The new HBO Film, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (adapted from the book)
tells the story of an African-American woman who – after her death – unknowingly
became a pioneer for medical breakthroughs when her cells were used to create the
first immortal human cell line back in the 1950’s. Her identity was ignored until the
book brought her story to life, finally paying tribute to the woman behind the HeLa
Photographing the film’s stars, Oprah Winfrey and Renée Goldsberry – both
powerhouses in their own fields – was a months-long journey – creating a
photographic narrative of the Henrietta Lacks legacy for the film’s advertising key
art and then for editorial publicity in Essence magazine. The magazine features the
film’s stars on its April cover. The two projects were shot three months apart.
When you’re photographing actors for two separate projects, the creative concepts
vary, and it’s up to you to create distinct environments to help the subjects get into
Oprah – needless to say – is a force to work with. During our shoot for the HBO
movie poster, she brought the character she played in the film back to life,
expressing palpable pain, almost bringing herself to tears to deliver the story to the
When she becomes Lacks’s daughter, you see the story in her face, and in her eyes.
We decided to approach the shoot using two different camera formats: medium
format digital for gallery shots on seamless and a 75 year old, large format film
camera – the Deardorff 8×10. I love the shallow depth of field that enables the
viewer to connect with the eyes of the subject — the keys to the soul.
Time moves more slowly shooting large format film, because of the intricacy of the
process. Once you find your shot composition, the subject has to stay still. Focus,
close the shutter, cock the shutter, load the film, remove the dark slide and then
shoot. The process requires a collaboration between the photographer and the
subject, falling into a rhythm and a flow. When done well, the results are
When it came time for Essence cover shoot, we did something entirely different.
Since it was a spring cover, we wanted the two stars of the film to feel fresh,
authentic, and uplifted, so we dressed them in white on a soft powder white
background with a light falloff. The shoot took place in NYC, three days after the
New Year at Milk Studios.
Instead of being in character like for the HBO shoot, the creative team at Essence
(photo editor Tracey Woods and creative director Rhonda Thompson) wanted to
highlight symbolic themes from the story of Henrietta and still show the two stars as
the strong, brilliant women they are. Working with Oprah & Renée for editorial had
a different vibe — it was about showcasing beauty and uplifted spirits to help
promote the film. The shoot itself was more playful.
The Essence team and I wanted to create joyful, interactive moments between the
women, both who said they were inspired by Lacks’s legacy. Collaborating with the
same talent on two separate projects gives an eye into how the entertainment
industry operates by supporting and promoting each other.
See the behind the scenes video and article on Essence.
Special thanks to the creative team at HBO Films and Kenny Gravillis of Gravillis Inc.