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Grad Student Refocuses the Narrative

Photographer Steph Foster MFA 19 PH reflects on racism in America and brings his stories of hope to Design Indaba 2019.

Grad Student Refocuses the Narrative

Photographer Steph Foster MFA 19 PH in his studio. | photo by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH

“Storytelling is a really powerful form of communication,” says grad student Steph Foster MFA 19 PH. “It’s an effective way to talk about complex social problems and inspire people to create change.”

Foster recently returned from Cape Town, South Africa, where he represented RISD at Design Indaba, an annual conference of international creatives working for a better world through design activism. “It was flat-out amazing,” he says of the experience. “My talk went really well, but the best part was hanging out with all these super-creative architects and filmmakers from around the world and just getting infected with their brilliant ideas.”


Bottle Blessing honors Foster’s late aunt, who experienced the trauma and indignities of incarceration.

Foster’s creative practice combines photography, video and other mediums to reflect on what it means to be black in America today, focusing on issues like staggering rates of incarceration and what he describes as “the commodification of black bodies. I never shy away from issues of diversity and race,” he adds. “These are hard conversations to have, but they’re so important.”

“I’m trying to make links between slavery, mass incarceration and the commodification of black bodies.”

In preparing for his thesis project this year, Foster traveled to Louisiana, home of the infamous Angola Prison and Guts & Glory, an annual prison rodeo in which inmates can earn commissary dollars by risking their lives in the ring. “I’m trying to make links between slavery, mass incarceration and the commodification of black bodies,” he explains. As it happens, “Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country.”

Foster’s project is inspired by his aunt, who died in a Michigan prison, leaving three sons behind. “We were always super tight,” he says. “She encouraged me to use my art to make social change.”

The Eyes (self-portrait)

Foster has honored his aunt’s memory with Bottle Blessing, a photograph depicting the urban street tradition of memorializing a lost loved one by pouring liquor or beer onto the ground. The photo was among those on view in mid March in The Eyes Beneath the Oak, a solo exhibition of his work at RISD’s Red Eye Gallery. The show presented two bodies of work—one intimate, the other clinical—that demonstrate the complexity of contemporary black existence and, in the artist’s words, “tell a story about what it means to be caught in a system that dehumanizes, criminalizes and erases.”

Another standout piece in the show was a super slow-mo video showing two hands fist-bumping in greeting paired with found audio in which a man discusses the loss of unity among black Americans and the need for people to love themselves and one another. A similarly paced video shows one man stealing another’s Nike high-tops to the sound of a 1954 training tape on the importance of brand identity when “selling to the negro customer.”

Foster on stage at Design Indaba in Cape Town, an experience he describes as “flat-out amazing.”

“I like video a lot,” says Foster. “Unlike [still] photography where you’re prioritizing this one frame—this one slice of life—video can tell a more complete story.” When researching graduate schools, he considered applying to RISD’s Digital + Media program but opted instead for Photography in part because he studied it as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. “Both departments at RISD really encourage an interdisciplinary practice anyway,” he explains, “and in Photo I get my own studio and the opportunity to work with an amazing group of thesis advisors, including the best educator ever, Odette England MFA 12 PH, who has had a huge impact on all of us.”

“Systemic racism is a man-made construct, and anything that has been engineered can also be reverse-engineered.”

England, who nominated Foster to represent RISD at Design Indaba, is equally impressed. “Steph is all about community with a capital C,” she explains. “He experiments widely and confidently and is intensely self-aware. He’s interested in redefining things, restaging things—creating dialogue about the issues that matter to him and building a world that is kinder, healthier and more inclusive.”

Waiting reflects on the booming business of mass incarceration.

As his RISD experience draws to a close, Foster is preparing for the graduate thesis exhibition in May, where he’ll perform with his musical ensemble and show his final body of work. After graduation he’s hoping to get a teaching position and also return to Cape Town as a Fulbright Fellow to create a short film about institutionalized racism and inequality in South Africa.

Regardless of his next move, Foster is committed to “keeping it real” and using his boundless creative energy to draw attention to complicated problems like racial inequality. “Systemic racism is a man-made construct,” he points out. “And anything that has been engineered can also be reverse-engineered.”

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