Since 2010, photographer and creative director Bre’Ann Whlgn has been curating photography and developing iconic branding for clients and influencers the world over as part of the Detroit-based Whlgn Collective. She recently visited StockX to talk about her history, her work, the Whlgn Collective, and Detroit for the latest edition of “Off The Top.”
Beginning February 16, 2019, you can catch her solo exhibition, “Definition of Red,” at Playground Detroit.
StockX: To get things started, would you please introduce yourself?
Bre’Ann: Hi, I’m Bre’Ann White, aka Bre’Ann Whlgn. I’m part of a creative conglomerate called the WHLGNs. I’m a traveling photographer. If you forget my name, you can call me Bre-yonce. I’m from the east side of Detroit; the 48205, 4820DIE; the red zone.
Please talk about your family history.
So I grew up in the 48205, that’s like the end of the east side. My dad was a factory worker. My mom was born handicapped; they threw her away because she was born prematurely. They had to amputate one of my mom’s legs and three of her fingers. The reason why I’m saying this is she’s the reason why I work so hard. My mom is handicapped, and she was raising three kids. She’s a hustler; she does everything herself. You’d never know the things she’s dealing with.
What about you? What were you like growing up?
I used to get picked on really bad. By middle school, I became a bully. I used to fight. I ended up going to Roseville because I got in too much trouble in Detroit. So like in my neighborhood, I was known as Muhammad Ali, Muhammad A-Bre! I was a fighter; I got hands. I almost failed my senior year of high school. I used to skip a lot. I used to make fake doctor’s notes. I got arrested for a fight my senior year, and that really made me get on the right path after dealing with being arrested. I realized I wanted to go to college. I ended up going to school for actuarial science.
What’s your most vivid memory from growing up?
My most vivid . . . This one plays a big part. I had a childhood hero named CJ and a childhood bully named Duke. Me and my brother didn’t have much confidence; we were really shy, we didn’t talk much. So one day Duke was picking on me, and CJ stuck up for me, Duke punched him in the eye. His eye turned black. I realized I needed to be able to fend for myself, to gain more confidence.
If you forget my name, you can call me Bre-yonce
The one big thing about who Bre’Ann White is: I move off confidence. If I tell you I can do something, trust me I’m going to get it done like I’ve been doing it for the last ten years. I really had to step up, especially in my neighborhood. In the way I move, in the way I talk, show people they need to respect me, especially being a female in the fashion and the music industry. I’m around men 24/7, and I demand respect as a peer from my colleagues. This is what CJ helped teach me; this is what I remember from growing up.
How did you get your start as a photographer?
I got a camera around 2010. My boyfriend at the time wanted a camera, so I went and bought a camera. I was sitting outside waiting for my brother to get off of work and I was just sitting outside playing with a camera. I got approached by someone who asked if I was a photographer. I said “yes.” So I created a portfolio within that week. That following week, Frankie Glass found me on Facebook, bought me a whole bunch of equipment, and studio space. The next week, I was shooting Idris Elba!
By the end of 2011, I was on twitter, Stevie Boy hit me up on Twitter saying he loved my work, and he flew me out to New York during fashion week. I was like, “I’m being paid to travel and shoot?!” So I dropped out of school—it was time to chase this.
Everything happened so fast. I was lying so much about being a photographer, that I had to learn really fast. I studied industry campaigns and ads to make sure my quality was where it needed to be. I learned to retouch, to make everything as clean and natural as possible. I’m really good at selling an image. Hell yeah. There’s nothing wrong with “fake it til’ you make it.”
What’s it like being a part of the Whlgn Collective?
The Whlgns, that’s a whole ass family. Tony, Allante, Row—they’re like my brothers. Nobody can tell me we aren’t twins. When I get married, those guys are gonna be in my wedding party—future baby-daddy-husband better accept it.
Describe your creative process. How do you make your art?
The way I create is really random. I’m so inspired by little things. I can turn words into a picture. After seeing Black Panthers, I was inspired by this white signs with highlighted words. I took a black skinned model and shot her on a yellow background.
