At just 22-years-old, Atlanta and NYC-based photographer Braylen Dion is making a name for himself. His signature style (warm, dreamy coloring and a soft lens that conjures storybook visuals) has caught the attention of major publications and commercial brands alike, and he’s already showing in international art exhibitions — a rarity for filmmakers just getting started.
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For those familiar with his work, Dion’s acclaim should come as no surprise.
The magic of Dion’s film lies in his perspectives; he centers Black subjects of all shades and backgrounds, emphasizing the beauty in darker skin tones. What’s more — Dion’s portraits capture the raw emotion sitting in front of his lens, ensuring the humanity translates on screen.
The importance of Black photographers in art and fashion can’t be overstated, and for Dion, it ultimately comes down to accurate representation. There are, of course, many creative elements to consider when taking an image and if they are not appropriately accounted for, photographers can — perhaps unintentionally — neglect Black models. (Cue Beyoncé’s apt comment: “You can’t put blue lights on Black girls!”.) Dion’s creative work is informed by the subject at hand, not the other way around — as is so often the case.
Below, get to know the photographer of our latest cover shoot with Steve Harvey, as he discusses why he feels compelled to center Black stories, what goes into his creative process and how it felt working with Steve Harvey.
To start, tell us about yourself: Who you are, what you do, where you’re from.
My name is Braylen Dion, and I’m a 22-year-old director and photographer from New Jersey, and now currently based in New York, NY and Atlanta, GA.
How did you start getting into photography?
I started photography when I was 11 years old, and my parents got me my first point and shoot for Christmas. I would take photos everywhere — at school, church, home, literally anywhere. I eventually got my first DSLR when I turned 13 since my parents considered it a big year, then started doing photoshoots when I was 15. I had my own little studio in our basement, and would have my friends come over on the weekends, or whenever so I could photograph them. Since then, I’ve just been progressing, but photography and videos have been in my interest since I was 8 years old. It’s crazy, I still have all of those photos on my old Facebook page, but they’re private of course!
What inspires you?
A whole lot inspires me, but the most is music. Since I see myself as more of a director, I always have visuals in my mind going on. I remember when I was 15, I actually tried doing a music video to this old school song, “You’re Not My Kind of Girl” by New Edition, and I had around seven to eight people come over to be the singers, actors or love interests. I was so adamant about doing that video, even though it turned out trash, but I had a vision! Videos are a lot more intricate than photoshoots. I listen to a lot of calm music though (unless I’m listening to house music), so I try to portray that in my photos as a whole. I am inspired by a couple films like Moonlight, and Lemonade, and of course my favorite photographers, but music is number one for me.
What stories do you feel most compelled to tell?
The stories I feel most compelled to tell are Black stories. We’re all so different all over the diaspora, and have many identities, but we’re also the same in so many aspects in how we grow up and what we experience as a community.
Does your personal identity impact your art’s narrative?
I would definitely say my identity impacts my art’s narrative, especially as a Black creative. There’s things that we can explain or portray better without words that others can’t. Also, as a person, I'm calm myself, so I'm not going to show something chaotic in my art if that's not who I am. Just like how they'd say a kid can be a reflection of their parents/ house or whatever, I know my art is a reflection of me!
How do you typically go about developing a shoot?
When developing a photoshoot, it can go many ways. I could either want it to look like an editorial, more of a story within the photos, or both. I never really relied on making mood boards before, but I have now to express what I see for the shoot if I can’t explain it in words. Also, I’m picky on who I like to photograph for different things, so the actual subject matters most because sometimes someone who can give a story might not be able to give me what I want for an editorial looking shoot and vice versa.
You’ve said you are interested in directing films. How does cinematography relate in your work?
I’m super interested in directing films, even music videos too. It relates to my work so much since I want my photos to look like a story. I want it to be like a cinematic experience with the moodiness of the photos, like it’s a still of what could be going on if it was recorded. This is also why I like to accompany my photoshoots with a small video. I’ve been starting to get back to that more as I do my personal projects since I wanted to "return to my roots" because I would do these videos and photoshoots for fun.
A lot of your settings are in quintessential Black spaces, such as beauty supply stores, domestic spaces like the kitchen, and on the street. All are rich with Black history and culture. How do you choose a location?
A lot of times I can choose a location depending on the outfit. If the look and location don’t make sense, or fit what I want to portray for the photos, then there’s no point. Since I was a child, and being born in Ohio, all I saw was old school everything, whether it was plastic covering the furniture, wooden walls or floral wallpaper covering it, storefronts, barbershops, etc. Even though I moved from there at a young age, it’s all inspired my work for it to look or feel that way. It’s like nostalgia, and that feeling brings you all these great memories you used to experience growing up.
You have striking images that involve placing Black subjects with religious iconography. How does religion function in your work?
Thank you so much! Overall, religion isn’t a huge part of a lot of my work, but when it is I make sure it’s special. I was raised as a Christian, and still am, so my faith is something I like to portray in a way that might not be so common. The first time I did this was in 2018 and it was a short film I did of my little cousin, Elijah, called “Life of Eli,” showing kind of what it’s like to grow up in a Black household and various things he does throughout the week.
How was working with Steve Harvey?
Steve Harvey was very nice and calm. What he’s like on TV, or however the media portrays him to be, is completely opposite from what I knew before. I was able to talk to him before photographing him, and he gave me a lot of encouraging words, whether it had to do with scripture or life experience, and great advice. Besides that, he always threw in a joke in the conversation. Also, he took direction very well, and was able to do him at the same time during the photoshoot.
Steve Harvey takes a particular space in Black households, from listening to his radio show, to watching Family Feud around the TV. Did that play into your ideas for the shoot?
For this photoshoot, not necessarily! I was approached by Elly Karamoh, his stylist after a zoom call to see the possible looks, and direction of the photos. Elly told me they wanted the opposite from what’s usually seen from Steve Harvey, and to make it gangsta, and of course sophisticated. Being that it was going to take place at his home, I wanted to capture him in the best way that truly shows him. This is somewhere he can be comfortable and like himself with no restrictions, so if he wanted to dance in some of the photos, then why not?
What’s next for you?
Next for me is mainly focusing on a couple photo series and personal projects. Photographing for more magazines, campaigns, and taking directing and film to a bigger level than what I do for myself. I have the eye, and it doesn’t always look like my photography, I just need the opportunity. I know that will happen when it should happen.
What’s your dream photoshoot?
My dream photoshoot is definitely to photograph Beyoncé on a serious project and work with her in general. What photographer doesn’t have that dream? Especially growing up as a fan because of my mom? But that’s not a dream since I know it’ll happen soon.
Photo courtesy of Braylen Dion