Through a lens brightly: State High senior Delali Agawu focused on a future in photography

May 4, 2014 

It was an intoxicating moment for a young woman.

Five nattily dressed guys couldn’t take their eyes off Delali Agawu. She had them in the palm of her hand. Anything she asked of them, they hopped to it, all smiles, seeking her approval. Her wish was their command.

Agawu clearly was enjoying herself — as she usually does behind the camera.

As a 17-year-old high school senior, she runs her own studio, Delali Agawu Photography, specializing in portraits, fashion shoots and weddings.

But on this day in her Pine Grove Mills home, her art was personal, not business.

Crouching with her digital camera, she directed her State College Area High School classmates through the afternoon shoot for part of her senior project.

Her quintet of models, posed against a white backdrop under studio lights, gathered around a vintage turntable in seeming delight. One mimed playing a trumpet, another pretended to strum a guitar and someone else clutched an album, as though a party rocked in full swing.

Agawu wanted a 1950s-style record player advertisement to add to other retro images in her monthlong show now at Webster’s Bookstore Café. The exhibit, for example, includes her older sister, Sena, as the famous bicep-flexing Rosie the Riveter.

For the turntable shot, Agawu dressed her models in blazers, slacks and ties like college students of yesteryear. But the costumes didn’t include shoes.

This bothered one pretend partygoer wearing red plaid socks.

“Don’t worry about it,” Agawu said. “We’re not going to see anybody’s feet. It looks good.”

Setting the mood with an online playlist of rock ’n’ roll hits, she got to work.

Click.

“That’s good, Lamar. Lee, that’s great. Can you hold your tie?”

Click. Click.

“Can you be dancing? Yeah, you got it.”

All of a sudden, she didn’t have to cajole anyone. Postures loosened. Self-confidence replaced self-consciousness.

Five guys were having fun — and so was Agawu, basking in the art she plans to study this fall at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in hopes of building a professional career.

Yet again, she had given her models something back.

“I want to give someone an experience they’ve never had before,” she said. “I want to open up opportunities because they’re letting me take pictures of them, which is an honor for me.

“I want to give them a chance to be as creative as they can be, have that same feeling that I have when I take pictures of them.”

Inspired by a single image

She was shocked, then moved.

Just 7, she flipped through an issue of National Geographic until coming across the photo of a beautiful woman bearing burns from domestic abuse.

That stopped her cold.

“I had no idea that stuff happened,” she recalled. “It scared the living daylights out of me. I immediately closed it and swore never to read National Geographic again.”

Her vow didn’t last long.

“After that I thought about it, and I was like, ‘Wow, I really learned something from this.’ This really had a big impact on me. I kind of thought more about taking pictures.

“I realized that one photo could change the way I thought.”

She got her first camera, a Nikon D60, for Christmas, the perfect gift for a 12-year-old who liked to memorize everything around her.

Flowers, landscapes and food served as early subjects. They were pretty, sure, but they also stayed still as she taught herself lighting and composition basics.

“I was always too intimidated to take pictures of animals or people,” she said. “It was a bit much. But I could do it with, like, food photography. That was what I always liked when I first started. Plus, you got to eat the food when you were done — a double bonus.”

An appetite for more

For a while, she liked making the dishes as much as photographing them.

Her early dream of becoming a chef inspired her to create two cookbooks. Agawu gathered and prepared family recipes, then took photos for the projects.

But in high school, she came to a decision. As much as she enjoys cooking, she realized the high-pressure world of professional kitchens wasn’t for her.

Photography became her passion.

During her sophomore year, she took her first photography class, taught by State High art teacher Julie Gold, and it galvanized her into taking more courses.

“Delali has pursued her passion and dreams beyond my expectations,” Gold said. “I am so very proud of Delali for her accomplishments.”

Gold frequently assigned portraits to teach about settings, poses and lighting. One series in particular opened Agawu’s eyes.

After she photographed her mother, father, grandfather and sister, she discovered something about herself.

“I developed the pictures, and it just looked amazing, and I realized that I liked taking pictures of people because they had so much personality and I could connect with them,” she said.

“And they had a story behind them, and I could talk to them before I took their pictures. It just had a lot more sentimental value to me than, say, food photography.”

Eager to learn more, she plunged into a Penn State photography class. Another pivotal assignment, a “very big turning point for her,” proved to be self-portraits.

