to own it, and be the driver in control of that rather than somebody else trying to narrate your story.”
Amplifying images of Black mothers and Black birth workers became her highest priority, in January 2020, after Jade participated in her first at-home birth photoshoot. Jade began compiling a book of images related to this topic. Divine timing intervened, and the opportunity to work with the Black Birth Experience fell into her lap. The nascent organization asked for Jade’s help with a campaign. “They're like, ‘this is what we want you to do,’” she recalled. “I'm like, ‘Bro, I already have a textbook of ideas for that because I'm already doing it.’”
Around July, she joined the Black Birth Experience as a Co-Founder and Creative Director.
I wondered what it was about the birth experience that felt so sacred to her. “That’s like a whole other interview,” Jade laughed. The absurd but practical reality that women can actually create and nurture life astounds her. “We are creating our future. We are creating the next generation.” She’s transformed this passion into her commitment to become a doula, and has started attending more births she works towards securing her official certification.
Jade described the birth experience itself as otherworldly. “In that presence, in that room, both portals are open. You’re watching God's creation, or however you want to believe this to be, out of nothing, just coming into this realm now. There's nothing to me that can compare to being a part of that. That, to me, is the highest honor — to help a woman bring her baby into this world. You're witnessing it! You're watching it from that world come into this world. This baby chose you as a mother to help them on this journey. We are here just to facilitate this step.”
“When it comes to the Black Birth Experience, we are very strong,” Jade said. “It is me and three other women named Brittany, Paige, and Arren — Two other Black women and one Filipino woman. We are very adamant about it being our story that we're telling through us and not from any outside source… nobody can alter our story.”
In her work for the organization, Jade hopes to create representation for Black birth workers and Black mothers. “That way, everybody outside of Black people, but as well as Black people ,can understand what Black women have to go through in the whole birth experience and the whole birth journey,” she explained. Jade pointed out that hospitals often record false vitals for Black women like high blood pressure or other metrics which require them to give birth in a hospital rather than at home. She believes the organization can combat this by “Educating and advocating for Black mothers and Black birth work
ers, and showing how everybody can be an advocate.”
“For myself,” Jade decided, “I just want to create work that's for people who aren’t being seen or whose voices aren’t being heard, and to be a part of the archives for the Black Renaissance right now, be a part of what we want to see so that way, we can be that.” As Jade smiled at me under wan October clouds, I forgot the month, the place. These minute matters don’t seem to matter to Jade. She simply puts one foot in front of the other on her mission of manifestation, emboldened by full faith in the greater mystery and her distinct role within it.