Joy Mckinney on overstepping her boundaries

This New York City-based artist touches people’s faces and records their response.

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“When I arrived in New York City from Montgomery, Alabama, I was a fish out of water,” says artist and photographer Joy Mckinney. Spurred on by her search for a sense of self in such a big metropolitan city, Mckinney took on projects that challenged and pushed her personal boundaries to overcome issues based on her identity and history.

A graduate from Parsons The New School for Design, Mckinney’s photographic and video work explores social and cultural attitudes towards gender and race. At Design Indaba Conference 2014, Mckinney shared three projects she did during her years at Parsons: First Glance, The Guardian and Touch Me: “These three projects are bodies of work that showcase my confusion in an unknown city as well as issues with my identity as a black woman,” she explains.  

First Glance was her first project. The 2011 series of photos, which kick-started her performative approach to photography, shows a woman of Asian descent walking down the streets of New York City gradually covering her face in black paint. At first, Mckinney wanted the project to bring to light how people in the city perceive her as a black female: “Do you see race? Do you see hands? What do you see?” Upon closer inspection, the photos revealed the public’s startled response to the woman, which prompted her to move on from race and explore the dynamics of public reaction instead.

Photography allows you to capture a beautiful moment that cannot be translated in any other medium, says Mckinney.

The Guardian, which led on from First Glance, saw Mckinney touching over a hundred strangers on the streets of New York City and on the city’s trains. 

“Touching strangers was very challenging for me because I am an introvert. But I want to challenge you to step outside of your comfort zone because you never know where it may lead,” the artist says.

“The project came about when I was sitting next to a woman on the train who was crying. I just wanted to touch her,” she explains. After this incident, Mckinney took to the streets asking permission to touch various strangers on their faces, documenting their responses on video.

The Guardian gave her the courage to take a step further. Touch Me saw her touching strangers’ faces on the streets without asking permission or without them having any prior knowledge. The reaction from the public varies from being scared to laughing to pretending it never happened. 

Watch the Interview with Joy Mckinney