French-Senegalese Delphine Diallo arrived in New York City in 2009 looking for a fresh start. With a few hundred bucks in her pocket and refusing to go back to her 9 to 5, she started waitressing—honing her photography skills on her days off. Delphine has now exhibited her photography worldwide, shot modern heroines such as Lorde, and has clients including the United Nations and Nike. She shared a few words with us about how the women she admired as a child inspire the power and grace in her images, and why we’re responsible for creating a new type of creative role model.

“I was 31-years-old, working in Paris as a graphic designer and animator, and decided that being in an office wasn’t for me anymore. When I got a three year visa to work in America, I knew it would mean starting over but I didn’t care. I couldn’t do another 9 to 5 job—I had to start from scratch. I began waitressing, which was really liberating because it allowed me to learn from humble people who work really hard, all the time. I did that for a year and a half and built up my photography work in my time off. I shot and edited constantly, until I had jobs coming to me so often that I couldn’t cover my shifts. They’ve kept coming ever since, which is amazing because I’ve never had to ask for a job. It’s so interesting how things come when you don’t stop producing.

I’ve always been good at meeting people and making connections, and I have a very happy personality. I’m rarely sad unless I’m watching a sad movie, and then I’m really emotional! But I’ve always been sensitive to others and I get very close with my subjects—I love them right way. Most of the images on my website are of my friends. I find there’s no renewal in the images we see in magazines or online, particularly images of women. I want to capture a kind of grace and elegance which I don’t see in portraiture.

What I’m trying to portray in my photography stems back to what I admired in my childhood: someone who is not scared, who can face the world, who can influence others with her strength.

I want to show that sense of elegance and respect in every picture. I recently shot a few of my friends who are pregnant, and this was especially important to me. It was a blessing and a challenge for me to shoot them because I have so much respect for a woman carrying a baby, and I didn’t want the images to be cheesy either. I’m inspired by everyone I meet and never want my work to be about me—it’s always about them. That notion of sharing is a beautiful tradition which comes from my African heritage. In Senegal, where my family is from, this can be as simple as inviting friends over for dinner. They’re very aware of others and conscious of sharing the work as well as pushing each other. I feel this way about my photography. Instead of my work taking from people, I try to give to people—especially women.

Sometimes with creativity you can think: I’ve been through enough, but I’m still not where I want to be. You can feel something big but can’t see it in reality. Creativity is a powerful energy which is never fulfilled. It’s like a cup of water which you keep filling up but the water keeps going down—or like you’re hungry all the time. I’m never satisfied with my work. I’ll finish something and be happy with it for a short moment, then think, what’s next? You feel empty again. Which I’m learning to enjoy—that feeling of being empty for a bit. I think it’s good for an artist to feel empty sometimes. You also have to commit to that non-security life, which can get even more complicated when you think about bringing a child into the world. You never know when the money is coming. There’s also competition in an industry which predominately hires men. I have no choice but to be good.

There needs to be conversation around that for women; that you must put yourself in the potential danger of not feeling great, and still do the work. That kind of role model needs to exist.

I didn’t grow up with that—I was writing my own script. I think there’s a responsibility for us to say: If I can do it you can, but it’s hard. It’s hard to believe in yourself. You have to work on it everyday. I wish I had believed in my potential when I was younger—it took me 30 years to realize it.”

Delphine’s #OKREALTALK Tips

  • Grace, strength, respect.
  • Learn to enjoy the downtime.
  • Don’t make it about you.

b. 1977

t. @delphinediallo
i. @delphinediallo

Self portrait by Delphine Diallo at Malick Sidibé Studio in Mali, Bamako

As told to Amy Woodside, January 2016