Nadine Ijewere on making photographic history, and taking her foot off the pedal
In 2019 the London-born photographer, then 26 years old, became the first Black female photographer to shoot a Vogue cover. Here, she talks candidly about the pressures that came in tow with this early career milestone, and how managing her mental health also pays creative dividends.
It’s so-called Freedom Day in the UK when I sit down to chat with Nadine Ijewere, so there’s a nationwide sense of change on the horizon. For Nadine, like many of us, it comes with mixed emotions. The pandemic was an enforced pause in the not-yet 30-year-old south Londoner’s upwardly spiralling career, and yet – as she explains with sincerity in our interview – ended up changing her entire approach to work and mental wellbeing. On the other hand, the photographer is relishing the idea of jumping on a plane asap, in search of fresh inspiration for her kaleidoscopic and revolutionary imagery.
We’re chatting ahead of the launch of Nadine’s first book, a monograph published by Prestel collating over 160 photographs taken in her short but esteemed career so far. Nadine says the book, while a portfolio, is also a “book about women,” particularly women of colour – subjects which, as a student, she saw misrepresented in fashion photography and so set out to celebrate in her own work.
It encompasses beautiful personal series alongside shots for a glittering list of clients from Stella McCartney to Dior, and the famed Vogue shoot that stamped her name in history as the first Black female photographer in the magazine’s 125 years to capture its cover. In fact, that whole Vogue issue was shot and styled by what editor Edward Enninful described at the time as the industry’s “new guard,” Nadine leading the pack, who with integrity and honesty were not just “doing it for fame” but because they had a “mission and care deeply about changing the world we live in.” Talking to the photographer about her ethos and the lessons she’s learned from being thrust into stardom, and seeing her humbleness but with sharp clarity in her creative vision, it’s abundantly clear how true that is.
It’s Nice That: What were your first creative experiences?
Nadine Ijewere: I’ve always liked arts and crafts, drawing and creating with my hands, and ceramics. My mum’s always been creative, we’d do art classes and things like that. It stemmed from a young age but for a while, I thought I’d do something more academic, as my dad’s more academic. But then I converted back because it wasn’t for me.
INT: When did you make that decision?
NI: When I was doing A-Levels. I was going to study medicine, but I did photography A-level on the side and I really enjoyed the whole process, all being analogue in a digital world, learning the traditional methods in the darkroom. So I decided I wanted to study it in more detail.
INT: How did your parents react to that?
NI: My mum was really chilled, she’d always known I was into “art stuff”. My dad wasn’t OK in the beginning, but he let me do it. I didn’t have a plan, I just went with the flow of it all. I was so excited for LCF [London College of Fashion, where Nadine studied fashion photography], but I had no idea what I’d do afterwards. I just carried on with personal projects and shooting my friends, then I shared some on social media and jobs started to come in.
INT: When did you begin to define the type of photography you’d like to do, and what did you want to achieve with your work?
NI: I felt like trying to push into this specific type of commercial fashion photography would be a good idea for me, but I didn’t resonate with any of it because it didn’t feel genuine. Looking through fashion magazines I never saw people that looked like me and my friends, and I really didn’t understand why that was. It didn’t feel like a reflection of reality, or all-encompassing at all. So I just started to take pictures of my friends and that inspired me more, in celebrating our differences, if you like; going against what the beauty ideals were. Because I’d be photographing the women I grew up with and the environments I grew up in, and celebrating beauty in a different type of way, and the culture of Black hair.
I didn’t really understand why there was only one hair type in fashion photography. If there was a Black model she would have straight hair. She would assimilate looking very European. Even braiding was seen as not being professional if you saw it in editorials, it was denoting attitude, seen as street and gritty. Those weren’t the people I know who have those hairstyles in my family, in Nigeria and Jamaica. They didn’t conform to those stereotypes, they were actually very strong and calm women, the opposite of what was being portrayed in fashion and media. I wanted to show that this isn’t real representation. So those were my inspirations.
INT: To what extent was that simply about the people in the photographs, or were there other things at play: the way you portray them, the context and style and use of colour?
NI: For me, it’s always been about how I portray and celebrate those not considered part of the beauty ideals, and how I can present them in a beautiful way. That’s always how I’ve looked at it.
INT: Did you think you were also offering something new stylistically?
NI: It wasn’t in my head to create a style, I think that’s just happened over time. I like images that are dynamic with a sense of movement throughout the images, playing with perspective. Those are the sorts of images I’ve always been drawn to. So I guess subconsciously that has translated into my own work.
