Download: Sensing the Image: Photographers in Conversation.pdf

This conversation took place on 9th July 2021 and was part of the public programme for Ajamu: Archival Sensoria curated by Languid Hands’ fellowship programme No Real Closure. Ajamu X and guests, photographers Matthew Arthur Williams, Alexander Ikhide, Bernice Mulenga and Cameron Ugbodu.gathered in the gallery for a one-off and unique ‘archival encounter’ between photographers, exploring process, making, craft, technology and discipline.

AJX: Welcome to Cubitt Gallery and to my Archival Sensoria exhibition. We are going to have an informal conversation around our practice and the ideas that we can work with, and the ideas around this moment in relation to black queer work and content first and foremost. 

So basically I’m going to ask each person to contribute a set of words that correspond to their work and share a little bit about their photography practice. 

BM: Hi I'm Bernice Mulenga. I am a film photographer, archivist, meme hoarder and allround sound enthusiast. My five to seven words were ancestral, sexy, reality, loud, colourful and historica. I like to think about all these words as entwined together, especially with ancestral being I feel also like my mom's story, my parents story through my own practice. My mom was one of the first people that was documenting archiving in my life and I saw that referred back to a lot of these images till today especially because of her own story of coming from Congo and using a lot of things and wanting to really remember a lot of the times, before like you know you start building new foundations in new places, and now we can talk about this and be like ‘oh like so and so and this happened or you know’ and I feel like we have that kind of bonding connection through both of our photography, my mum wouldn’t call herself a photographer but she's like a photographer to me. I like that she was just documenting her day-to-day life and I feel like people try to downplay this sometimes, however, I think there’s beauty in the mundane and my work also reflects that. I see my work as an extension of my own story even though i'm shooting people who are not me a lot of the time but we have a connection of some sort whether it's because we're black and queer, or because we share the same spaces a lot of the time, or even because we share common themes such as grief, love or our passion for art.  

MAW: My name is Matthew Arthur Williams, I’m an artist from South London and I live in Glasgow. My words were erasure, cross-rhythms, embalming, layers, loving, metaphoric and root and also time but I chose those words because they always stay with me. I try to keep them with me in all of my images, something about embalming and something about love, but also not just using the word love but the term loving as an active word. 

I guess I'm kind of pinching from Bell Hooks in the way that's kind of described and like somehow keeping that embodied in the work no matter what I'm doing even if it is very arresting imagery. I look at body and landscape a lot but it's not cool, it does take up quite a lot of my practice, just using the body as a vessel i'm then using that to transform to other things, interrogating context but also thinking about the process as well, questioning the body and asking how are you going to document it in the way that is representative of the message you’d like to get across. Some of my work is contrived, some of them are in the moment and I like the two, when you put them together - you've staged something; and when you are also living in the moment.

CO: My name is Cameron, I’ve lived in London for almost a year. In terms of words that are related to my practice, I have: studio, skin, print, fantasy, retrospective and casting which is also very important for me. If I’m not shooting myself (as I do a lot of self-portraits) I will have to find the right people, to connect with as it’s often hard to get the work done if the person in front of the camera doesn't relate to the project or understand what you're trying to get across; especially as my work is about fantasy and not so much documentary, I have to be able to tell a story with them.

AI: I’m Alexander Ikhide, I’m a visual artist and photographer, my practice [at the moment] does involve a lot of photography; It’s still, if I’m honest a work in progress because I’m often dealing with several different mediums at the same time but yeah the words I chose in terms of / to do with my practice were; intimacy, desire, performance, visibility, historical (as well), potentiality and resonance. And so all of those things kind of come into my process of making and thinking about work; how to come up with an idea or a series or a body of work, using the power of these elements as a method of understanding and formulating work as a whole.     

AJX: So I’m Ajamu - artist, activist, archivist and the set of words I have (I’m going to steal three words); texture, black & white, analogue, senselessness, darkroom, smells, tactility and I’m stealing embodied from Matthew, skin from Cameron (thank you very much) and intimacy from Alex.

So really I am using this moment to think about how we really talk about the work that we’re creating and the research that we’re working on. And actually a lot of words that we have used and the exhibition design itself are built around how we talk about alternative ways in which we can engage with the archive, through photography and through the senses. In terms of the soundtrack that was created I was thinking, what if a black boy's history was only done through the lens of the sonic, what would that sound like? If we then went to smells, what would a black boy's history smell like? And then equally of we went to taste what a black boy's history tastes like. A lot of my thinking over the last few years is actually how else to we engage with this thing called the photograph that’s not only visual. My view is that we engage with the photograph or the archive through the senses first and foremost. That’s the dialogue I always have - which then links back to content, to representation, to identity politics; ...important but what else are we not talking about? I think sometimes a lot of the ideas move away from the black body itself, so how do they keep the / our black bodies front and centre where we can make work, be it in the studio, the darkroom, outside, so that is the conversation I want us to have. How do you think and research your work? And do the senses come into it in some shape or form? - Does somebody want to start first?... 

