Harriet Tubman

Abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Underground Railroad ‘Brought to Life' in Viral Photoshoot

We wanted to be able to show that although (slavery) may be a sad part of black history, that’s not where it stopped

Photoshoot depicting Harriet Tubman
Christyl O'Flaherty

A group of San Diego creatives has gotten some viral recognition for a stunning visual tribute to Harriet Tubman, the much-celebrated African American abolitionist. 

Inspired by the 2019 film “Harriet,” lead photographer Christyl O'Flaherty and a team of several photographers and models made North County’s Solana Beach Trail into the paths of the Underground Railroad to honor Tubman for Black History Month. 

Tubman, who was born into slavery, escaped to the North and led 13 trips along the Underground Railroad network of activists and abolitionists to rescue over 70 enslaved men, women and children before the Civil War.

The one-day, on-scene shoot and subsequent studio shoot resulted in more than 50 feature photos depicting Tubman -- portrayed by San Diego model and film director Reneaja Norris -- in the act of guiding 19th century African Americans to freedom. It also captured several vibrant portraits depicting the icon.

“The area that we were in was a good representation,” Norris said. “The scenery kind of put me into character.

“I do believe we brought it to life. The costumes were very well put together and very well thought out...people (on the trail) were coming by and watching. Some people even commented on how authentic everything looked, especially because the scenery matched so well.”

The photos have since been shared on Buzzfeed, Facebook and Twitter with local and national adulation.

Tanzania Brown, another model in the project, recommended Norris for the role, describing her as a “perfect fit.”

Norris, director of the upcoming documentary “Black Love: A Community Affair,” is familiar with projects that center around black culture and interests, but had never been part of such a scene.   

Photos: Abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Underground Railroad ‘Brought to Life’ in Viral Photoshoot

“I’ve been in black couple shoots or things that magnify the melanin but nothing that has recreated anything in our history,” Norris said.  

Tchanavia Laspie, one of the project’s primary photographers, collaborated with O'Flaherty and the models to make sure costumes were authentic and representative of both the time period and individuals depicted. 

“For one of the images, we went for a kind of high-class society look. So we tried to find pieces that fit that style,” she explained. “After they had gotten out of slavery, some of them made it to a much better life. We wanted to kind of show the spectrum. We tried to stick with the scarves and headwraps that would have been available.”

Though they must be included to explore black history responsibly, the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow and other traumatic parts of the Black American experience are often made the primary or singular focus of art, films and literature that seek to tell black stories.

“We wanted to be able to show that although (slavery) may be a sad part of black history, that’s not where it stopped,”  Laspie explained. “We are survivors, we are proud and we work to get where we want to be… We came through, we survived and we flourished.

"We wanted to be able to convey that through this photoshoot.”

Furthermore, the black photographers and talent relished in the opportunity to have an authoritative hand in such a project -- something that is also not typical. 

“Just knowing that somebody was actually putting this together was very surprising itself,” Norris said. “People are sometimes ignorant to a lot of aspects of black history, so seeing Harriet and the other slaves in such a powerful, strong light is probably most important to me.”

Such passion and personal ownership was evident in the execution of the project, which was completed just a few days after the initial Feb. 16 shoot.

O'Flaherty recalls the ease with which the ambitious project was completed. 

“It was an effortless production," O'Flaherty said. "There was not one hiccup in this production. These models, the cast and the photographers -- everyone was just so humble and so passionate.”

Check out other work by the people behind the project at the links below:
Christyl O'Flaherty: @christyloflaherty.official
Tchanavia Lastie: @blackqueenphotography
Aaron Searcy: @searcyshotit

The photos are not currently on public display but were completed at Hendo Studios in Clairemont and may be seen in person if someone contacts the studio here.

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