She wasn’t a stranger to them, shooting several before in the absence of available models. They gave her lighting practice and, of course, direction was never an issue.

But her work for the Penn State class expanded her horizons.

In her portfolio, she included a pairing of herself in a traditional African headdress, playing a drum, and another shot of herself dressed as an ordinary American teenage girl.

She meant for the set to illustrate her biracial identity and reflect the struggles of coping with racism and preconceptions about race while growing up. Her mother, the haiku poet and naturalist Anne Burgevin, is white, and her father, Penn State Spanish professor Yaw Agawu-Kakraba, is African.

But the exercise yielded more. It defined a theme for her later portraits.

“I definitely like focusing on identity in my pictures because I know it took me a while to figure it out,” she said. “And I still am.”

The photos also showed Agawu something else. Going forward, she would be limited only by her creativity.

“I learned that with props and looks, you could create a certain feeling,” she said. “I think that’s what I learned most from doing those self-portraits.”

For love and money

Last summer, she turned pro.

With time on her hands, she created her website, www.delaliagawuphotography.com, and opened for business.

“My business grew pretty organically,” she said. “I took pictures for some of my friends for fun, didn’t ever think of charging. And so word got around.”

As the requests increased, it dawned on her: She could make money doing what she loved. With each job, she grew technically, becoming more versatile — though capturing action, such as at weddings, remains challenging.

“Because it happens in a blink of an eye, and you can miss it,” she said. “If you miss the kiss when people get married, they’re going to be mad.”

She is becoming more comfortable with special events and is growing artistically.

Suddenly, last year, even simple gigs tested her. While shooting 15 senior portraits, she found herself adjusting to various personalities.

“I had to work with subjects that were not completely gung-ho,” she said. “My friends were, but sometimes it was like the parents who wanted their child to do that. I had to learn to agree with people, just kind of loosen them up, make them smile. I learned a lot of bad jokes.”

Each shoot taught her the importance of being as clear and direct with her subjects as she is outlining prices and guidelines on her website.

“It can be hard,” she said. “I have a somewhat quiet voice, so I had to speak out, be assertive.

“When I first started, I was really intimidated to tell people what to do. I didn’t want to be bossy. And I’m really not a controlling, bossy person. Then I learned that people want you to tell them what to do usually.”

‘100 percent authentic’

Janaye Bullock, a State High student, never imagined posing for her senior picture on top of a parking garage.

But that’s where Agawu placed her friend, among other unconventional sites — such as a stairwell.

Bullock trusted Agawu’s eye at every step of the way.

“I liked it because it was different,” said Bullock, who’ll study fashion merchandising at Kent State. “She’s professional and she’s also creative. She’s different, which I can appreciate in a photographer.”

Bullock thinks Agawu’s open, empathetic nature also makes her an effective photographer.

“She doesn’t put on fronts,” Bullock said. “She’s not fake with people. She’s 100 percent authentic.”

Agawu’s a long way from feeling comfortable with just food and plants.

She loves getting to know people, hearing their stories, collaborating to create something beautiful. Some day, she hopes, she’ll produce thought-provoking photos like the one that startled a little girl long ago.

For now, she’s content to bring out the best in her subjects.

“Sometimes in the beginning, when I started taking pictures, and I really had that connection with people, I would be beat for the rest of the day because I was so unaccustomed to having such a deep connection for a solid hour, hour and a half, sometimes two hours,” she said.

“It’s just so draining. But I absolutely adored it.”

Nowadays during a shoot, she can tell instantly when her camera isn’t the only thing clicking.

“It’s like that feeling when you listen to really, really good music, and you get those tingles all over you, and you get goosebumps and you feel thrilled,” she said.

“You just want it to keep going.”

In the end, it’s all about the art

Taking a break from the record player shoot, Agawu and her models gathered around a computer.

Everyone admired images from a previous shoot: the same bunch in various 1980s hip-hop poses, crossed arms and all. They laughed often, not from embarrassment, but out of pride.

There they were, figures from a fantasy, turned into tough, street-wise rappers. As they gaped, Agawu beamed at them.

Seldom does she see her subjects enjoy their photos because they’re usually sent electronically. She joined the laughter.

Without a dollar changing hands, everyone was a bit richer.

“It makes me want to go out and take everyone’s picture so I can have that feeling again and again,” Agawu said.

“It’s a thrilling and exhilarating feeling, and it’s pure happiness to know that I’ve pleased someone with my art.”

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