MAW: I was just thinking when walking about the senses and you know, what would things smell like - immediately your mind begins to racing, like the smell of cocoa butter, certain foods - for me it’s about deep listening and just being very observant and really going in and filtering out all the stuff beside it and then you start looking at other things, then other things become louder or becomes more interesting - it’s a really nice investigative way of figuring out what is speaking and what is not speaking. 

AI: For me when I do my self portraits the process of making are things [is something] that I’m very aware of - such as the set up of the camera, the lighting, all these technical aspects but usually what’s playing through my mind is an emotional level and also there’s usually a soundtrack playing in the background too. 

AJX: Which soundtracks?

AI: It all depends on my mood, like the other day I was taking these portraits and listening to Julius Eastman while thinking of something very theatrical and dramatic in my head while this music was playing - which was very much in the music that was playing, so I felt very empowered by it in a very inter-transient thing, music, sound and feeling of the space as well. Shooting in the studio [I just recently got a studio] I’m more aware of how to stage and set things up, things like I had to tape a backdrop to the wall, the DIY aspect of things, I like the idea of needing to create the image by any means necessary along with a sense of inventiveness which chimes with ideas of queerness as well; you have to invent things almost out of thin air, you have to innovate in a way that's’ always pushing forward somehow. 

AJX: It’s very fruitful, in a sense that identity - through my early work I saw myself as not just queer but going through the process of becoming this thing called queer.

BM: My practice begins and ends with sound and music, music plays a big part, before I’m going off to a shoot; music puts me in the correct mindset - depending on what energy I want to bring, more recently I’ve been exploring grief and I’d have a certain energy that I want to share between me and the subject and then obviously I’ve shot a lot of nightlife (that’s all got to do with music), I feel like even after I’ve finished all my filming and I’m scanning all my film, there’s music again. I find that music speaks for me when I can’t find the words. I feel like music and photography are an extension of each other, when you were saying ‘I feel like I can hear this picture’ I love that because it’s all about the senses as well, sometimes I look at my own images and can be like ‘wow I remember what song was playing’ or how the music made me feel while shooting. Energy and sound go hand in hand, I can tell when I’m not feeling ok [while shooting]. Through ritual, you have to like get yourself ready and prepare, a lot of my work happens very much in the moment but I was thinking that it’s still very intentional, I’m actively going to take the picture, I’m looking with my eye, I’m connecting with people and seeing what I want to capture with the camera. I always thought music and photography go hand in hand - whether it’s the energy you bring to a set or the energy you exchange with the person or have within yourself. Sound for me is a big influence and now I’m just trying to figure out how to bring sound and photography together. 

AJX: To introduce some theory for a moment, Tina Campt has written about the idea of photography being sonic, one of my favourite photographers Ansel Adams also played the piano - there is a link between these two forms. 

MAW: You definitely said something interesting about how it [your practice] feels like a ritual; yeah I understand that, you go through this process, you set the parameters, setting things up in a way that’s right for you, becoming quite intertwined in the apparatus, the techniques, even the backdrop, there’s things you have to go through to set something up and it becomes thing that you’re just connected to. 

AI: I’m also so used to that, there’s been so many times where I’ve taken portraits of myself and been like ‘oh my god, just no’ there’s an intuitive feeling when you know it’s right, which feels ingrained.

AJX: And also the taking down of the studio equipment after a shoot is also another kind of ritual. I do it meticulously in the same order every time. 

CO: Even just the process of putting film in your camera is also a ritual - this process (with my Large Format Camera) of opening it, the sounds that are made in handling all helps you focus and focus on the next image in a calming methodical way. 

MAW: And it smells good too. 

[group laughter]

AJX: It does smell good! This is interesting because there are so many elements which we don’t often talk about as being part of the photography making process.

BM: It’s interesting as well looking back at when I first began, how you make things work and invent things when you have no money, for example not being able to buy a tripod so you end up shooting in different ways and like not having backdrops, having to use bed sheets instead, creating different textures and things. I love the process, especially with audio photographers. I'd ask ‘What’s your ritual, what’s your ritual before you begin your shoot.’ 