I pick out the concept first and the model has to fit that concept. It can’t just be anyone. From there I really start to build my team. I try to work with maybe three people max, any more than that and it really builds anxiety because I want to be able to control everything. My main thing when it comes to shooting is really this: communication. I do photography more for the people than the art. The way people feel at the end. I tend to have really random conversations with my subjects. It could be about sex, politics, music, a tv show, anything. Whatever makes them feel comfortable enough to pose in front of my camera. That’s what gets me the best images—the emotions, upper body language, facial expression. There’s so much power in making someone feel comfortable.
What is your first memory of hip-hop?
I used to rap actually. Me and my cousin Buddy Montana used to have a group called ATM The Management. One day I was in the studio, and I made the most embarrassing song, “Shake That Wiggle Money,” or something like that. I performed it during a talent show when I was like 16! I stopped rapping because people said I sounded like a white girl trying to sound black.
What is one of your earliest memory of sneakers?
When I was younger, I maybe had near 100 pairs of shoes. I used to throw tantrums on sneakers. I would beg my mom to pull over when we were out on 8 mile. Me and my best friends used to get all the colors of the Air Force 1s. I was really into sneakers and spray painted shirts. We used to get the iron-on letters and make our own shirts. We used to go to Eastland Mall all the time. Always Kids Foot Locker. I’m lucky I have small feet. I get all of the fire, and I don’t have to wait in line. I’m at Kids Foot Locker all day, baby.
Ok, so what do sneakers mean to you?
Its kinda crazy, but they make me feel like a star. With the right pair of shoes, you can really feel like the man. I’ve been feeling like a fucking queen with my shoes. They complete the fit. I need some 24k gold sneakers. I wear the fuck out of my shoes; I will walk a hole in those motherfuckers. I still have some shoes from even back in ’08 that are just now wearing through. I like dirty shoes.
How do you describe your style?
It consists of long jackets and coats. I like feeling like I’m blowing in the wind. You can just see my coat, I’m moving fast, and you can just see me blowing in the wind. Dad shoes for sure, I wear a lot of Fila’s, Nike Air Max. And I love turtlenecks; Like, I love turtlenecks; Like I’m Steve Jobs but in the hood. I wear a lot of black with gold jewelry, but I keep it a subtle flex like, “damn, she gettin’ money.” I like to flex a lot, that’s kind of how my outfits are. It ain’t trickin’ if you got it, and I be trickin’.
How do you represent Detroit?
I represent my city, but it’s more about how I represent it. I talk about Detroit all the time. I influence people to move to Detroit. I brag about our culture from back in the day. The Belle Isle strip: that whole strip was nothing but cars, music, and BBQs. Family reunions on Belle Isle.
I tell stories. That’s how I represent Detroit. My Detroit. My moments in my city.
Do you think Detroit is accurately portrayed in the media?
To be honest, I really don’t feel like I hear much about Detroit since we’ve been doing better. You don’t hear those negative headlines; we’re on the rise. We almost don’t get as much media attention now. We’re doing pretty good, no complaints. We workin’!
There’s so much power in making someone feel comfortable
Last question about Detroit: What should people know about Detroit culture?
We started everything! I throw that out all the time. What wasn’t inspired by Detroit? Music, art, fashion, hair. . . It’s a mecca for almost everything. Detroit turns out the best talent. Detroit creates trends. Even us being a hair capital, or at one point being a fashion capital, we really started everything. Motor city: we move the world.
Ok, so tell me about this world tour of yours.
It kicked off in LA and Australia at the end of November. In December I headed to NY for a day. I was in London and Paris in January. I plan on going to Africa in February. I have these images in my mind coming together in London, in Africa, in Australia and these elements of red are always present. I’m so excited to go up to people and let them know “yo, you look kinda fresh.”
What does success look like for you?
Me buying my mom a brand new car! Every car my mom has ever had has been a hand-me-down. My mom is so awesome. She’s such an amazing person. I want to be able to purchase my mom a brand new car, that’s really one of my goals. She deserves something. Success, for right now, is being able to do that for my mom.
For the future, I want to be comfortable. I want to be the drummer in the band. There’s the lead singer with all the attention and the guitar player, but I wanna be the drummer in the band. More low-key as hell, live comfortably, do what I love. That’s success, no complaints.
Anything else people should know about you?
I think people should know that I’m approachable. I think people should know I’m silly as fuck, so goofy. I’m a wildcard. You never know what’s gonna come out my mouth. There’s really no filter. I just want people to know that I’m really approachable. I love dummy missions. Traveling is a dummy mission for me.