Say what you want about Beyoncé, but what we’re not going to do is act like she doesn’t use her power to champion black excellence, prosperity or artistry. Case in point: According to the Huffington Post, when Beyoncé agreed to cover American Vogue’s September issue, she was contractually given “unprecedented control” over her images and captions by editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. And what did Bey do with that control? Hire a black photographer—the first ever to shoot a cover in the magazine’s 126-year history.
In addition to being the first black photographer, Tyler Mitchell may also be the youngest to shoot a Vogue cover. At only 23, the photographer and filmmaker has already become well respected for depicting his predominantly black subjects with what he calls “an honest gaze,” according to the New York Times, who interviewed Mitchell in December.
“I depict black people and people of color in a really real and pure way,” he said. “There is an honest gaze to my photos.”
Having graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts just last fall, Mitchell has already created campaigns and imagery for Marc Jacobs, Teen Vogue and American Eagle, where he was both model and director, about which he told the Times:
I do look at myself as a black American and equally as a symbol at the center of this country. I had never considered myself an American Eagle model, but what made it interesting was to twist the cultural conversation about what the brand stands for and turn it on its head.
But despite his growing profile, Mitchell was likely still years away from shooting for Vogue—let alone the cover—as Wintour generally chooses from a select and very well-known circle of photographers. (Beyoncé’s 2015 cover was shot by Mario Testino, who has notably since been accused of sexual misconduct.)
As fashion followers know, Wintour is generally in complete control of all of Vogue’s covers—especially the September issue, which is the most anticipated and high-profile issue of the year (even garnering its own documentary on the process of making it).
For Wintour to relinquish that control to her superstar subject is in and of itself a groundbreaking moment, and one that Beyoncé has leveraged well, changing the history of the publication in the process (it’s infuriating to think how much longer it might’ve taken them to correct course, after over a century of excluding black photographers). As a source familiar with Vogue’s editorial process explained to HuffPo:
“The reason a 23-year-old black photographer is photographing Beyoncé for the cover of Vogue is because Beyoncé used her power and influence to get him that assignment.”
Perhaps Mitchell said it best in his short film for American Eagle: “[I]t’s time to try taking a risk for once.”