Growing up in Pasadena, Jaimie Milner wrestled with feeling different and distant from her mostly white friends and classmates. She started to explore these ideas through her photography, but it wasn’t until she began her studies as a communication major at USC Annenberg that she began to analyze and unpack those feelings.
“I learned about the beauty industry, and I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve always been going through this process of chemically straightening my hair to make it more manageable,” she recalled. “And I was like, why do I think it’s not manageable?”
“After I let my natural hair grow out, I remember looking in the mirror and loving my hair,” she said. “For all these years, I thought my hair was ugly and it was something to hide and something to cover up — and I applied that same sentiment to thinking about other ways that I had been covering up my worth as a human being.”
Milner earned her bachelor’s degree in 2010 and went on to work in television, at both Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network and for HBO. All the while, she worked on a photography project that echoed her journey toward discovering her own beauty, power and dignity as a Black woman — only this time, her subject was Black men. The project is called Gifted.
“I literally felt like I woke up one day with a nagging feeling that I had to photograph the Black men around me,” Milner said. “People like my brother and my father and my friends, I felt like the truth of who they were was not really recognized by our culture at large. People believed the lies about them before they actually believe the truth and saw who they really were.”
The centerpiece of Gifted is a series of striking black-and-white photos celebrating Black men across a variety of ages, professions and life histories — artists, businessmen, politicians. It evolved into a multimedia endeavor, with videos and quotations from the men on Milner’s personal website.
Gifted earned a lengthy writeup in the Los Angeles Times for a 2016 exhibition at the Residency gallery in Inglewood. She plans to self-publish the project as a book in early 2021.
“Jaimie’s work over the past years, documenting the beauty and complexity of Black life and masculinities in the U.S., is a testament to her commitment to the role that art and visual culture must play in enhancing people’s critical consciousness and transforming power relations,” said Taj Frazier, associate professor of communication, who has followed Gifted from the beginnings of the project. “Her work is not just about representation, but about the power and hope of establishing conversation and communication between individuals and groups.”
After striving to affirm the humanity of Black men through her work, Milner says that seeing protests this past summer centered around that same idea has given her hope that positive change is happening.
“I was driving in Burbank and I saw a white man standing alone on the corner with a Black Lives Matter sign. I drove by, and tears are streaming down my face,” she said. “It just meant so much that someone who didn’t look like me cared about my life. And that is something that I have never seen: so many people holding themselves accountable, trying to learn more.”
Read more about how USC Annenberg faculty, alumni and students are chronicling and creating revolutions in their fields.