Deeman’s story unfolds like an artistic fairytale. In her mid-thirties, she was working as an account executive at an advertising firm in London, until one day she woke up and realized that she needed more. “I was deeply unhappy with what I was producing and the impact that I was having,” she says.
She quit her job and traveled the world for a year. While abroad, she fell madly in love with an American woman, and the two eventually moved to San Francisco. Because Deeman couldn’t work without a visa, she decided to go to school. And because she had enjoyed taking photos while traveling, she chose to study photography—specifically portraiture.
“I think this idea of reading the face, the narrative that someone makes up within maybe three seconds of looking at you, that really fascinates me,” says Deeman. “And I think moving to the States has made me re-examine how I am perceived, and who I am within this country.”
In the U.S., Deeman says, she felt unexpectedly robbed of her individuality, as if people expected her to be a certain way simply because she was a black woman. “I feel like part of living here is that I’m not quite seen—there’s something else that comes before that.”
She set out to interrogate the conclusions that people often draw before they know anything about a person—with a particular focus on women of African ancestry. That led her to study physiognomy, the pseudo-science that 17th-century doctors would employ to create correlations between people’s facial features and their intellect and abilities.
(This methodology has helped to shape the foundations of racial profiling, as Deeman points out.)
Composed with intended allusions to those archaic anthropological diagrams, Deeman’s silhouettes anticipate a white gaze, invoking the limited nuance with which black women are often seen by withholding the details of her subjects’ features and staging each portrait in the same profile format.