New motherhood is challenging under any circumstances, but it can be especially trying for Black women, who often face great scrutiny throughout their pregnancies.
“We wanna celebrate ourselves and our children just as much as anyone else—if not more—because we’re frequently told that we shouldn’t,” Sasha Matthews, founder of Green Tangerine Photography, tells CASSIUS.
Think back to Beyoncé’s stunning 2017 Grammy performance. While many praised the powerful moment, a number of critics, including the perpetually tasteless Piers Morgan, panned it. “Didn’t really ‘feel’ that Beyonce performance,” he needlessly tweeted on Grammy night. “Seemed heavier on the narcissism than the music.”
Because God forbid a Black woman celebrate the blessing of bringing forward new life, right?
When Matthews became pregnant with her son 10 years ago, she received very little support from anyone. “There was a lot of shame and stigma,” she shares. “That shame and stigma is often used to invalidate us and our abilities.”
This would inspire her to begin working as a maternity photographer, documenting the beauty of being Black and filled with life.
“It’s so much deeper than just taking portraits for me,” she continues. “It’s changing the narrative of what Black motherhood looks like and what reproductive justice looks like. We need to feel valued and we need to feel important and that’s part of what I like to do here.”
CASSIUS talked to Matthews via phone about founding her photography studio and the importance of supporting Black mothers.
CASSIUS: Where does the name Green Tangerine come from?
SASHA MATTHEWS: I didn’t wanna use my name because I really do believe that your work should speak for itself. A lot of people don’t even know what I look like because I really think that when people see your work they should be able to know it, like I do recognize certain artists’ work. My sister and I grew up in my grandfather’s house and he had an orange tree in his back yard. We always picked the figs and the oranges, so [Green Tangerine is] kind of derived from that, but also something fun and light that I felt was family oriented and didn’t necessarily have to come back to me. It doesn’t have to be a part of Sasha.
C.: Do you provide the outfits for your clients or do they bring their own?
SM: Up until now, they’ve been providing their own. I just recommend where they can get them from. The gowns are a big thing because I want [my clients] to feel empowered. For me, when I’m on my side of the camera, I know a hundred percent that you can’t be too dressed up. I don’t care if you have a ball gown on, a tutu, a formal gown—there’s no way that you can be too dressed up and then see yourself and be like, ‘Oh I did too much.’ It’s always the opposite way.
I just started a gown rental program where I would buy back the gowns from my clients and put a little bit of money back in their pocket so I could then get them cleaned and offer them on a rack in my studio. That way people wouldn’t have to spend $150 on a dress and I could have something for them to put on. In addition to paying a session fee and having to get your hair done and things like that, it does get costly to take portraits and I don’t want anything to step in the way of someone getting their maternity pictures taken. That’s such a monumental and pivotal time and I never had that. I didn’t take any photos [while I was pregnant], so I don’t want someone to feel like they can’t get it done.
C.: That’s really dope. How long have you been doing photography? Is it something you were always passionate about?
SM: I didn’t get into photography until my mid-20s. I definitely didn’t grow up saying I wanted to be a photographer. I actually was gonna be a social worker. I worked in mental behavioral health in the psychiatric field and that was gonna be my life. I felt overwhelmed with it because—even though it’s a very noble job and it has to be done and the people who do it are very selfless—I knew that it probably couldn’t be me.
I started taking pictures of my son when he was small and I had a little point-and-shoot camera. It wasn’t really fast or anything. He would do something really funny and by the time I would take the picture he would be done because the camera was so slow and I would get frustrated. I got a DSLR as a gift and I started taking [more] pictures of him. People would say, “Hey, can you take pictures of my kid, too?” At that time I’d be like, “Sure! I’ll take pictures!” not having any idea what I was doing. That developed into a passion over time, and over the years I built more clients and I started learning. I’m completely self-taught. I never went to school.
C.: That was going to be my next question.
