Flo Ngala ‘13 becomes first Black woman to photograph inside Met Gala

Emily Sun

Equipped with a Canon and a Kodak film camera, Flo Ngala ‘13 made history as the first Black woman invited to shoot inside the Met Gala on Monday. Her photos for Vogue captured the attendees in all their “gilded glamour,” as per the night’s dress code — Cardi B dripping in Versace gold chains; Kim Kardashian hand-in-hand with Pete Davidson; Billie Eilish all cool stares and smooth satin.

In the nine years since she graduated from the school, portrait photographer and photojournalist Ngala has built a portfolio with clients like the New York Times, Billboard, Rolling Stone, Nike, and more.

At the end of March, Ngala opened her inbox to an email from Vogue’s Visual Editor Landon Phillips commissioning her to shoot inside the Met Gala, she said. “I was honestly, genuinely, freaking out.” She had previously noticed Phillips looking at her Instagram account, but the invitation still came as a surprise. “It was very surreal to know that people at places like Vogue are tapped into my work,” she said.

The realization that she was the first Black woman hired to shoot inside the Gala came later, Ngala said. “It was so phenomenal that I needed to understand if I was the first one.” She discovered that the answer was yes — both women and people of color (POC) have had the job in the 74 years since the inaugural event, but never a Black woman.

Representation matters in photography because people project who they are and how they view the world into their photos, Ngala said. On both technical and metaphorical levels, cameras reflect the outside world into a small box to produce an image. While photos seem like an objective art form, there is no such thing as a pure vision — rather,  photographers’ identities shape what they see, she said.

Some perspectives — like the white, male, and heterosexual gaze — have taken precedence over others, so it is imperative to right that imbalance by incorporating more voices into the mix, Ngala said. “It’s really important to make sure that if you’re sharing space from moment to moment, as many kinds of people can be represented as possible.”

Seeing Ngala, a young female photographer of African-descent, is a game changer, photography teacher Aaron Taylor said. “When I was growing up, we had very few female photographers to look up to and very few, if any, of color,” he said. “She is proud of her culture — as she should be — and it’s great to see her be unashamed.”

Ngala wove pride for her heritage into her Met Gala outfit. For the event, she donned a short and functional green gown with black tulle and a bow, created by Mark Ingram Atelier using custom fabric from Sheila Bridges’ Harlem Toile line. According to Bridges’ website, the fabric depicts scenes from Harlem in the style of 18th-century French pastoral toiles, and, in doing so, “lampoons some of the stereotypes deeply woven into the African American experience.” “It’s got different scenes of Black people doing casual things like getting your hair braided, playing basketball, typical but culturally important representations of the community,” Ngala said.

Along with her origin as a Harlem native, Ngala’s family also found their way into her attire. On the knuckles of her shutter-clicking hand, she wore two custom rings by Johnny Nelson Jewelry in the shape of her parents’ faces. The rings were cast based on their passport photos circa 1992, the year they immigrated to the US. “I wanted them to be part of this in a certain way,” she said. “I have these certain creative ideas that are a result of the spirit in me that they helped nurture.”

As Ngala glammed up for the Gala, photo students Charity Chu (12) and Sunshine Quinones (12) captured the process. It was a family affair: Ngala got ready in her childhood home as her sister applied her makeup and her mother braided her hair, Quinones said. Being surrounded by other women of color felt empowering, she said. “I was just really grateful to be a part of that experience, with women and women of color being in spaces that they usually aren’t, and moving through a world that isn’t always welcoming to them.”

It meant a lot that Flo made a choice to only have POC photographers there with her family, Chu said. “I’d never thought I’d ever get anywhere near the Met Gala,” she said. “Flo is using her career to share opportunities with POC who usually don’t get them.”

That afternoon, Ngala entered the Met with an all-access pass and a mission: document the night, the museum’s Gala setup, and the celebrities, she said. She roamed around searching for photo ops; some were staged, but most were spur-of-the-moment fly-on-the-wall takes.

One of Ngala’s favorite shots that she took featured Jacob Elordi, Euphoria’s Nate Jacobs, mid-step and mid-smile, Stormzy with a white cigarette tucked behind his ear to match his all-white suit, and Damson Idris holding a hand towards the camera, she said. It’s a “personality photo,” Ngala said. “It’s not just someone smiling and posing, it’s them showing a bit more energy.”

It was fun to see and interact with so many celebrities in person, Ngala said. She fangirled over some, like Gwen Stefani before snapping a picture of the singer in her neon green gown, and Janelle Monae — who had one of the best outfits of the night, Ngala said — with her rhinestone dress and crystal headpiece.

No Met Gala would be complete without the iconic bathroom selfie; Ngala got to catch a sepia-toned, star-studded shot with Kendall Jenner, Hailey Bieber, Billie Eilish, Emma Chamberlain, and Winnie Harlow, she said. The Gala also brought together Ngala and Jordan Roth ’93, who graduated 20 years apart. “It was cool that another HM alum was there,” she said.

Before the end of the night, Ngala visited the Costume Institute’s new show, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.” Set in the Met’s American Wing, the exhibition highlights overlooked figures in the history of American fashion. One of Ngala’s favorite rooms was designed by filmmaker Radha Blank and spotlights a mannequin with seven-foot-long, white box braids, she said. “It represents Black America to me because of what the braids symbolize.” 

Written across those braids in red text reads: “We good, thx!” According to Vogue, Blank’s room centers “Black Women, often uncredited as cultural weavers of the fabric of this country,” and creates space for them to “speak through our OWN quilt.” Ngala swapped a quilt for a camera as her tool of empowerment at the Gala. “I want to show, ‘this is what it can also look like when you allow someone to do what they want to do,’” she said.

And show it she did. In Ngala’s mother’s words, “how was she not gonna go to Met Gala when Gala is her name? It was meant to be.”