London-based Abena Appiah on taking a leap from science to photography
After studying for a degree in Biomedical Science, the budding creative soon realised her love of visual art: “I feel like I’m getting my creative education on-the-go now.”
- Ayla Angelos
- 16 August 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Finding the right path in life isn’t always plain sailing. London-born Abena Appiah has always been interested in imagery and visual arts, and would often be painting and drawing in her free time as a child. “But the creative things I was doing I always considered as just a hobby, something I enjoy doing for myself and not something that I could ever pursue as a career or aimed to show other people,” she tells It’s Nice That. As a result, she went on to pursue a degree in Biomedical Science at Queen Mary’s University of London. During the in-between moments, she picked up photography (by means of a DSLR camera gifted by her mum on her 18th birthday) as a way of expending her creative energy.
As time went on, Abena realised her increasing love of the visual medium and, following some time spent in film and video-making, she was commissioned by adidas to create a short promo. Aged 19 and in her second year of uni, she knew thereon that she didn’t want to continue with anything related to her academic field of study, “so when this creative door opened it felt right to follow it and see what happens,” she notes. A few personal projects later, as well as some work for artists on Island Records, and Abena was finally starting to find her feet. This led to a project lensing streetwear culture in Ghana, and she was also shortlisted for the Palm studio photo prize 2018 for the ongoing series, The sea in between. Upon graduating in 2019 with a first, “which felt like closure”, she continued her creative endeavours in a commercial darkroom and by assisting various photographers that she admired. “So I feel like I’m getting my creative education on-the-go now.”
When asked what her typical day might look like, Abena explains how it tends to be quite random. No two days are the same, really, as she merges her freelance assisting work in with the shoots that are more personal. “I’m always being exposed to new people and new ideas, plus new ways of working,” she says, which has given her the ability to be flexible and fluid with the working process. “It’s just about finding what’s right for you.” This mentality is paired with a love of research – the preliminary phase that sees Abena think deeply about the reasoning behind a body of work. “I think all the curiosity and energy I channelled into my science needed to go elsewhere, and seeing how geeky you could get with the research side of photography made me realise for the first time that the two worlds were not as far apart as I thought they were in my head; they’re connected by my curiosity about things, the world and the people in it.”
Another factor that drives her practice is the desire to photograph her subjects with sincerity. She connects emphatically with those she lenses, meaning that she’ll often find a place of comfort between them and avoid any awkward or intrusive moments. Because of this, her image-making evokes a sense of vulnerability and closeness: “In that moment, we’re both blind to what is being captured,” she explains. “But for the most part, I like to give people the space to tell their own story, and present themselves as they truly feel.” It’s a collaboration of like-mindedness, and a shared goal of creating something honest and beautiful.
Take her Skate Gal Club project as an example. Shot last year, Abena had reached out to the subjects months before she landed in Ghana. Before meeting anyone in person, she spoke to Sandy on the phone, who runs Surf Ghana and Skate Gal Club, and she knew instantly that she had a “personal affinity with them”. She adds: “There was just a very genuine and natural interaction and connections and you can’t fake that. So I just allow myself to be open to what people give me.” The imagery represents this wholeheartedly, where the angling of the lens and cropped, up-close framing places her subjects centrefold, which gives a sense of strength and familiarity to the work.
Another of Abena’s most favoured projects is the work shot in Ghana – The sea in between. The series kicked off in 2018 as she returned to her family’s country, “and saw it for the first time with adult eyes,” she says, before being struck by how much beauty there is. “Africa’s always presented in a way that makes it feel really loud and I was more drawn to the moments of quiet and stillness, because Ghana was a place I felt a sense of peace in while I was there.” Through a mix of landscapes, candid shots of people and snapshots of life, the project delves into her own identity and cultural duality, alongside thematic explorations into the sea, coast and water.
Although still in the early days of her photographic journey, Abena’s portfolio presents itself with maturity and style. She recently read a poem called Risk a few months ago, written by Anaïs Nin, which she feels summarises her creative journey in its totality. It reads: “And then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful that the risk it took to blossom.” So, if you’re like Abena and you’re considering a re-jig of your career and pursuits, then now has never been a better time to do it.
Abena Appiah: The sea in between (Copyright © Abena Appiah, 2020)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.