“Photography is a medium to show the world without shouting”: Brunel Johnson on his compelling documentary practice
The Kilburn-raised photographer talks us through his evocative portfolio, lensing “the beauty and warmth” of his community, as well as his Afro-Caribbean and North African culture
- Ayla Angelos
- 30 March 2021
Brunel Johnson, a documentary photographer from Kilburn in North West London, spent the most part of his youth in various areas of the City. This includes Ladbroke Grove, Whitechapel, Barking, Enfield and Shepherd’s Bush – a multitude of boroughs and experiences that would instinctively go on to inform his outlook on life. “Growing up, I never really wanted to be affiliated with just one area,” he tells It’s Nice That. “I wanted to meet new people, learn new things and see new places. Sometimes the journeys I took to these areas were dangerous and risky, while in other times they were fun. These experiences and the lessons I’ve learnt have played a major part in my growth as a photographer.”
This adventurist and observational mindset is certainly what drives his practice; that which spans candid street photography, as well as commercial sports, lifestyle and documentary. After an interesting turn studying mathematics at university, it was after his degree that Brunel picked up a camera on the off-chance, deciding instantly to pursue the medium on a professional level. But it wasn’t so much of an easy transition, especially for the fact that Brunel felt he didn’t have many role models to look up to. “When I started photography, it was very difficult to find established Black documentary and street photographers,” he says. “I wasn’t interested in styled photos; I’ve come from a raw background so I was drawn to raw images that caught the moment and emotions.” There were, however, a few photographers that Brunel went on to discover who would later inspire his practice, including Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks and Tish Murtha – whose work Brunel spent hours searching for. To give it more context, many photographer’s that Brunel had spoken to had never heard of their work until very recently.
Besides this, Brunel has travelled to Gambia and marks his journeys as game changing – an “eye-opener”. Not only did he witness a plethora of positive and joyful photography works, which counteracted the stereotyped image of the country – “photography of Africa has always been made to seem gloomy when it’s the exact opposite” – but this also served as a catalyst for Brunel's future work. “I told myself I have to destroy this narrative,” he adds. “I want to destroy this cold perception of Black people and minorities. The typical stereotype of a criminal or helpless person in poverty who needs money to live. I want to show the beauty, the resilience and the struggle of just merely surviving within my community. Photography for me is a medium to show the world without shouting, violence or debating the perspective and reality of a Black person from a council estate in London. I will continue to show the beauty and warmth of my community and cultures (Afro-Caribbean and North African).”
With this ethos in mind, the photographer has gone on to tell authentic narratives from within his community. And with time, he’s also managed to build on his confidence, developing the skills and focus needed to address his subject matter at hand – a mix of people and faces, the types of subjects that have a story to tell. “It’s the job of a photographer to bring it to reality visually,” he notes, stating how he works hard to deal with situations with delicacy and care. “I want the viewer to feel like they’re in the moment; there’s nothing more enjoyable for me than to enter into a person’s space and bring out their character in a soft yet storytelling way.” When the magic strikes – and when Brunel meets someone or something that catches his eye – this ignites a curiosity from within, which later leads on to 101 questions blossoming in his mind.
This is precisely why Brunel’s portfolio has a certain familiarity about it. It’s clear to see that he spends time getting to know his subjects, paying close attention to the ways in which he wants to represent them – i.e. with sincerity and honesty. And just a small example of this compelling practice can be seen in a photo from his series It’s My Hair, a project depicting the “time, effort and skill” that goes into maintaining Black hair. “The series also highlights some of the prejudices, micro aggressions and racism Afro-Caribbean people face due to their hair and skin colour,” he tells us. As for the picture specifically, it’s a compelling photo shot in black and white, lensing a subject named Annaiyah. “In this photo, Annaiyah is getting extensions done by her mum. The process takes around 12 hours to complete and requires Annaiyah to stay seated for the duration. Usually, people see the end results and have no idea of what the person had to go through, so for it to be deemed unprofessional just isn’t acceptable.”
Conclusively, Brunel works to raise awareness around these narratives, ultimately inspiring his viewer to deepen their understanding of a community that “many outside” don’t often see. He’s also documented the likes of Notting Hill Carnival – one of his first projects as a photographer – and various other cadences of his community. Not to mention his Black Dreams Matter photo gracing the cover of Portrait of Britain Vol. 3, a book by Hoxton Mini Press, and winning the Portrait of Britain 2020 photography award. If Brunel’s work doesn’t exemplify the role of a documentary photographer then we’re not sure what will.
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.