WHAT DO YOU CHAMPION: EMMANUEL OLUNKWAAugust 14, 2017
What do you #Champion? This month, we teamed up with Champion to ask a group of inspiring interdisciplinary creatives what matters most to them. From art to politics, storytelling to authenticity, get inspired by the causes that are prompting them to dream big.
NYC by-way-of LA photographer and filmmaker Emmanuel Olunkwa understands something that artists like Nan Goldin, Carrie Mae Weems, and Robert Rauschenberg also valued — the unparalleled intimacy of photographing friends. Olunkwa, at 23, is preternaturally articulate about the intentions shaping his work— insisting that every image reveals its political and aesthetic lineage, and that every image forces its viewer to think about how the subject interacts with the space. Olunkwa’s intensity oxidizes with his instant likability, creating a sense of friendship and warmth in his presence. One feels like they’ve known him for a long time. He insists that this notion of trust is vital for any documentarian photographer. He wants his subjects to feel seen and empowered in his photographs, a theme that came up again in again when discussing his love for the medium and what he demands from his work.
When looking at his images, there is also an intimacy extending beyond the subject and artist. Many photos involve overlapping and intermingled bodies— hands on shoulders, one leg draped across another person’s lap, individuals sitting back to back, skin to skin. And Olunkwa is clear that he is fascinated by the way these bodies symbolize power, status, and intention. His images often feature people whose body language does not naturally connote power— frames depict people slouching, or cast in a shadow, or wearing fabrics that match the couch, or posed in the background behind shrubbery or rock formations. But their presence in these spaces assert a subtle power, by the very fact that Olunkwa focused the lens on them, turning a front yard, bedroom, or sidewalk into a stage set for a performance. He talks to us about the power of seeing yourself represented in art and media, and about the pleasure of capturing his friends on camera, then re-experiencing those memories in a new way when the film is developed— and forever set down in history.
Interview by Katherine Noble, Photos by Laurel Golio.
Why do you champion visibility? How did this become a passion?
I champion visibility because as I strive for personal success I can show other people who look like and feel similarly as me that anything is possible. I want to be able to provide people with resources and whether that be visual or textural, I strive to communicate my ideas and critiques.
Can you name a couple key turning points on your journey so far? What are some things that have determined who you are today?
I was recently talking about the concept of ‘key turning points’ with a friend. She and I both came to the conclusions that when those key turning points in your life are happening you’re usually not aware of them in that moment; it’s only when you look back and reference work that you’ve made or things you overcame that you assign value to what you believed changed you when really you’re being impacted and swayed each and every day. Which is to say that I think what keeps me most determined and passionate is my curiosity and critical engagement with other artists and thinkers.
Please share a favourite book, artist, or musician that has recently affected you.
I recently saw John Akomfrah’s three channel project of Stuart Hall at the Museum of Modern Art. It was phenomenal. I just finished I Love Dick by Chris Kraus and I’m currently reading Bluets by Maggie Nelson.
Your work often forces a viewer to consider the way the subject interacts with a physical space— whether that physical space is a symbol-rich landscape, an institution, or a more anonymous urban setting. Can you speak to the intentions behind that?
I definitely think about that a lot. By studying architecture, I am predominantly studying space and the different visual economies in which we subconsciously participate. If you are a woman, and you are in a skirt, you will be seen a different way than if you show up in a suit. Connotations, signifiers, and symbols exist in something as basic as the clothes we choose to put on every day. That seems really obvious, but it gets interesting when you compound it with the intersections of race, class, and stereotypical expectations for who should exist where. If you see a person of color in a predominantly white-occupied space, or in front of an institution, your mind will offer up different symbols and assumptions about the subject than it would if you place the same person of color in a more stereotypical setting, like a disadvantaged or under-served neighborhood.
As a photographer, my compositions can force people to consider the legitimacy of individuals in certain settings. If a black woman is standing in the lobby of a powerful bank, or art museum, or Ivy League school, then she is truly there and it is a small, artistic step in demystifying or debunking stereotypes that certain spaces ought not be occupied by certain people. And on top of all this, as a queer black man taking the photographs, every image you see, whether it be of a white person in a predominantly or stereotypically white space, or a woman in a predominantly male space— there is a POC behind the frame, asserting artistic control over the narrative. I like this ghost self— the viewer must look through my eyes. It’s empowering.
Do you have a philosophy that shapes how you live your life or nudges your actions?
Recently I’ve been trying to stop second-guessing myself when it comes to pursuing my desires and needs. I have this informal mantra or philosophy where I silently recite to myself, ‘We don’t ask ourselves questions we don’t already have the answers to,’ which is to say that if you’re curious and unsure about something there is some truth or information that you revealed to yourself by admitting your interest or posing the question in the first place. Pursue that, whatever it is.
Can you talk about how you consider the ethics of photography?
I am always reminding myself of the obvious truth that everything an artist does is political, because it is born out of a specific culture, a society, and an artistic provenance shaped by one’s environment. So whether or not an artist wants to articulate their politics in their work, that’s fine. Because the work itself will always, always connote the person’s reference point and particular set of privileges and belief system. You don’t need to actively assert your intentions. It is absorbed subconsciously through our experiences every single day— from the way you were talked to at school, how you saw your father treated your mother, the things strangers say to you when you are in public, to what masculinity meant in your community— and the impact from each of those exchanges will absolutely resonate in your work.
Please share a ritual that helps you re-centre.
I like spending a lot of time alone, reading or researching things online— artists, watching interviews— it varies day-to-day.
What do you originally got you interested in photography as an artistic medium?
As a really little kid, I was incredibly gregarious and loved performing for people and being in front of the camera. Then, I had brain surgery twice when I was five. After that, even as a really little boy I told my mom I didn’t want any more pictures taken of me because I thought I looked different. She honored my wish and so there are very few childhood photos of me. And I remember being at a friend’s house when I was eleven or so, and seeing so many beautiful family pictures around their house and understanding that there is something incredible about preserving moments in time, both monumental moments and also just normal moments— and I felt sad that I didn’t have that after my surgeries, that those years weren’t preserved in this physical way. Where are those markers of time? In high school, film cameras started to really excited me for that same reason— preserving a moment in time, but then not being able to re-access it until you have nearly forgotten about it and then you get your film developed and the moment is not just recreated, but it’s like a totally new moment because it’s never exactly how your remember it. You don’t capture everything you assume you did, and there are surprises in each frame. When you photograph something you are immediately giving it importance in history because you chose to preserve that moment rather than another.
Describe your current personal style. What’s a favourite clothing piece of yours?
I recently caught up with a friend while I was in Los Angeles. He and I were talking about clothes and expensive things we’ve both purchased and he pointed out that I have a uniform in terms of how I choose to express myself dress-wise. I like well constructed garments that are usually colorful and have texture to them.
When do you know to take a photo? What are you looking for? Do you have premeditated arc or vision for a project, or do you take photos individually then see how they coalesce in a group to form a narrative?
In my work to date, my photo-series seem to develop on a more subconscious level. I study a lot— I’m about to start my last year at the New School— absorbing the work of photographers I haven’t spent time with before, or challenging myself to look at art I haven’t seen or considered. I don’t think many photographers set out to just take ten portraits back to back to back when they are hanging out with ten people on a Sunday afternoon. It’s more like: I took this one photo after being challenged by some art I saw or an essay I read, and I really like what happened in that frame and like the type of light within and outside that individual photo. From there, I will just follow whatever narrative or symbolic spark I sense and try to press into it and investigate it further through a set of photos.
What do you gain from being behind the camera instead of in front of it?
I have been thinking a lot about photography as an instantaneous way to encourage intimacy with someone. There’s a lot of writing and critical precedence for that idea. Consenting to having your photo taken by someone, when it isn’t just a smiley cheesy group photo, is like an unspoken trust or a way to set a bar of intimacy. So when I am behind the lens, I am, in a sense, asking the subject for a certain level of trust and insisting on a certain amount of vulnerability from them.
The challenge in photography today is that so much photography is self-referential. So often, a movement or an aesthetic in photography, or any art for that matter, will begin organically and feel very of-a-time. But then, there is pressure to continually recreate that kind of vibe or “brand” and all too quickly the images influenced by that organic movement will feel staged or the artifice starts showing—someone might gain notoriety being a “gritty” documentarian photographer, but if they are constantly re-creating that rather than pushing the boundaries and growing beyond their early work, I think they are uninteresting. You need to constantly refer back to the arc of your work and challenge yourself to grow. Otherwise, your photos will just be ripples or stale copies from that early authentic self.
You take a lot of photos of people in their late teens and early twenties— other than just the fact that your subjects are often your peers, what do you think interests you about this demographic, and what do you feel you are communicating through teen and young adult subjects?
In high school, a lot of my female friends didn’t look like women in the media— they were curvy or considered “unconventional” and struggled to feel beautiful. I remember wanting to capture my female friends’ strength and beauty and offer that truth to them through photographs— to show them how I see them. It’s an important time in life to start shifting the narrative you’ve believed about your own value or self-esteem. That’s why visibility is so important for me— I want kids who might not feel represented or seen in mainstream culture to be acknowledged in my work so that they start to believe that all spaces in society are for them as well. I want to help change the narrative, so that people who have not been seen finally feel seen.
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