How Photographer and Founder of Women of New York Went From Waitressing to Working with Chris Rock

French-Senegalese photographer Delphine Diallo discusses how spontaneity and waitressing made her a better photographer, the financial model that allows her to balance prestige and personal projects, and how she has made the most of her chance encounters.

French-Senegalese photographer Delphine Diallo lives for life’s surprises. Little did she know, a chance meeting in Paris with famed photographer Peter Beard, who is known for his African wildlife shots, would come full circle, and he would become her mentor. In February 2008, Diallo received a call from Beard, and he asked, “What are you doing in April? Please come to Botswana with me to be my assistant on the Pirelli calendar.”

Diallo said yes, and the transformational trip solidified that photography was her calling. She later moved to New York, quit her full-time agency job, started waitressing, and moonlighted as a photographer. Randomly bumping into a lost Chris Rock in her Brooklyn neighbor led to photographing Rock for a recent comedy tour and resulted in a huge career breakthrough. Clients have been coming ever since, including The New York Times, Nike, and Swizz Beats.

Her striking portraiture and mixed media collages combine artistry with activism to champion women and challenge societal norms through the exploration of anthropology, mythology, sexuality, identity, and race. “To make it in this male-dominated industry, you must be strong,” says Diallo. “I build my physical and mental strength by studying martial arts and reading constantly.”

Delphine-Diallo, photographer, artist, brooklyn, interview
Delphine Diallo was photographed in and around her apartment in Brooklyn.

You grew up in France—what was your earliest exposure to the arts?

My mother has always been an artist at heart, but was never able to make a career of it. Every weekend, she’d take me to the Louvre Museum, and an artistic aesthetic was always around me. Therefore, my photography today is very close to a painting or portraiture.

You worked as a graphic designer in Paris. What did you enjoy about it, and what led to your realization that it wasn’t for you?

Society tells you that to be an artist is not something you can do for a living. When I graduated, I applied my art skills as a graphic designer and video editor working for companies and branding musicians and artists. I did it for seven years, I did it well, and got the respect. But, as new technologies emerged, I spent more time keeping up with technological changes that I felt limited creatively. These frustrations led me back to photography, which I had studied in school. I wanted to be great at one thing, so thought, “Okay, if this is the beginning, why not give myself 10 years to do this?” When it comes to your vision, you don’t have to stop for technology.

How did you make the move to New York City?

In 2008, I received an O-1 Visa [artist visa] from a creative agency to work on graphic design and video editing projects. It was good, but I felt stifled by the office environment. And, I barely had time to create for myself because I was constantly producing for them.

How did you go from getting back into photography to being mentored by photo icon Peter Beard?

Crazy, right? Sometimes you need one good dinner in the right place at the right time to lead you to a world of opportunities. My friend and actress Aissa Maiga was in Paris for the holidays in 2007, and we had difficulty coordinating our schedules. So, Aissa invited me to tagalong to a dinner event on the Avenue des Champs- Élysées, and I struck up a random conversation with Beard. It felt like a meeting of creative minds, we talked for hours, and I showed him a photo I shot of my family in Senegal that made me proud. I remember he said, “You capture something that I’ve rarely seen—what you capture is full of life and energy.” When he called me a year later to work on the Pirelli calendar shoot in Botswana, it felt like a magical call.

 Delphine-Diallo, photographer, artist, brooklyn, interview
What made this trip transformational?

It was an eye-opening experience to be in Botswana—ten days felt like six months of training. One day, we’re in the middle of a village with elephants coming out of the water and the next night, we’re…

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