Years 24 • Lives and creates Cleveland
Story by Amanda Koehn | Featured photo, self portrait by the artist
Da’Shaunae Marisa Jackson’s intimate, bright photos are a product of her ability to capture people in their true, relaxed forms. With each photoshoot, her aim is to make her subjects comfortable and open, allowing them to give more of themselves to the viewer.
“And by giving me more,” she says of her subjects, “I’m just showing their true selves in their most happy or peaceful moments. And I think that says something, I really do. I don’t want people to be uncomfortable when I’m photographing them, I want them to be themselves.”
While many of her photos evoke a sense of peace and lightness, it’s not because the subjects necessarily look happy or any specific way: it’s because you feel you are getting a snapshot into the life of someone new. That feeling of connectedness to a stranger brings about a sense of satisfaction that Jackson makes easy for the viewer.
Growing up in Cleveland and its suburbs, Jackson says when she was a child, her mother could always be found with disposable Kodak point-and-shoot cameras to snap family pictures. Her mother would send off Jackson to special days of school, like the first day or field day, with a disposable camera of her own.
“I was used to taking pictures that way of my friends,” Jackson says. “And I enjoyed it, I really did, but I didn’t think of it as a career until later in my life.”
After graduating from Garfield Heights High School, she attended Cuyahoga Community College but didn’t finish after an internship helped her get enough freelance work to make a go of it as a photographer. In addition to doing photoshoots, teaching and assisting other photographers, she also creates installations from her photos.
A special opportunity came last year when she was one of more than 20 mostly local photographers who documented Cleveland and its residents for exhibit “Cleveland 20/20: A Photographic Exploration of Cleveland.” The project, a partnership between Cleveland Public Library and Cleveland Print Room, sought to capture the diversity and everyday happenings in the city. The photos have been on display at Cleveland Public Library’s main branch in downtown Cleveland since early this year and will be cataloged there.
She says “Cleveland 20/20” was, “a very big rediscovering of what’s here,” that came at the perfect time. It allowed photographers to “fully experience Cleveland,” capturing a moment in history of people at community festivals and gatherings, right before gathering was no longer permitted or wise after COVID-19 hit.
During the pandemic, Jackson has been busy taking portraits and has been hired by national news outlets like The New York Times to take photos in Cleveland and surrounding areas. Her first Times assignment was in the spring, and the demand for her craft grew from there.
“It’s been nice to talk to more people that live here and see what they’ve been going through throughout this time,” she says of her work for news publications.
She’s also created a series called Instax portraits. For Instax, or instant camera stills, she’ll cut portraits taken at various angles of the same person into pieces. She combines them into one re-imagined collage, depicting the individual in a new form.
“I take different options based on my sketches so it comes to life,” she says of the Instax portraits. “I’ll expand from that first piece and then it just blossoms from there, whatever ideas I add onto it or materials.”
Jackson has developed a wealth of YouTube videos of her creating the Instax portraits, which can be viewed on her channel, DaShaunae Marisa, as part of an ongoing project to capture her friends in their natural states. She also teaches instax and digital photography at the Cleveland Print Room in Cleveland.
Another ongoing project involves her own family photos, for which she received a grant from the Cleveland Foundation to create an exhibit at the Cleveland Print Room early next year. The project began as a way to document her family and its dynamics, and morphed after her mother passed away this year.
“It will be interesting, that’s all I can say,” she says of the project. “(It’s) something I believe everyone can relate to, and I hope that a lot of other people will be able to understand and take something from this project.”
One challenge during the pandemic has been the inability to get people together for shoots, which is part of the reason Jackson has gravitated toward Instax – it only requires her and one other person. Moreover, the events of the past several months have refocused Jackson’s mind on the many issues facing our world and communities, and how she can document them as a photographer.
“I have the ability to really show what those problems are in different ways through the people that are actually experiencing them,” she says. “It’s encouraging me to follow through with the projects that I want to, which mostly have to do with health, basic human rights – all of that stuff – and human connection and being able to connect with your neighbor, because we are all human and we are all going through this together.”
“Da’Shaunae’s work really resonates with me. At the heart of her diverse body of work is the documentation of the world around her, inspired with curiosity in the search of others’ individual stories.”Shari Wilkins, executive director, Cleveland Print Room
“Cleveland 20/20: A Photographic Exploration of Cleveland,” will be on view through Spring 2021 at Cleveland Public Library, Main Library, Brett Hall, 325 Superior Ave., in Cleveland. For more information, visit
cpl.org/eventsclasses/exhibits. The project can also be viewed online at cpl.org/eventsclasses/exhibits/cleveland-20-20/virtual-tour.