Black Art at Rice: Jones Business alumna April M. Frazier Documents Life, Family and Hidden Stories
Ten years after graduating from the Jones Graduate School of Business and starting her photography company, April M. Frazier reflects on her journey into photography — an unconventional path, in which she spent 15 years working in the oil industry. Although Frazier’s portfolio showcases everything from street life in Jamaica to Bruno Mars at the Super Bowl, she finds the most fulfillment from uncovering her family history. By reintroducing her family photos into the historical narrative, Frazier hopes to illustrate authentic African American stories for future generations.
Rice Thresher: What made you decide to pursue photography after getting your MBA?
April M. Frazier: Well, photography started just as a general interest. Growing up, my parents always had cameras. They captured our life, our family life, our community, our neighborhood. So [that exposure to photography] was always part of my upbringing. When I decided to go to graduate school, I still had that passion for photography. So I took the route of, “Hey, let me see what else there is on campus besides the [Jones Graduate School of Business], and see if there's a photography class I can take while I'm here.” That was the perfect time to learn about business and how to execute certain arenas in business, and put those thoughts and attributes towards pursuing a professional photography career. So it actually balanced out well that I'm learning the technical aspects of photography [like] black and white film processing and development, but I'm also learning how [to] tailor this into a business … [The incorporation date for my photography business was] the same day I graduated: May 14, 2011.
RT: What was your Rice experience like?
AF: My Rice experience was very interesting. I was 29 when I started the MBA program, and I thought I knew myself well enough to say, “Okay, I think I want to pursue this so that I can advance my career in this trajectory.” But these other things popped up, other activities on campus that I'd like to participate in. If I'm going to be here, I really want to [immerse myself] … So it took some initiative to say that I wanted more than just what's been given to me in this building, I want to see what else is out there. And the good thing was, I was never told no. I sat in on some architecture and engineering classes, and that was well-received by professors across campus. So I took advantage of it. That exposure was an example of how Rice encourages you to explore.
RT: What made you want to be a documentary and lifestyle photographer in particular?
AF: There's your bread and butter and then there are your personal aspirations as a photographer. So my bread and butter were those corporate clients and those individuals who wanted portraits and events captured. But my personal projects always included learning my family history and where we came from, and documenting that as I go. I'm thankful to have all of my grandmother's pictures from when she was a young girl, and she has pictures of her grandmother. So I have photographs of my family from the early 1900s. And I'm learning of their history and how they migrated from Tennessee to Texas and into this small town. So as I’m on that journey [of learning my family history], I wanted to document it photographically and in writing. To me that goes hand in hand with wanting to nurture my personal story and learn about my family and myself … and [ensuring] that these amazing things that I'm learning are captured somewhere so someone else can appreciate them when I'm gone.
RT: What do you hope to convey through your art, and how do you want people to feel when they see your photography?
AF: You probably can't tell, but I'm more of an introvert. So my photography was something that I always did by myself. I traveled around the world by myself, to places like Germany, France and Belgium, and across the U.S. I would always have my camera with me, and I'm learning about the people and the culture and the history through my lens. I’m capturing my experience as I'm capturing these images. So the message that I want to convey in my images is sometimes a little selfish [because] it’s for my appreciation. But if you also appreciate it, that’s a bonus.
RT: You're a member of organizations like the Houston Photographic Society, the American Society of Media Photographers and Young Photographers Alliance. What inspires you to be an active member of the Houston community?
AF: My entry into Young Photographers Alliance was through being a part of the photography class at Rice … [The American Society of Media Photographers] is the mentor arm for Young Photographers Alliance. So we were connected with members of ASMP, and we had to do projects over the summer that they assigned us to help refine our skill set … [We were] shy photographers with our little cameras, and they're saying, “Okay, we want you to go photograph energy.” I had never had a conceptual project for my photography, I just captured what I liked. I found myself really enjoying [that process]. It really opened my eyes to being vulnerable enough to expect critique and coaching from someone else. Having that open resource there was so helpful, [and it] turned into a group exhibition in New York. I never thought that I would have an exhibition in New York … [As] a tech person in oil and gas, that's the traditional role in the South, specifically in Texas. Seeing what was possible [in that] artistic capacity was so new to me.
I'm also currently on the board of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society of Houston. The basis of the organization is to provide resources for folks looking up their ancestry, trying to flesh out their family tree and learn about their roots. That organization has helped me with a lot of the work that I’m doing to capture my family’s story. We have a family cemetery on my dad's side that's been in the family for 100 years now. I’m submitting an application to the Texas Historical Commission so that we can be documented as a landmark in Texas, as an African American Cemetery, [which involves] photographing the actual space and identifying all the people that are there, and then the unknown people that are also buried there from enslavement times. My work with that organization is very enriching for my pursuits of genealogy and photography. It goes hand in hand, in my opinion.
RT: What has it been like to uncover your family history?
AF: Like I mentioned, I'm blessed to have my grandmother's collection of photographs. She wrote names and places and times on the back of most of them. So that's great, but I also have a lot of unidentified [photos]. There are a lot of pockets of her history that I didn't know about … I’ve been trying to answer those stories [with] her images and then researching in the different county courthouses … and having older family members relay the family history. And if I hadn't recorded it, and looked it up, that might have been lost … So it's very important that I tie up as much of those loose ends [in] history and make it into something that someone else can appreciate.