I’ve always been drawn to colour and vibrancy, so there’s always a sense of colour that’s present. I do enjoy black and white photography but, for me, what my eye is drawn to is more colourful. It’s also a type of colour, warm tones, I’m not a cool tone person. Burnt oranges, pinks, reds, you’ll see more in my work. Also blue, but a warmer blue. These are inspired by images I’m drawn to while researching.
So I think, over time, that’s come into form, and I’ve seen it as I’ve been doing this book. I’ve had the work spread out across the table, I see the flow between each shoot. Even when I’m shooting something completely different I see elements that are similar throughout, and I guess that’s what my style is! You don’t really notice it when you’re doing it, it’s organic, I’m not thinking about it. I don’t pre-plan.
INT: That’s why it must be so interesting when you look back on all your work, seeing how it evolves.
NI: It’s interesting because I can see how my style has developed as I’ve learned more about colour. The palettes have changed as I’ve learned more. Even the way in which I compose an image is different. I can appreciate straight-up photography for a few frames, but then I need something more dynamic. People always say there’s a sense of movement in my work, which I didn’t really see until I had it all in front of me. It’s not movement in the sense that they’re jumping in the air or that the model’s moving and I’m capturing it. It’s more the perspective, the shapes, the lines the garment creates or the body creates, that’s the movement... in the way your eye starts at one angle and comes down to another.
INT: Can you point to any other photographers or artists who’ve inspired you along the way?
NI: I love Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta; I still like classics like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn. Then I like a lot of documentary work, like Alex Webb, I love his images because it’s street photography but there’s something so dynamic about it, there’s always a sense of hustle and bustle and movement. And I love the depth of perspective – someone’s in front of the lens and something else is happening in the background. And the use of colour, it’s more contrasty, I think it really adds to his images.
I have a broad range of photography I like... it doesn’t necessarily inspire me as such. With my images, I’m trying to create my own story, with my own elements. I don’t look at other work and go, this is what I want to do, or I want to translate this. I like it because of what it is, and it’s what they do.
INT: How do you achieve your aesthetic – what’s it like on a shoot with you?
NI: I’m very chilled on set. I’m inspired by the person in front of me, the environment, what’s happening, the use of colour, the styling, the hair, the make-up. It’s all coming together. I feed off all those things and just play. The important thing is to play. There’s not a formula. I don’t know how to explain it, it’s just organic. It’s just a mood, or what shape the garment creates on this person, or the shapes they’re creating. People have said my work has a romantic element to it. I don’t know what that means really!
INT: I can see that! Maybe it’s the colour, the wistfulness, the joy that’s coming out of it...
NI: When I’m doing images with groups of people, there’s a formula for how I like to create imagery where not everyone’s in the frame, parts of people are cut off, the heads not quite in. I like to play with those elements in the story. I find it more interesting than a straight-up group standing in an image. That’s what creates the sense of movement. I guess that’s a “formula”. Other than that, I like to be involved in all elements of the image: the casting, working with the stylist, the make-up and hair artists, I don’t just focus on the photography. Maybe that’s also part of the formula.
INT: To make it more cohesive...
NI: All those things are contributing to the image, so I think it’s important, personally, to be involved in those aspects, because at the end of the day they’re going to be part of your creation.
INT: How did you build up your career after uni?
NI: I used social media, particularly Instagram. I had a Tumblr at one point, sharing personal projects. I started to get a following and some little shoots. I just built from there. I didn’t know what I was doing or have a strategy. Instagram wasn’t quite what it is now, it was very different. I think it might be harder now to get that attention because it’s so saturated. It was the earlier days of doing that.
INT: What would you consider to be your big break?
NI: Probably the Vogue cover [Jan 2019] – that put me on the map.
INT: How did that happen?
NI: I was going to do a shoot with Kate Phelan, a fashion story, for the “Future” issue, and I was on my way in for a meeting with Edward and Kate. Then Kate called me and said, just so you know he might ask you about potentially doing the cover, so maybe have some references prepped. So quickly on the bus, I was trying to Pinterest and moodboard ideas! This was my first meeting with Edward and we were supposed to be talking about our shoot, but then this happened, and it was an incredible opportunity. So I just went with it, and it was good fun.
“For me, it’s always been about how I portray and celebrate those not considered part of the beauty ideals, and how I can present them in a beautiful way.”Nadine Ijewere
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Nadine Ijewere: Vogue UK January 2019 issue (Copyright © Vogue, 2019)
INT: Were you aware of how important this moment was, becoming the first Black female photographer to shoot a Vogue cover?
