Elizabeth Bayne: Ninety years. 300 black alumni. Was that new information for you?
Susan Goines (BFA 87 Photography and Imaging): Specifically, yes, but surprisingly, no. There weren't many (or just a few) Black people when I was here, and there still aren't. So I knew the number was quite small, it did surprise me. But I was witness to it when I was here.
EB: Do you think that's a missed opportunity for the school and the creative community?
SG: I think it’s an imbalance of opportunity. What drew me to the school is its reputation and its stature. And because of its reputation and its stature, it feels like it's unattainable to a lot of people. And when you think that it's out of reach, you don't try. You think, "It's too far, it's too fancy, it's too special. And you don't even have the self-esteem to attempt it, to even dream it." So I think that that is an opportunity that is missed, as you say.
EB: Is there anything we can do about that?
SG: I'm sure there is. I definitely don't have the answer to that. The thing, the crux of it is, it's more psychological as far as Black people and the Black community, understanding that just because it's up there doesn't mean it's unattainable. That's a mindset that comes from within the community and is weighted down by societal expectations in today’s world. You have that embedded into your psyche and that prevents you from thinking of things that seem unattainable — it’s in your background, in your culture.
And I think in our community, it feels like, "There's no way I can afford it." You don't see a pathway. And also the path of an artist is one that people don't truly understand. Art does not necessarily mean the downtrodden artists. Your ability to achieve success as an artist is not so small that you can't be successful at it. They don't know the different avenues in which you can be creative. They've never seen that shade of life, so they have nothing to compare it to.
I was being prepared for real life. All these steps along the way [ArtCenter] instills in you are things that have always served me well.Susan GoinesCommercial & Fine Art Photographer
EB: How did you overcome that or did you not have that problem?
SG: I didn't know it was a problem, and that's a gift that I had from my family and my parents. I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I have certain expectations and entitlements that are natural to me that other people don't feel. I was 18 when I started here, and I was one of the youngest to start. I knew I wanted to be an artist, it’s like, "I want to be a photographer, so I'm going to be a photographer and this is where I go to be the photographer." I don't know how I learned that, but my parents, they didn't understand it. They supported me, they said, "That's what you want to do, go do it. You demonstrate that single-mindedness of purpose, go do it. It doesn't seem like we can stop you anyway."
EB: Do you remember what it was like when you first arrived? I assume it might've been different because you were one of the younger folks.
SG: I didn't feel younger. I’d already been in community college for two years. I had a singleness of purpose: I came here to learn what they were offering. I was hungry. I didn't know how grueling it would be, but whatever they asked me to do, I was willing to do. I didn’t know that I was being prepared for real life. But all these steps along the way that the school instills in you, just by its system, are things that have always served me well.
EB: When you first arrived, were you the only Black person in your department?
SG: I do believe I may have been the only Black person in my department in my year. It was a thing where if you noticed a Black person, you noticed a Black person, which is weird. Here I am in Los Angeles, but I notice a Black person. I'm surrounded by them in my daily life. But yeah, I would go, "Oh, there's another Black person. I wonder if they go to school here. What is their major?"
EB: Did that affect your experience educationally? At ArtCenter specifically?
SG: Not in a negative way. No. For the most part, I was just one among others. Because that's the way I choose to walk through the world. I'm one among others, I'm a creative person just like you. I wasn't pursuing my craft in a way that was specific to my culture, so that didn't become a factor in what I was doing.
I will say that because I was one of the very, very few Black students here, I had a great opportunity to meet the legendary, the visionary Gordon Parks when he came to our school to visit. They had a luncheon for him and I was able to sit next to him. They wanted to share an experience with me and they also wanted to show their inclusion. And I became richer for it.
EB: Did you have a favorite class?
SG: It was one of the late-term classes and basically, the world is your oyster, create something. And those were great experiences because everything that you need to produce a photoshoot is at your fingertips, everything. You create a world, just create your own little world. And it was yours for that 8-hour period.
EB: How did that help in your career? I imagine it gave you a lot of confidence.
SG: Oh, yeah. It makes you feel like, "I can handle it, I can do it." Because I am still a Black woman, and I do need to project that. I'm in a field with very few people like me, so I do need to project [confidence] to make people feel comfortable handing me their $10,000, $100,000 budget. The training, the foundational understanding of how to get it done, the speed at which you need to get it done, all the pieces that go into the puzzle — it gave me a lot of confidence.
EB: Do you chafe at the label or the title Black female photographer?
SG: My art is an extension of myself. Is it a Black perspective? No, it's not. It's my perspective. But I'm a Black woman. I'm proud of being a Black female photographer. But don't define me by that [as] a limitation. It's just a part of me — that doesn't make my art any more or less. It's just an opportunity for me to say, "It can be you, too."
*This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Photo credit: Everard Williams
ArtCenter's Commitment to Black Lives