RT: Is there a designated space where you collect those photographs?
AF: I've donated some, not the physical images, but the high-quality scanned images to the archives in Fayette County, Texas, because previously they didn't have many images of African Americans from that town at all. Our history wasn't really documented there, so I made it a point to show that we did exist here. And we look pretty good. These were well-dressed people … Images of African Americans from that time were of them working in the fields. You didn't see us dressed up with fur coats and things. So I'm really trying to figure out, okay, what was their real identity in this space?
RT: What's been your favorite photography project so far? Is there anything that you want to do more of?
AF: I’ve been traveling extensively to Jamaica since 2006 … One of my older family members told us the story of how we were brought from, of course, Africa, but the pitstop was made in Jamaica, and then [we went] from Tennessee to Texas. That connection to Jamaica was pulling me there. So I photograph the people there, and their traditions, the cooking, just their everyday life.
My favorite thing to do is to [take] photographs as we're riding [in the car]. There's so much life in the street. You have to dodge this pothole, dodge this goat, dodge this woman with, you know, fruit on her head. Capturing all that as we're navigating through the countryside is exhilarating to me … I love authentically capturing people going about their day. These are my people, … so they don't necessarily see me as [someone] coming to photograph the natives, which is the narrative that’s sometimes given to people in different countries, especially [in] Africa.
[One time], I was in the car at a stoplight. And I raised my camera, and the guy nodded at me and I snapped the picture. That’s one of my favorite pictures. He made tin pots, and he was hammering on one of them. I wanted to capture that picture and he nodded like, go ahead. [There was that] acknowledgment that, you know, I'm okay. I’m not a threat.
RT: Who inspires you? This can be a mentor, other photographers, or anyone who has shaped your journey.
AF: Gordon Parks, who broke the color barrier for LIFE Magazine as the first Black photographer. [I really resonate with] his style of photographing and his connection with the person he was photographing. Whether he was in the presence of the Queen [of England] or in the ghettos of Harlem, he was met with racism everywhere he could turn … I resonate with him using the camera to express his anger, express his style, express his candor through his lens.
Locally, Earlie Hudnall Jr. is a photographer [I admire]. He’s well known in Texas and across the U.S. and he reminds me a lot of Gordon Parks, so I tell people he’s my tangible Gordon Parks … His style is similar to what I like to do, where I’m not necessarily asking someone to pose. He’s just walking around with a camera. I just got off the phone with him before this, and every time I talk to him I’m learning something … Having him as a tangible mentor has helped.
Lastly, my dad is a mentor [for me]. He’s an integral part of my life, from birth to now, just by being a good father. He’s always been present. Of late, most of our conversations are about planting and working in the garden, and harvesting. I’m tying a lot of that into my documentary work as well, because he’s sharing stories [from] when he was a kid.
[My journey] is coming full circle, now that I’m understanding what I want to do and I’m not afraid of what I want to do, and I’m doing it. It’s fun to have a six-figure job, but that six-figure job comes with a lot of hefty responsibilities and stress. [There’s the question of] are you really fulfilling yourself from this role? That’s why I segued to doing something that I really enjoy, because I started not to enjoy what I was doing while I was there. That [lifestyle] took a lot out of me, but photography put a lot back in me.
RT: What are some challenges you’ve faced over the past ten years as a photographer?
AF: Over the last ten years of [having my photography business], I’ve done bat mitzvahs, I’ve done quinceañeras, I’ve done weddings, I’ve done the Super Bowl with Bruno Mars. It took a while to refine my voice, because I was saying yes to everything … Especially as a Black photographer, I didn’t want to limit myself. But there’s burnout in saying yes to everything, so a challenge [I faced] was refining my voice, refining what I like to do, refining what feeds me, because it’s reciprocal. I get something from the person that I’m photographing and I want them to get something from me … I’ve enjoyed engaging with folks who see me as more than just the person holding the camera … Because you can dilute yourself, and then the quality starts to wane. It’s a daily practice of learning what your values are, what you hold dear, getting back to what drives you.
RT: Did you say you photographed for Bruno Mars at the Super Bowl?
AF: Yes! I was hired by Pepsi, and that started from Rice as well. [A peer at Rice] worked for the Super Bowl … [Through Super Bowl Connect], small businesses can [apply to provide] different things that the Super Bowl needs, like catering and photography … All these folks were hobnobbing and rubbing shoulders, and my 5’2” self is trying to capture it all. It was so exciting … So yes, Bruno Mars is on my client list.
RT: That’s awesome. No big deal.
AF: Oh, it was a big deal. I was screaming in the car on the way there, but I kept it together.
RT: What advice would you give to your younger self? This can be about photography or anything else.
AF: Step away from the wall, little wallflower. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. I’m doing that now with less apprehension, but before, I was afraid to ask. They can always tell you no, or they can say yes. Like I said, I was blessed to hear more yeses than any noes while at Rice … I’d say to stay true to yourself and continue to feed those passions, that fire that burns inside.
Explore more of Frazier's work at www.amfrazierfoto.com.
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