After visiting China to capture the daily lives of people through street photography, Charlie Kwai, Chris Lee and Paul Storrie set out to find their next adventure as photography collective Tripod City. Setting out to document people and places from three perspectives to form one story, the trio landed on Ghana in West Africa: “Ghana was a place we didn’t really know much about,” says Charlie. “We only knew of the stereotypes and perceptions we’d grown up with and seen in the media. If you’ve never been there and you think of it, you probably think of more negative things.”
In 1957 Ghana was the first black African colony to declare independence and up until the 90s it was predominantly a one-party state. Gold, cocoa and oil have formed the cornerstones of its economy and in the past it’s been hailed as a model for African growth. Since 2013 however its economy has endured a growing public deficit, high inflation and an unstable currency. “When we were researching places, we looked at Ghana and noticed some people do still see it as the poster child of Africa. It’s somewhere that feels like it will be prosperous in maybe ten years or so. We wanted to show a more positive side of Africa and Ghana specifically,” says Paul. “We didn’t want to have too much of an agenda but we thought it would be great if we could show something different.”
Chris adds: “There was a positive side that we wanted to present but we also wanted to show the modern culture that’s in Ghana, and represent that through street photography. When you think of photography, it’s there to record, it’s journalistic, we wanted to bring that focus to street level and make it appealing.”
The collective’s style of work, while all classed as street photography differs in approach. “I’d describe my style as energetic, candid, quite erratic and humorous. I guess I try and pick out those bizarre, strange things in people’s personalities or something that’s happened,” says Charlie. Paul’s work is slightly more traditional in that his subjects know they’re being photographed: “I predominantly ask people for portraits, so I’m really trying to see how they react to me. It’s almost like giving them an opportunity to present themselves to the camera,” he says.
“I’m the opposite to Paul,” says Chris. “I definitively try to avoid any contact and rarely ask permission from my subjects. I like to keep a distance from the environment in a portrait and allow people to be themselves in the moment they’re creating… The thing that unites us all is that we’re attracted to people. When our photographs come together they’re all portraits but taken from different perspectives.”
“Our mission was positivity, but the biggest lesson was noticing the reality of where we were and how ethical it was to leave things out.”
The thousands of images amassed during their trip have been collated into a book titled Gold Dust, designed by Bruce Usher and published by Village and printed by Pressision in Leeds. It’s a chance for Tripod City to reflect on the images taken and appreciate them in a different context as a physical thing. “When you make an image into a print there’s a new connection between the viewer and the subject. Size is a massive part of how you see an image,” says Chris. For Paul, putting images into printed thing also elevates the work: “It gives an image more credibility – it’s like you know there’s a process that’s gone into that and decisions have been made.” The final piece of the project is an exhibition at Jaguar Shoes in London, which opens tonight. “Even before we went to Ghana the ambition has always been the book and the exhibition, we were there to create these things,” explains Charlie.
Working as a trio with the same goal in mind could easily lead to the same photograph being taken three times: “Working so closely with each other has forced us to be different from one another and made us push it to extreme points of view. If it ever did overlap there’d be no point in us collaborating,” says Charlie.
Paul adds: “In theory we could take similar images, but it just has less impact. We have different styles and different perspectives and our work becomes a comment on photography as a whole: it doesn’t represent some truth, it’s just the way we see the world and the differences between that is what I find most interesting in these projects.”
Taking images together allowed Tripod City to step into new territory and photograph with more confidence than if they were solo. In Ghana they were immediate outsiders and this had an affect on the way they initially worked. “We drew so much attention, so I personally had to change how I was thinking about taking photographs because I never like people to be aware of the camera in my images,” says Chris. “Any time you pointed it, even when it wasn’t actually at someone, people just looked at the camera.”
Paul explains further: “Initially it felt quite confrontational. People are just boisterous and say what they think so you just have to get used to it and not be as intimidated by it. At first it was quite scary, especially as we were also trying to take photographs, which can come across as quite invasive. People would ask us, ‘why are you here? We don’t want you here, we don’t like photographers.’ It felt like people were really concerned about the way Ghana was being represented in the media and maybe Africa as a whole – it was interesting to see this first hand.” To ease the tension the group explained what they were trying to do: “We said we were there to explore and represent Ghana and its people,” says Paul. “After that, we found everyone was really welcoming, interesting and fun.”
“By the end of it everyone treated us like we were Ghanians, even our mannerisms and the way we greeted people changed,” says Charlie. From special handshakes to calling people’s attention by hissing it was a shift in culture and behaviour for the trio. “It’s just part of the culture, so even though it felt rude initially, everyone did it,” explains Paul. Charlie adds: “They respect you when you adopt their ways, and because of that people kept saying to us we were their brothers.”
Throughout the series there’s a focus on the people of Ghana and their environment with empty buildings and rubbish-strewn streets acting as a backdrop in many of the images. “Ghana’s in a transitional stage. There’s a lot of poverty still, but lots of people are being educated and doing creative things. The main thing is that everyone there has ambition, especially young people – they all want to go to school and do good things,” says Charlie.
Parts of Western culture have worked their way into Ghanian life through fashion and sport, yet the lack of country-wide internet access does seem to have an impact on Ghana’s ability to connect with people outside of its community. “The more people outside of Africa people can connect with, the better the understanding everyone will have of those more remote places,” says Paul. “That’s the thing, you don’t have any real knowledge of what these places are like until you go.”
With Tripod City’s “in-your-face” style of street photography the ethical concerns tied in with that were heightened during their trip. Chris, Charlie and Paul all questioned the purpose of why they were there and what the justifications were for photographing a developing country for a project. “When we arrived it was a lot poorer than we anticipated,” says Chris. “You feel privileged in comparison and when you’re taking photographs and you’re confronting people with your camera, you have to explain yourself, and have an answer for why it’s ok. It went through my head a lot and I kept coming up with different answers, but I could never fully justify it.”
He adds: “Our mission was positivity, but the biggest lesson was noticing the reality of where we were and how ethical it was to leave things out. In the end we decided it was important to show it for what it is. It’s more about people being proud of themselves.”
“It’s just about showing a place for what it actually is,” says Charlie. “We want to show it to an audience back here so they get a different point of view. If we can change their preconceived ideas or give them something else to think about then that’s a good thing.”
The book launch for Gold Dust and the exhibition of the same name launches tonight at Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes.