From prison rehabilitation to fantastical new worlds: David Uzochukwu and Nigel Poor on storytelling through photography
At June’s Nicer Tuesdays Online we dived into original ways of storytelling with photographer David Uzochukwu and artist Nigel Poor.
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To coincide with our first ever guest edited series on the site – a series diving into the power of storytelling with Yinka Ilori – we wanted to further celebrate this theme with June’s Nicer Tuesdays. Inviting two fascinating speakers to talk about the methods of storytelling in their work respectively, we welcomed author and artist Nigel Poor and photographer David Uzochukwu to the online stage.
Both artists examine notions of storytelling very differently. Nigel, on one hand has been addressing how photography can be used to rehabilitate in prisons in her new book The San Quentin Project. The Bay Area-based author took us through a project where she’s collaborated with incarcerated people at one of America’s oldest and largest state prisons. Telling us about this unique and original project which tracks the experiences of incarcerated people, Nigel sheds light on the prison system in the US, asking questions of its rehabilitation processes and whether they truly work.
Journeying from the American West Coast over to Berlin, we then met David Uzochukwu; a photographer and visual artist seeking out ideas of belonging, identity, strength, masculinity and resilience. Taking us through his recent projects including Mare Monstrum / Drown In My Magic as well as I, Other, we quizzed David on how he creates his magical images layering a multitude of concepts which nod to his fantastical inspirations and overall vision. Find out more below on what we learnt from June’s Nicer Tuesdays.
Copyright © David Uzochukwu
Nigel Poor: The San Quentin Project (Aperture, 2021)
How photography can be a prompt for memory
A couple of months ago, we interviewed Nigel Poor on her new book. Featuring a largely unseen archive of daily life inside San Quentin State Prison, the project showed how photography can be a “bridge for conversation”, and a mode of expression for the incarcerated. First up to the online stage, Nigel took us through how she first became involved with prisons, with work dating back to 2011 and a prison university project. She talked about photography as a way of “triggering and populating memory”, a way of accessing information for others and “driving back into [one’s] own recollection”.
Through various exercises, Nigel worked with incarcerated people to divulge important memories. By acknowledging the powerful language of photography, an image that acts as verbal description, she encouraged the incarcerated to use a different kind of language to participate in memory. When Nigel came across a vast archive of prison photographs, the collection became an important tool in mapping present inmates experiences. By writing on the archival imagery, the inmates were able to communicate the prison experience from a deeply human experience. Whether their mapping was rooted in reality or not, the exercise allows those on the outside world to gain perspective on what it is like to be imprisoned, and view this experience with compassion and consideration.
Ultimately, Nigel’s work is not only about storytelling but showing connections and examining details which give light to new conversations and ways of thinking. Utilising the ubiquity of photography – a language we are all familiar with in the digital age – she highlights how “photography creates a sense of commonality” and cites the etymology of the word meaning “writing with light”. In this beautifully poignant talk, Nigel pointed out how “to be seen by other people mean to tell stories,” and how crucial this is when it comes to giving a voice to the invisible, the imprisoned. It gives them a sense of power. To be able to change a point of view on how society views those incarcerated and in turn, the world, is no small thing. And with this in mind, The San Quentin Project also addresses the importance of arts education and the delight that goes hand in hand with the desire to create.
Escaping into a fantasy with photography
At June’s Nicer Tuesdays Online, David Uzochukwu revealed how he first got into photography. It’s something he only realised recently: “I developed a crush on someone that was into photography and I absorbed their hobby,” he told our editor-in-chief Matt Alagiah. Talking us through his career beginnings, David took us through his staggering career to date which kicked off at the tender age of 17 which blew up with the iconic shoot of FKA Twigs for Nike. A major moment for David which opened both doors and recognition for the young artist, he soon began to develop his personal practice, founded in his childhood passion for fantasy.
As a child, he told us, he escaped into different worlds through fantasy books. The interest stems from an inner place which has never been interested in “pre-shaped things”. He liked the idea of creating things that are pointedly not linked to everyday life, “a breath of fresh air” as David put it, or something that makes you feel alive. At the crux of it, this is what David’s work is about. The everyday controls of life are stripped away, revealing a mysterious and ethereal world full of creative wonder.
It takes the photographer a while to come up with these fully formed ideas. He fills sketchbooks with ideas gradually, some of these ideas sticking around for years. With this in mind, he has a pretty good idea of what he wants to achieve by the end of a shoot, visualising something that meets his idea of a parallel universe. Currently studying for a degree in philosophy, David also discussed how the subject has influenced his practice amongst a range of other topics which include the logistics of developing ideas and the contextual layers that go into the work too.
GalleryCopyright © David Uzochukwu
GalleryCopyright © David Uzochukwu
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