NI: I was aware it was a big thing, but I didn’t know quite how big. I was looking at it from a photography career perspective. In the fashion photography world, it’s a huge deal. I wasn’t looking at it from the side of history and being the first Black female photographer. Then it happened and suddenly my name is everywhere, everyone wants to interview me and talk to me, and it’s like “woah!” It’s amazing that it’s part of history now, it’s kind of weird! I just set out with my ambitions to work with Vogue and all these other magazines, I never set out to make history. It’s been incredible to be part of that journey, I just hope it opens doors for others and becomes a norm, not a one-off thing.
“I think there’s more success in taking a step back and reevaluating, doing things you’re passionate about.”Nadine Ijewere
INT: How has it changed your career?
NI: My career has excelled which has been great, but also I didn’t realise how much of a responsibility it would put on me, suddenly becoming this spokesperson. I’m quite a private person, so when people wanted to know everything about me, it was quite difficult to adapt to. I’ve never been that person, I’ve always been about the story I’m telling with my pictures and that’s it. So that’s been interesting to navigate. It was an amazing thing and I’m grateful, but when you do something like that it brings pressure with it, you feel like you have to top it, people are waiting for the next thing and the next thing. I felt that pressure for a while but then the lockdown allowed me to take a step back and say it’s OK to not do everything. You can take a break and say no, and that’s super important. The mentality before was, the more you do, the more successful you are. Whereas I think there’s more success in taking a step back and reevaluating, doing things you’re passionate about.
So that’s the mentality I have now, I’ve slowed down and I enjoy it much more. Before I felt like I was constantly in ten places at once. For me, this feels better.
Also because photography was a hobby, then it became a job, I’ve learned to have more going on outside of photography as well. If your passion becomes your job, what can happen is it merges into one. It’s important I have a balance now with work and life outside work; for mental health, it’s much more beneficial.
INT: Is there also a balance between commissioned work and client work, and being allowed the time to do your own projects too?
NI: There’s always been a balance on that. It’s just me feeling the pressure that I constantly had to be doing something. It was me pushing myself continuously, but now I know it’s OK as an artist to take a break or take some space. I think it’s healthier because then there’s more space to create. You’re not trying to do 20 things at once.
Generally, my relationship with work before the pandemic was an intense one. I think because our industry is based on accolades, it’s an exclusive club, fashion. That’s what it is, at the end of the day, who’s wearing what and all that. So it’s easy to get sucked up into that and feel validation in how well you’re doing. Since lockdown, I’ve changed my approach. I’m enjoying it for what it is now, more so. Being present. Respecting yourself and having a better relationship with yourself. Not trying to rush through everything all at once, when it doesn’t need to be that way. You can enjoy everything for what it is.
INT: It seems like a lot of people have taken lockdown as a chance to slow down and enjoy things a bit more.
NI: Being highly stressed all the time... for me, it just doesn’t work anymore. I want to enjoy what I’m doing.
INT: Is there anyone you’d really like to work with, or a project you’d like to do.
NI: I’d like to travel. Before lockdown, I travelled a lot and that’s something that keeps me stimulated creatively. I found it hard to just be in one place. I’m excited to be inspired by different places and people, the etiquette’s different in different places. Also being able to do personal projects, just see what I’m inspired by.
INT: We’re talking on Freedom Day, Nadine! So the world is opening up...
NI: I’m excited to be in a different place and environment. I love London but I find it stifling at the moment, I need to get out of here for a bit. Then I can come back and be like, “aaaahh”. I grew up here, so I feel like I need to leave for a bit! I just took it for granted, being able to travel, so when I’m away I’m going to make the most of it.
INT: So what are you going to be looking for when embarking on a project now?
NI: The concept – what are we doing here, what’s the creative view like? That’s the first step. Also being able to collaborate and be part of the casting, styling, each element, not just the photography. I just like working with nice people, to be honest. I haven’t had a bad experience yet, everyone I’ve worked with has been really chilled and nice.
I’m able to separate things a lot better now, so even if I have projects lined up, I’m able to put my full attention on one at a time. At the end of the day, I’m like, we’re not saving lives, so I don’t need to make it intense. It should be fun, that’s why I take photos because I love doing it. I have this new appreciation for being on set, working with friends, having a good vibe all around – that’s part of the experience. That environment is why I love what I do, immersing myself in all of it.
Nadine Ijewere’s self-titled debut monograph is out today, published by Prestel.