Wanting to foster trust between Black women, Des Moines photographer Keesha Ward created a space for melanated love and positivity

courtesy of Keesha Ward

Keesha Ward was taught to be suspicious of other Black girls and Black women by her Black mother growing up. It wasn’t until coming to Ames, Iowa, from the south suburbs of Chicago in 2006 that she learned to trust women who looked like her. That may be surprising since there isn’t a large presence of Black women in Iowa and in college, but Keesha Ward found empowerment among Black women on Iowa State University’s campus.

“I genuinely love uplifting us Black folks,” she told Little Village.

Ward can’t remember her mother having any female friends — “She was very clear about they’ll stab you in the back, they’re not trustworthy.” — but Ward hasn’t followed that pattern. Through mentorship and friendships, she discovered there is something special about Black women. The love and support she experienced at ISU ultimately lead to Ward staying in Iowa after graduation.

“I feel like I had a choice as a kid. Either one, I listen to what my mom said. Or two, I don’t at all,” she explained. “We know that what we experience in our childhood, it spills over into adulthood. Whether we recognize it or not, it happens. So, coming to Iowa State [and] having Black women in particular around me, whether they were my friends or they were mentors at Iowa State or in the community, having them is actually what kept me here.”

Ward laughs. “Like, I was ready to roll out after my first semester,” she said.

“Because of their love, their support, the constant encouraging, building not just me up but [also] other Black women around us, it was a breath of fresh air. To actually truly experience that as a young adult, 18, 19 years old, I was very fortunate enough to have these types of Black women in my life. To see that, to feel that, to be able to embrace that in real life, I was like, ‘Man! My mom could not have been more wrong!’”

“We gone deal with people in general in life that are going to do us dirty. That’s just people! But to pinpoint it to Black women though, it’s just like, man! You could not have been more wrong.”

A couple years into her undergrad, Ward wanted to create a safe space for Black women. “So, me holding tight to that, that type of love, that type of environment that I knew I wanted to build and an maintain in Ames, I ended up creating a monthly ladies night.”

Ward hoped to stop the constant cycle of Black people coming to Iowa but leaving shortly after finishing school, because of a lack of community and safe spaces, just as Ward planned to do after her first semester at ISU. So, Ladies’ Night was created, an informal private Facebook group that now has more than 200 members, all Black women in Central Iowa. 

“It’s about uplifting one another, loving on one another. That’s what it’s all about,” Ward said.

She was also determined to photograph Black women in every shade of brown, every spiral of curls, and every shape. Ladies Night evolved into the annual Black Women Empowerment photoshoot with Ward Creative Studios, established by Keesha Ward and her husband Chris Ward, who introduced her to photography.

It started off with just an iPad and a random idea — Chris would pull the car over anytime he saw a dope spot for a quick shoot, and use Keesha as his subject. She would edit the photos, then post them to social media for fun.

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

The Wards’ work garnered attention. A friend reached out to request her own photo shoot, which became the Keesha Ward’s first photoshoot behind the camera. She shot her friend at the park with an iPad camera, and the friend loved how her photos turned out.

Recognizing the talent and joy this hobby brought out, the Wards bought their very first camera in 2017, a Canon T6 for about $350. Not long after, they purchased a 50mm lens. Establishing themselves as an official business, the couple did free photoshoots in their living room until it was time to open the gates into their developing business. Chris served as the head photographer of Ward Creative Studios, and Keesha the creative director.

Ward would define herself as a self-taught photographer who never saw herself owning a photography business. Neither did she imagine taking over as the main photographer when her husband had to take a step back to work on other projects in late 2019. But she also never saw herself staying in Iowa, either.

The Black Women Empowerment photoshoot was created out of the love shared in Ladies Night, she said. The 2022 shoot was held on April 9 in Ward’s studio at Mainframe Studios in Des Moines.

Jazzmine Brooks in 2022 5th annual Black Women Empowerment photoshoot — Keesha Ward/Ward Creative Studios

“Black Women Empowerment is my baby of all my special projects,” Ward said. “It’s the thing that kicks the special projects off.” With the power to direct her own lens, Ward focuses on Black people as the face of every project.

The thought behind this project is, “Let’s come together in one space to laugh, to mingle, to really hype each other up! It’s a whole other level being able to hype each other up when somebody’s in front of the camera. To just feel that, that is empowering in itself. You can just see in the body language of each woman in front of that camera just shifts, in a good way.”

“So many of them haven’t been in front a camera before, so many of them never had their make-up done before — we go all out. You got these other women, many of them you don’t even know, hyping you up like no other. And you end up with these beautiful shots that you would not have even thought of.”

Every year, Ward and a few friends — make-up artist Shayla McDougal, doula Jazzmine Brooks and Victoria Knight, who studied Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Production at Iowa State University — brainstorm and come up with a theme for the photoshoot.

Ventica Woods in 2022 5th annual Black Women Empowerment photoshoot — Keesha Ward/Ward Creative Studios

This year, the theme was glamour beauty shots, which meant getting up close and personal with the subject. It also meant more intricate makeup and jewelry, and more emphasis on hairstyles. Subjects sign up themselves, and Ward capped the number at 20 this year.

Well in advance, Ward announces the theme of the photoshoot with details in the Ladies’ Night Facebook page. Exactly 24 hours before posting the booking link to sign up for the photoshoot, she gives a heads up on the group page. Once the link is posted, women are selected on a first-come first-serve basis. Anyone who signs up after the limit, is put on a waiting list.