AJX: My first studio was my sister’s bedroom. Which was basically the bedsheet hung over the wardrobe with these big household lamps and that was it. 

BM: I used lamps as well, desk lamps.. Sometimes the lighting is just better and was like wow! The audience was my neighbours outside my window watching me make my little makeshift studio at home. It’s great to see the change from then to now. 

AJX : I remember processing my film at night in the kitchen sink, using all sorts of things like black bin bags and then I’d remember at around 5am in the mornings the sun would start to come up and you’d have to quickly take down your darkroom. 

So what’s the starting point for your projects which we’ve been talking about?

AI: For me it begins with reading, a lot of reading, whatever’s on my bookshelf; like I was reading Mark Sealy’s book Decolonising The Camera which was really interesting and now I’m currently on this Carl Jung book which is about symbols and archetypes and what they mean on a subconscious level. Asking why we choose these images or why we make these images over the course of time which has always been repeated always recurring throughout history if you think about it, themes such as love, death, sex. 

MAW: For me I think I definitely like to play the slow game when it comes to my work, like even if the project exists somewhere in my head I won’t rush it, I’m reading things and listening to things, even with conversations like this they’re reinforcing the work. I like to be with friends and family and that chosen family as well which is sometimes a starting point as well - whether it’s by organising a club space it comes in these moments, little bits, and I just connect the dots. I’m always trying to use metaphor in my work, creating a sort of labyrinth of mapping. Connecting certain things that make sense especially when talking about identity and things that relate to you, and that’s when the project just comes, then I start to look at the imagery. And ask myself ‘What do I want in my image? If it’s a landscape what do I want in my landscape? 

AJX: Do you want to talk about your research of the black body within landscape photography? 

MAW: Yes, I was just thinking really in tune with landscapes and wanting to think about creating textures and also wanting to make kind of diptychs which show the body with and without the landscape and put them together and open up a conversation about erasure and the fact that things disappear over time but leave little traces. So I fibre based paper because of its archival style and I alway enjoy using that kind of thick textured paper. And also just because it’s a slow process. I like things that are slow. The world is telling us to move very fast but I like saying no, I would like to go at my own pace and do things to my own tune. That’s how the work begins. 

AJX: Cameron, what’s been the starting point for some of your recent projects? 

CO: For me the process always differs in some way, for example sometimes I may just go in my head and photograph then only afterwards do I analyse and discover what it was about. It’s like an emotion which I can’t describe so I have to shoot first, visualise it and then see what it’s about - but the motivation is always different. For a long time I thought that I just had to shoot things quickly as a way of engaging with it. 

AI: So usually you have to have the image first in your head visualised? 

CO: Correct, that’s why I shoot so many self-portraits because I feel like I can’t tell the sitter to create / visualise the project in the same way. So I have to do it myself.  

AI: It’s the same for me, because you know the movements you make, you have the research, you know what you want the outcome to be; I too find self portraits much better. I can direct myself rather than direct someone else to do these things for me.

MAW: It’s like a form of note taking but you're using the camera to make the notes. 

AI: exactly

AJX: So what are people working on at the moment?

BM: Taking a nod to what you were saying about moving slowly; It’s been about two years since I thought of it and last year I began researching and forming the idea. I’ve been focusing on the idea of grief and a lot of my work reflects my reality and I am currently grieving but now I’m able to move that feeling and channel this pain essentially into my art. Yeah it’s been an interesting process because there was a point where I couldn’t listen to sound, and sound is a really big thing for me; no sound or reading just my thoughts and my journal so it’s been nice to go back to that now and reflecting on how I was then and how I am now and also with my podcast I feel like people are a lot more open and vulnerable so It’s been good to hear other people’s experiences as well. I’m curating a whole series called Grief is Love and it’ll be a zine where people submit and then I’ll do a separate one where I document my own personal response to grief. I always try to delve into different mediums in my work because I don’t come from a traditional photography background, I’m very much a self taught photographer but look I’m here! It’s nice to be able to use these different tools before I get to the photograph. It’s quite a nice process and also very slow but it’s one that I’m treating with love and care and fragility. I’m also working on organising my archive which is going well, scanning images and seeing old work which I used to hate but now can reconsider with fresh eyes.  

MAW: I like to evoke a lot of dance and choreography in the work that I set up, so I want to create slide projections through performance work - moving from still images to the moving image which is the same process if you’re working in the analogue, so it’s a case of moving something backwards and forwards. What the work actually is, still to be questioned, but that’s the process in which I’ll be working for my next project. 

