As the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve 2020, photographer Laylah Amatullah Barrayn arrived in Dubai. Abroad for her final semester of graduate school, she spent the early hours of 1 January writing her “2020 Visions”, a list of hopes, dreams, and goals – wholly unaware the world would soon turn upside down.
After returning to the US in February, Barrayn took a weekend trip to Minneapolis-Saint Paul to meet Robin Hickman, Gordon Parks’s great-niece, who had organised an exhibition of work by Parks and Jamel Shabazz. Four months later, Barrayn unexpectedly returned to the city to photograph what would become the largest global civil rights uprising in history following the murder of George Floyd.
For Barrayn, 2020 proved to be a tremendous period of change. Entering middle age, she came to gain a deeper knowledge of self that helped anchor her in the storms ahead. Drawing inspiration from her mother, who introduced Barrayn to portraiture as a young girl, she took to the streets to find quiet moments of solace and repose among New Yorkers struggling to make sense of a world gone mad.
“When the pandemic arrived in the States, we were instructed to distance from one another but I felt like we really needed each other at this time. I went out to the streets with this intense sense of isolation,” Barrayn says.
“I didn’t know how I was going to navigate this so I decided to connect with people to see how they were feeling and what they were thinking. We had these exchanges and the portraits became a collaboration where we were holding space for each other.”
With the upcoming book We Are Present: 2020 in Portraits, Barrayn chronicles unforgettable year with compassion and respect, offering an inspiring and empowering look at a people speaking truth to power.
Published with the support of the Magnum Foundation, We Are Present is an intimate look at community. Whether attending protests, services, or spontaneous moments of revelry across New York, Washington DC, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Louisville, and Negril, Barrayn crafts tender scenes that reveal deeper stories of vulnerability, strength, and resilience.
Like longtime friend and colleague Jamel Shabazz, Barrayn understands the importance of fostering mutuality and intimacy before making a portrait. “When I think about Jamel, I think of how he always leads with love and sincerity. He elevates these communities with beauty and grace because it’s already there,” says Barrayn who channeled the energy of her “2020 Visions” into We Are Present.
“We had to scratch a lot of what was planned and just go with the flow because you never knew what was going to happen,” she says. “For me, being flexible, learning to pivot, and lean into possibility helped me to hone the connection with folks. We really need each other. We need to be forgiving and gentle with ourselves and one another.”
We Are Present is available to pre-order here.