After supporting one another during the half-day photoshoot, the ladies go to dinner and continue that positive energy.

“I see it as a full experience of love and coming together,” Ward said. “It is legit, it is everything. So, I always look forward to it.”

“We are so dynamic. And when I say dynamic, I mean the power that we encompass. From our hair to our clothing. Because even though we are all Black, our cultures ain’t the same and I try to remind people about that. I can’t speak for everybody [that’s] Black.”

She continued with a personal example. “Me and my husband, we don’t come from the same culture. And we are complete opposites. We [are] both Black, but while he was eating salmon, I was eating sardines out the can,” she joked.

“To be able to witness us in every aspect of beauty, it is amazing. Even down to our shades, there was every shade up there. Especially this year, there was every shade of Black up there, and every texture of hair from the softest curls to the tightest kinks. To be able to highlight that is everything, and what I have seen is the ladies appreciate it. I’ve seen that the community appreciates it.”

Ward cited one message she received from a Des Moines resident, expressing how fond she was of Ward’s photoshoot.

“She was a white woman, and after she saw last year’s Black Women Empowerment photoshoot she reached out and she said ‘Hey, I really love seeing this and what you’re doing. I want to just give a donation to your business.’ It’s not even just about the Black women in front of the camera being able to see themselves, it’s about the community seeing them too, right! And just to see how powerful that is.”

Ward has also received positive feedback from the Black community.

“To bring Black women together to be able to celebrate – it’s celebrating us in a different way. It’s celebrating us through imagery, through photographs – the realness of us in a still moment. Honestly, what I constantly get from the community has been ‘This is so needed, and I love it!’”

Black women who weren’t a part of the photoshoot expressed interest in getting involved next year. “It’s always, especially with Black women, ‘I need to be a part of this! Keesha, I’m coming next year!”

Black men have also expressed interest. Ward said she’d like to arrange a men’s shoot, but first she needs to recruit a team of about three Black men to help out behind the scenes for input and planning.

And before launching that project, Ward would like to do a Black girls photoshoot. One was scheduled, but had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ward highlighted the joy she feels in a studio surrounded by women like her, encouraging each other with cries of “Oow! Give me face! Serve for me! Give me fierce!”

Shayla McDougal in 2022 5th annual Black Women Empowerment photoshoot — Keesha Ward/Ward Creative Studios

“We’re able to be in this space and these women don’t have to worry about who else [is] in this space and can use our lingo. We can talk the way we want to talk, right?”

The way Black women speak is unique and different, Ward explained. “For instance, you know somebody looks good when it’s like ‘Where you going?!’ We don’t have to say, ‘Dang, girl you look good!’ … ‘Where you think you going? Oh! You think you doing something?’ That’s our way of saying you look bomb. And that’s something that I love about us.”

They also know not to utter the irritating suggestion too often given to Black women: “Smile more.”

“We ain’t got to smile in front of the camera to be beautiful or approachable, whatever! It is just the power in our being and so that’s why I love to capture us. And seriously, it falls in line with my annual Black Love Mini Series that I have every year for Black History Month, slash we call it Love Month because it’s Valentine’s Day and Black History so we got Black Love.”

Ward said the empowerment begins from the moment her subjects walk into the photoshoot, with everyone generously offering compliments, taking breaks and assuring one another, “You’re doing amazing.”

Latitia Johnson in 2022 5th annual Black Women Empowerment photoshoot — Keesha Ward/Ward Creative Studios

She smiles from ear to ear when she sums up the energy after the photoshoot. “This is how I’m going to say it — we all walk out of here and our heads are so big we can’t fit in the car because of just this level of encouragement.”

That love goes further than just compliments. “We’re able to sit around and talk about our home life, what we’re doing in our businesses, our struggles, our challenges. And we can sit and just really love on each other. Encourage each other. ‘I got you, what you need from me?’ Even first meeting, ‘I got you, we’re connected now.’ So now this can continue outside of this shoot. So, there are a lot of friendships that happen at the shoot that continue outside of it.”

The love can serve as an antidote to what Ward describes as the “negative self-talk that we have within ourselves.”

“So, being able to speak that life into somebody else, that’s what happens in these spaces. It’s the constant speaking life into each other. It’s like the body positivity. Because when I think of this shoot, women off all sizes, of all ages are coming up in here and doing this shoot and it is, ‘Yas girl! Body is banging!’”

Ward initially came to Iowa in 2006 solely to pursue a degree in Hotel, Restaurant, and Institution Management. She changed her major and earned her undergrad in Child, Adult and Family Services. Ward also earned an MBA from ISU, a certification in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion from the University of Florida, and another certificate in plant-based nutrition.

Just as Ward’s skills and interests come together in her photography practice, so do they in her business Vegan Knees, offering one-on-one coaching to teach people how to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diet. Currently, Ward is shifting her focus with Vegan Knees to more community bonding. She is planning to start hosting at kitchen spaces and instructing in-person cooking classes. Ward also is putting more of a focus on apparel, specifically workout apparel.

In all of Ward’s work, her goal is to touch more people. She wants to be more heavily involved in community work.

For the sixth annual Black Women Empowerment photoshoot next year, Ward says the plans is to travel out of the country and have that love follow right behind. A location has not yet been decided on, but she is confident and excited to take the idea of Black Empowerment beyond Des Moines.