SM: Yeah, no, I never took a single photography class for this. I did take some workshops with some other photographers once I started getting into it to see if they could help me brand and learn the business, but people would put their faith in me. Sometimes I look back at that work and I have to go back and thank these people like, “You really believed in me!” Now it’s been eight years. I was able to quit my 9-to-5 in 2014 and never looked back. I’ve had [my studio] for three years now and been a full-time portrait photographer for three years, specializing in maternity and newborn portraits.
C.: That’s so cool. You’ve somewhat already answered this in what you’ve shared of your personal experiences, but just to elaborate: when you realized you wanted to make a career out of this, why was it important to specialize in maternity photos, particularly of women of color?
SM: As a woman of color, when I got pregnant with my son, I wasn’t very supported. There was a lot of shame and stigma—there is, around young Black mothers—so I felt that a way to break that barrier of shame is to in turn empower women of color during their pregnancy. Oftentimes we’re questioned a lot about our pregnancies like, “Oh, well how many kids are you gonna have?” or ‘Who are you gonna have them with?” Our ability to even care for our own kids is always in question. There’s really nothing that inspires me more than a woman who loves herself enough to document her existence—because that’s important, too—to say “Hey, I’m still beautiful at this time and I feel empowered enough.” And you have to be brave to take pictures. When you’re pregnant, you’re growing! You’re bigger than you’ve ever been. So to get to that point where you feel brave enough to get in front of the camera and say “I wanna document this,” I wanna be that person to do that. I love when they leave feeling more empowered.
I never took maternity pictures. I have three pictures of myself when I was pregnant. [In] one, my face is cut off, one is of my belly, one is with my sister, and one I was just in a dress standing there because I was so embarrassed and so ashamed. I was not encouraged to celebrate my pregnancy, and I didn’t. I don’t want anybody else to feel that way, so I fell in love with maternity photography. It’s the most beautiful thing to me. If I could do maternity photography all day, every day? That’s all I would ever do. I think pregnant women are stunning and so powerful and when you see them in those dresses it is regal.
C.: In you talking about Black women celebrating motherhood, I can’t help but think about Beyoncé and the beautiful photos she released when she first announced her pregnancy with her twins. It was such an empowering statement.
SM: Yeah, and some women will come and wanna wear their bellies out, which I also encourage. And during the sessions we don’t just shoot. We talk about real things like breastfeeding and advocating for your body and your baby [when] you are in the hospital. We talk about real life things.
I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of the reproductive circle. My sister worked in reproductive justice for years and I used to sit and listen to doulas and midwives and all these women speak about their birth experiences. I get to take that knowledge now and empower these women. It’s an all-around experience: they bring their babies, their little kids take pictures with them, some of them have partners, some of them don’t. Some come by themselves and I just love on them the whole session because I just want them to feel like if they feel like they don’t have anybody in their corner, they have me. It’s really such a beautiful thing and I love it, I really do, because [of] the hurt that I felt when I look back and 10 years ago having nothing go the way that I planned. Nothing was joyful about my pregnancy, and [pregnancy] should be celebrated.
C.: What advice do you have for young women who may be going through what you experienced 10 years ago?
SM: I would say to—and I know that it’s hard and all of this is hard, none of it’s easy—to advocate for yourself to find the joy in your expecting something amazing coming: the baby. To try to find the joy there and to document yourself regardless of how you’re feeling. Try to push through and have the courage to celebrate yourself and celebrate your baby regardless of what anybody around you is saying. I wish I would’ve done it. I never did it and I never will have that chance—and I’m okay with it now because I get to do this everyday.
C.: I’m glad it came full circle for you. And although it was rough in the beginning, it’s blossomed into something beautiful and you’re putting all that wonderful energy out there for the people who need it. That’s so great.
SM: Yeah, exactly, and that’s my mission. Young mothers shouldn’t—or any mother, any person—shouldn’t have to mentally labor over whether or not they deserve to be documented in that way. We have to reconcile so much within ourselves and make hard choices as parents and parents-to-be already. This shouldn’t be one of them. I wish there was somebody like me everywhere so that all women of color could go seek someone out. The thing about it is I love documenting, especially Black women. We just have that vibe.