Richie Shazam’s Book of Self Portraits
For Richie Shazam, becoming a Bollywood princess was not a manifestation. It was a realization.
The model, photographer and director thinks that the term “manifestation” has become a buzzword that removes accountability, she explained in Ludlow House, a social club on the Lower East Side, in between puffs from her turquoise-colored vape.
“You could say, ‘I spoke something into existence,’” she said, “but what are you actually doing to realize it?”
When she was growing up, she watched hours of Bollywood films in her bedroom in the Jamaica section of Queens, marveling at actresses like Kajol. “Seeing that rich brown skin and watching the beautiful Bollywood icons really allowed me to embody an identity behind closed doors,” she said, recalling that she told herself, “‘One day I’ll be able to be this person.’”
On Friday, she will release “Shazam,” a book of 190 self-portraits shot on film. In one set of portraits, she is the Bollywood royalty that she dreamed about becoming: dolled up in scraps of an orange sari, intricate gold South Asian jewelry and a custom orange wig designed by the stylist Jimmy Paul.
She had talked about publishing a photo diary for years, but it wasn’t until November that she started putting it together. The images that appear in the book are a culmination of 50 shoots that she planned over six months, in between other projects, including runway shows.
Almost all the photographs were shot in her studio on Bowery. She invited friends and longtime collaborators to each shoot. Shazam, 32, wore many different hats, including creative director and photographer.
In one day, she would shoot four or five looks.
“My recipe is creating a world that looks so outer worldly, but making it with nothing, within a confined space,” Shazam said. Briana Andalore, who styled the self-portraits in the book, used scraps of fabric and collaged them on Shazam’s body, experimenting with arrangements and silhouettes. It was about taking risks, Shazam said.
She shares the studio with her “family crew,” which includes her best friends, Ms. Andalore and Julia Fox.
Shazam and Ms. Fox met when they were about 15 at an after-party. “Our eyes had locked, and we had this instantaneous bond,” Shazam recalled. The two tore up the New York City nightlife scene together as teenagers. When Shazam wasn’t welcome in her home, Ms. Fox let her stay at her place.
Shazam asked Ms. Fox, who appears in some of the portraits, to write the foreword. In it, Ms. Fox writes that Shazam carried a digital camera during their nightlife adventures. The next day, their friend group would wait for her to post the photos on Facebook.
“I always had an obsession with capturing the moment because we were getting lit, and that camera roll was really the night,” Shazam said. “Like, what the hell went down?”
She said she never saw her love for photography and “making people feel sexy” as a viable career because of her academically focused childhood. She attended the Brooklyn Friends prep school and then Trinity College in Connecticut. She is grateful for her academic background, she said, because it allowed her to “think pluralistically.” But it was her chosen family, like Ms. Fox, who pushed her to cultivate her vision.
She was born Richie Shazam Khan to Guyanese immigrant parents. Her mother died when she was in high school, and her relationship with her father withered as she tapped into her queer identity, she said. She ultimately found her safe spaces with her friends in Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan.
Her father worked seven days a week, and her mother was blind for a few years before she died. Shazam would tell her mother vivid stories. “I’ve always been a storyteller,” she said. “She got to live vicariously through me and in my images. There’s a part of me that’s making it for her to see up above.”
The portraits were only lightly retouched, she said, because she wanted to show her skin in its true form. “It was about creating composition that was raw but still seeing the fantasy of the makeup,” she said.
She said the book is for her community, and she hoped it would inspire people to express themselves authentically through her trans joy. But most of all, this book is for herself, she said. She doesn’t care how people see her anymore. Instead, she has harnessed the innate fear and anxiety of how she is perceived. “In each image, you see that I’m fully in charge,” she said. “It is about owning who I am and having fun.”
Given Shazam’s love for the city, it’s fitting that the last portrait in the book tells a New York story. In it, she is wearing a voluminous sage dress with spiky green hair, reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty, and is standing beside a pile of garbage. As Shazam said: “We built the world we want to live in.”
“That New York City grit and stomping on the pavement with my heels,” she said, “I own it. I’m really trying to cement being a New York legend.”