“Reality can be a bit boring”: Nico Kartel’s photography is a form of escapism

Inspired by the plots and aesthetics of horror films, the New York-based photographer’s portfolio is suffused with cinematography.

16 April 2021

From the “dirty south”, Nico Kartel was born and raised in West Palm Beach, Florida, and hails from a long lineage of hard workers – “roughnecks and immigrants from both the Bahamas and America,” he tells It’s Nice That. As the first of his family to follow more creative pursuits, and a less traditional career option, Nico has built a successful name for himself as a photographer and creative director. So much so that he’s built an impressive portfolio replete with fashion, documentary and portraiture, plus a medley of commissions for the likes of Paper Magazine, Nataal Media and shooting for Telfar in a piece for Neu Neu Media.

Nico has always been an avid creator with a wild imagination. “It wasn’t until I was 13 til I started to realise that,” he adds. He moved to New York to start building his career as an artist, and now, 10 years down the line at age 23, he’s more or less fulfilled his life-long goals. “A lot of those things I once dreamed about as a kid are a real-life thing now.”

Having reached these aspirations, Nico continues to explain how he was the first of his family to work in these realms – “and pick up something that most Caribbean folks look at as a career that’s not long-standing or fruitful.” His grandmother, for instance, would often try to convince Nico to onboard a more academic profession like that of a nurse or doctor, encouraged for the fact that he’s got a good heart and loves helping people. “My aunt told me that I should go to school to be a lawyer because I know how to articulate myself and end an argument,” he says jokingly. “I’m just so happy that I decided to trust myself at a young age and do my own thing in the end. I recently went back home for the first time in three and a half years and my aunt said how proud she is of me. She said she feels even better about the fact that I did all of this on my own with no help. Receiving such affirming words really made me feel like I made the right decision.”


Nico Kartel: Camaraderie, 2021. Baba & Oyinda (Copyright © Nico Kartel, 2021

Paving his own path, Nico now has a deep-rooted foot in the ground of the world of image-making. It’s something he’s always had a knack for, and an interest that dates right back to his younger years watching horror films and observing the dark and eery scenery. This is his main inspiration and he's often asked himself how he can incorporate this aesthetic into his practice: “What would it be like to take the methods that are used in horror films – such as lighting, the colourful, but sometimes muted tones, and the beauty of the intensity they use in the plots – and apply it to Blackness and the Black identity?” This inquisition led Nico to apply a more cinematic style to his work, where shadows and tones take centre stage in the artful compositions.

Besides the theatrics of horror films, Nico also cites American filmmaker Kahlil Joseph as a source of influence – the brother of painter Noah Davis. “It brings me back to that thing I was talking about earlier where the worlds of moody imagery and dramatics, and Blackness merge and melt together perfectly. He does that with incredible ease.” It was after Kendrick Lamar went on tour with Kanye West in 2014 that Nico first became aware of his work, as he shot the LED visuals for his shows, including a 14-minute short film for the Good Kid M.A.A.D City album. What caught his eye was its lack of dialogue, instead opting for a more nuanced narrative in the way it depicted Blackness and Black Trauma. “The thing I love about his work is that when he addresses these things, he doesn’t do it in a cringe-worthy way. When you look at the state of the art and film world right now, and the way it address Black identity, everything can come off as egregious, try-hard and corny. His work is not like that at all. His vision and way of telling stories, their stories and our stories, is so beautiful.”

This outlook on life is evident throughout Nico’s work. He photographs a plethora of unconventional models, shot with a serene colour palette of muted pastels and pinks. Light and framing plays an imperative part to his practice, and this only heightens the sense of metamorphism that protrudes in the work. A recent piece, titled 10039, is part of a project shot in 2019 and its name references an area code in Harlem. He documented a model named Rahm in the “safe spaces that Harlem offers”, in turn shooting amongst places such as soul food restaurants on the 135th strip, hair salons on the West 145th strip, as well as murals and monuments of Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson on the 125th strip. “Harlem, to me, is still a place where young Black creatives can find endless inspiration and peace that sparks new and innovative ideas.”

As for his other works, expect to find a collection of honest and telling pieces lensing themes of Black identity in a celebratory, joyful manner. Everything he creates, in this sense, comes from his own personal experiences – and this certainly shows. “I want to depict Black people in fantasy-like ways,” he concludes. “I want them to see my work as an escape from reality. Because, as we all know, reality can be a bit boring or a bit too harsh sometimes. Bring back escapism.”


Nico Kartel: Juno, 2020. Egypt (Copyright © Nico Kartel, 2020)


Nico Kartel: Hart In Harlem, 2019. CJ (Copyright © Nico Kartel, 2019)


Nico Kartel: Dean In Brooklyn, 2020 (Copyright © Nico Kartel, 2020)


Nico Kartel: Hood Glory, 2018. Annie & Marie (Copyright © Nico Kartel, 2020)


Nico Kartel: A Rose In Harlem, 2018. Ana (Copyright © Nico Kartel, 2018)


Nico Kartel: Concrete Shed, 2019. Charles (Copyright © Nico Kartel, 2019)


Nico Kartel: 10039, 2019. Rahm (Copyright © Nico Kartel, 2019)


Nico Kartel: 10039, 2019. Rahm (Copyright © Nico Kartel, 2019)


Nico Kartel: Telfar, 2020. Annie & Harley (Copyright © Nico Kartel, 2020)


Nico Kartel: Nowhere 2 Go, 2019. Anzie (Copyright © Nico Kartel, 2019)


Nico Kartel: A Talk With God, 2018. Charles (Copyright © Nico Kartel, 2018)

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Nico Kartel: Maternal Enigma, 2020. TINK (Copyright © Nico Kartel, 2020)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

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. 

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