I was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where nearly half of the population is Afro-descendent. During my childhood, I spent my summer vacation in the black neighborhood where my father grew up. His mother and siblings still lived there but my father’s family were the only white people around.

Because of this, I had the opportunity to experience black culture in many forms: Jongo (an African dance), Umbanda (an Afro-Brazilian religion) and Samba. I’ve carried these memories and experiences through my life.

The black population in Brazil, as in many other countries, is not accurately portrayed in books and media. In 2003, I started a personal project about the African-Brazilian population to portray the beauty and culture of these people. By photographing individual faces, I hoped to convey the wide range of attitudes and lifestyles in the community.

In 2004, I moved to United States—but that didn’t stop me. I decided to include the African-Americans and the Africans who lived in America as well. Once a year, I came back to Brazil to photograph the Afro-Brazilians again.

My portraits reflect the value, uniqueness and worthiness of self. They also provide a sense of the presence of this population that is often ignored or misrepresented. In my images I try to reflect a sense of the person, the individual who lies beneath the image. My work portrays people in a non-traditional way. Generally, the people I work with are not models, but regular people that simply wish to be photographed.

From an aesthetic perspective, I like the contrasts and textures that I get when converting photographs into black and white. The conversion of each picture is a different process. It depends on the lighting, skin color, hair and the clothing or head dressing. I keep the pictures as simple as possible so that nothing will distract the eye from the main idea. I try not to spend too much time in post-processing because I prefer to achieve most of what I have in mind when I am photographing.

—Marta Azevedo

Editors’ note: This project was chosen for distinction by juror Jim Casper. Each of the jury members selected one photographer from the entrants to be awarded a special $1,000 grant. Find out why this one stood out.