CO: I’m working on an exhibition of portraits, the work is about taking up space and thinking about new monuments and new statues, that’s why the prints take this form [test shots are held up to the camera, elongated rectangular column-like prints] I’m started planning a show in Vienna about blackness, because that’s something that I’d never seen growing up in Vienna or Austria so I just wanted to talk about where I’m from and show people like me that there is a community there and that they don't have to feel too isolated (in their identity).

AI: I’m not currently set on one project at the moment but in terms of photography I’m interested in studying a new, somewhat generational, black photographic contemporary history. I feel like there are prominent movements going on in the US for contemporary black artists there but in the UK we still need to foster that same sense of community of contemporary image makers. Thinking about our visibility as a community also. 

AJX: I think there is also an issue around who is the work in conversation with historically in terms of the mediums we work with, where are we in the history of the medium, at what point is your entry and where is your departure. And that's why these conversations are important but also the books that we’re reading; I think that’s all a part of the process itself. So what am I working on at the moment? There’s a project brewing around recreating the Joy of Sex which originally came out in the 1970s and so I’m looking throught the history of each version of the couse of thirty-plus years the bodied pictured in the illustrated books are always racialised as white bodies right..and also though my research I’m seeing that when images of sexual journalism are produced it’s very rare that you see black on black and queer on queer. So I want to do an up to date version, a kind of Black Joy of Sex because actually joy and black erotica is one of my main areas of research, we could call it theorerotics.. [group laughter]

So let’s try and imagine that there was a group of young black queer adults - what creative advise would give to them?

AJX: I myself would say, don’t ask for permission. Embrace the ideas that are in your head and try to say fuck you more often. 

AI: I would say do your thing!

CO: Take up space!

 AJX: I like the idea of taking up space because it holds that double meaning of empowering yourself and also it can carry a negative connotation. 

MAW: I would say, be inquisitive and really act upon your ideas, you might be too shy but try to connect to people outside of your age brackets, move through it, learn, gather all the information you can and then you become the archive in a way. Connect with people!

AJX: I would also say, stay curious and experiment, play. 

BM: I’d say, don’t hold back, also don’t listen to all your teachers because they might not understand it - keep going despite that. 

AI: Also go and see a lot of shows. When I was a tenager I used to go to exhibitions a lot and form your sensibilities about things, your taste, and the level of standard you think is good. Seeing things does that for you. 

BM: AL don’t wait for others to do what you want to do, go on your own, ask questions and stay curious. 

AJX: Have fun! 

MAW: Take notes on everything, no matter if it’s like a voice note, just register the date and time because when you look back on it - you see that it’s useful, even if it's little drawings or sketches, that kind of methodology comes back to help you later on. And also date your digital files properly. 

AJX: Also with contact sheets, hold on to them because you can always come back to them and rework them into new projects, they help to retain the context of historical works.

AI: I feel the same about taking pics on your phone, almost for me it’s kind of the same principle where your kind of taking notes and looking back, revisiting and reworking. 

AJX: Which again is linked to the process. 

AJX: Any final words or final thoughts?

MAW: I was just going to say it’s really nice to have this conversation in front of your [Ajamu’s] work because the negative contact sheets and everything are right there and to reference different generations of people, if I had seen this growing up it would have totally changed my horizons. 

BM: Even when I was researching photography looking into your work and women photographers - it’s really nice to talk intergenerationally. I love when people document and tell their stories. It all goes back to the archive. Especially with you [Ajamu] coming from outside of London [Huddersfield] ; we need to expand these stories and black perspectives. 

CO: I would say thank you as well for just this mentoring and giving us this space, I feel a great sense of belonging and creativity. 

MAW: I think it’s amazing that you put this together, who else do we have that could do this!? In terms of the Black British queer perspective. Hopefully we get to a level like ourselves where our work is remembered and passed on. 


AJX: You never know the impact and who’s watching. These are the breadcrumbs which we leave as a trail for others to follow. 

AI: Being black British is very important because I think so often our voices get sidelined. Also the medium gets sidelined in the hierarchy of artistic practises. 

AJX: That’s because photography is read through the lens of it’s content! Which is sociology! Which is representation!.. 

AJX:  So I just want to say thank you to my buddies: Cameron, Arthur, Alex, Bernice; and Rabz and Imani thank you for the care that you’ve shown around my work and my ideas and I just hope that all of the exhibitions I have in the future are this joyful and pleasurable, it’s been such a fun process.

Thank you.