Photographer Kemka Ajoku tells stories of Black British culture and experience

After transitioning from academia to photography, Kemka now makes work for those who feel unseen.

Date
30 April 2021
Reading Time
4 minute read

For Kemka Ajoku, a photographer born and raised in North London, there are a few driving factors behind his work. The first is that he grew up without many role models who looked like him – particularly in his hometown of Enfield. “So I always try to represent my area whenever possible,” he tells It’s Nice That. The second, is that he recently finished a degree in Mechanical Engineering and has thus spent the most part of his life in education. This includes a five-year stint on Nigeria, “which had a huge influence on me deciding to pursue photography, as it was here where I nurtured my knowledge of the craft.”

Although starting off in an academia, photography has always been at the heart of everything he does. In fact, this level of critical thinking, analysis and structure is something that can be welcomingly applied to his practice. Because with every image, Kemka manages to tell a story; achieved through an adept blending of traditional portraiture techniques and a quest to tell the narratives of Black British culture and Black experience.

Kemka first picked up a camera at the age of nine – a small digital 5MP that was gifted for Christmas – and he’d spend his days experimenting and working out the technicalities of his new-found hobby. Applying his methodological outlook towards this new piece of equipment, he became enamoured with the camera’s ability to snap infinite moments at any given time. “For me,” he says, “the idea of metaphorically telling a thousand words always fascinated me, whether resurfacing 1,000 memories of a person in a frame, or leaving the viewer to ask a thousand questions.”

Now, a typical day for Kemka falls nothing short of intriguing, especially as he’s only recently left the world of education – flying the nest and entering into the industry with a solid eye for his craft. When he’s on a shoot, though, everything starts with (and relies on) heavy amounts of research. It’s a process involving a deep dive into the work of great artists and of the concept of the assignment. From this, Kemka is able to draw his own personal language, which has resulted in a medley of commissions, like a Eurostar project for The Financial Times; Lydia West for Wonderland; Lady Donli for Indie Magazine; an editorial for Shakkar Shades; a series for the track Oasis by Lagos-based musician Loti and portraits of spoken-word artist and speaker Suli Breaks.

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Copyright © Kemka Ajoku, 2021

On his more personal endeavours, Kemka looks towards his own personal experience for inspiration, which is something that he applies in abundance to his practice. Things like small daily occurrences, events, conservations and travelling, to which he then transforms into art. His first personal project My Brother’s Keeper is a fine example of this, which saw the photographer make his debut in applying his own personal experience into a body of work. The series convolutes around the notion and beauty of brotherhood, as well as analysing the post-adolescent stage of a man’s life – much like where the photographer finds himself currently. “And to me,” he says, “that was a perfect transfer of thought and emotion at that time, into a collection of images that tell a story.”

When first starting out, Kemka would ask his friends to model for him in his pictures over the weekends. Feeling comfortable around them, this gave off a sense of calm and reassurance with the way that he approached the shoots. “I’ve learnt that over time that the best work I have made has been ones where the working environment wasn’t too tense,” he reflects, “where both myself and the models involved were at ease.” His imagery evokes a sense of intimacy, so you can instantly tell that this is something Kemka manages to maintain throughout his practice.

Returning back to My Brother’s Keeper, there’s one particular shot [pictured below] that represents his ethos entirely. The “hardest image” he’s ever taken, it was shot while working on the coast of a small island in Lagos. He decided to wanted to make use of the shallow water to photograph two men in a boat, “with the hand of the rower at the back adding to the theme of the project,” he notes. To get the picture, he had to climb into the second rowing boat, balancing his camera and himself as he framed the composition. “But I wasn’t getting the result I was looking for. So the only option I had was to enter the water, which went up to my thighs once I was fully submerged.” Meanwhile, his second camera ended up soaked in saltwater, but nonetheless it was completely worth the sacrifice.

We’re more than thankful that Kemka decided to take the plunge into photography, and it’s clear how determined he is to continue with his craft. “I want to make work for people like me,” he tells us, “those who feel unseen or suppressed, especially with the way the British media vilifies Black culture and buries its own history with its relationship with Black people for centuries and more. It’s history that we now have to dig up and find for ourselves.”

GalleryCopyright © Kemka Ajoku, 2021

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My Brother's Keeper

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My Brother's Keeper

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Lydia in Wonderland, Wonderland Magazine

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Copyright © Kemka Ajoku, 2021

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

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.

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