Flo Ngala ’13 presents photographs at assembly

Emily Sun, Athena Rem, and Ariella Frommer

Flo Ngala ‘13 took Upper Division (UD) students through her photography career at Tuesday’s assembly. Ngala is an established photographer in the media realm, whose work has been featured in publications, such as The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard and has photographed popular artists including Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, and Gucci Mane.

Ngala was first exposed to photography at the school in an eighth grade photo elective and continued photography throughout high school. Her passion for photography stems from its power to transport people beyond what they can see with their own eyes, to spotlight injustices, and to move people to action, she said. 

Ngala also spoke about how her identity is central to the way she sees the world and her approach to photography. “I’m a Black woman and well aware that photography was historically used as a tool of oppression to depict Black people in a negative light,” she said. “For me, that’s especially why representation matters so much in this field: if someone does not see the value of certain groups of people, the way they capture them simply cannot do them justice.”

 “I really try and make sure that, as a photographer, I’m showing Black people in the best light and I’m showing women in the best light,” Ngala said. “If not me, then who?”

This idea was especially pertinent when Ngala photographed attendees of Black Lives Matter protests in New York City this June. She wanted to document the events and depict the frustration and pain people felt through her lenses.

Erica Jiang (9) said Ngala did an amazing job portraying a message through her photographs of the protests. “I’ve been learning in my photo class about how to convey a feeling instead of just a 2D photograph,” Jiang said. “I could definitely see that in her work and how she captured these beautiful moments.”

Ngala’s distinction between when it is appropriate to photograph people and when she decides to put down her camera to participate in the moment resonated with Julian Silverman (11), whose photos hang alongside Ngala’s in the Fisher Gallery Black Lives Matter exhibit. “I was really caught up in whether I should take this picture or whether it was too intimate of a moment to shoot,” he said. “I ended up not taking it, and I definitely feel like it was the best choice, and Flo reiterated that.”

Ngala also spoke about how she loves street and behind-the-scenes photography because she can connect with strangers over their stories and capture the combination of light, composition, and color to move viewers.

Charity Chu (11) admired Ngala’s ability to bring out unseen aspects of her subjects, such as the photo of Busta Rhymes mid-laugh, she said. “It shows a completely different side of him since he is such a serious guy.”

Though street photography was one of her first preferred genres of photography as a student, nowadays it can sometimes be nerve-wracking to approach people, she said. She used the term “photographer’s guilt” to describe missing a perfect shot, whether it is because she didn’t have her equipment on her or was hesitant to just take the photo. 

The proudest moment in Ngala’s career was when The New York Times featured her photo story about Figure Skating in Harlem, a program that empowers girls of color through ice skating, she said. “There’s a video of me ballistically crying when I first picked up the issue.”

Karen Johnson, Ngala’s UD photography teacher who retired in 2016, said Ngala’s success in the photo industry is meaningful on both a personal and societal level. “She is a young woman of color interacting with institutions that have not traditionally supported the success of women or people of color,” Johnson said.

The assembly is an example of the school’s commitment to amplifying diverse voices, Head of Upper Division Dr. Jessica Levenstein said. “Her identity as a Black woman influences her work, and she can speak to that aspect of her work with our students,” she said.

Upper Division Library Department Chair Caroline Bartels wanted to show students one of the many paths that they can take after graduation, she said.

“It’s good for kids to hear that you could take all these crazy routes, find yourself along the way, and come out of it on the other end perfectly fine and feeling really, really happy about your life,” Bartels said.

At first, Ngala did not choose to pursue photography full time after she graduated from the school, she said. She became interested in art direction and as a result, majored in advertising and minored in design at The City College of New York.

Silverman said he admired Ngala used her experience at the school to carve her own path. “The fact that Flo actually didn’t major in photography but she’s been so successful shows me that there are other ways to make it [as a photographer].”

Chu left the assembly feeling inspired by Ngala’s drive and love for her craft, she said. “She and I are both from the program Prep for Prep, we are both Nigerian, and we both love taking pictures,” she said. “This assembly showed me that there are Black women like me out there doing amazing things in life.”

Ngala also showed students that any passion can become a livelihood despite the stigma around careers in the arts, Neeva Patel (9) said. “She was a person just like us going to Horace Mann, but she found her passion and achieved her biggest goals.”

The assembly taught Nottebohm that he truly can follow his dreams, just like Ngala, he said. “She empowers people of color, such as myself, to really go after your dreams.”