“A form of adoration”: Amber Pinkerton on photographing Jamaica from a Jamaican gaze
In this coming of age story, the rising photographer details her creative evolution from a 19-year-old new to London, to a freelance photographer tackling colourism in a unique merging of fashion and documentary photography.
When I came across Amber Pinkerton’s photography, the first thing I noticed was the colour. Colour so velvety smooth it’s like the visual equivalent of a palette knife levelling off fresh butter cream on a cake. When I ask her about this cinematic effect, she doesn’t reveal her secret. “No one can manipulate my colours,” she tells me. But she does hint to part of the formula: “a very, very specific red that doesn’t just happen. I manipulate it, to bring out that specific tone.”
The profound hues which make up Amber’s signature palette – specific blacks and blues as well as reds – are emblematic of the photographer’s birth country, Jamaica. The Caribbean island is at the root of her practice, suggested in the scenes she composes, casting choices and the cultural expression of the image. But Amber’s Jamaican heritage did not always play a key role in her artistry. When she first came to London as a 19-year-old student, she says, “I found Jamaica visually unappealing to me,” finding it “visually distasteful”.
Looking back, Amber now finds this almost funny. In retrospect, she can observe how her creative thinking had been indoctrinated by a European and American gaze. A notable distinction between her work then and now, for instance, is the use of white models which seldom make an appearance in her work today. While her work has appeared within the pages of Dazed, i-D, Document Journal, AnOther, Vanity Fair, Love and so on, her commissions take us far and wide across the contours of the haute couture scape. But whether it’s a commission or otherwise, at present, Amber’s photography is a reflection and examination of Black identity. In order to realise this, however, she had to go back to Kingston, where the presiding culture projected images of white bodies and Eurocentric aspirations to its Black majority population.
Born and raised in the Jamaican capital, Amber recalls a childhood ladened with creativity. At the age of six or seven, she remembers telling herself that she was going to be an artist. Her medium traversed from ceramics, performance art, painting and dance, but on the cusp of her 13th birthday, photography took the lead as her parents recognised a budding interest and gifted her a Nikon D3000 for the occasion. Websites such as Picnic helped develop her digital editing abilities and expand “bizarre ideas”. Like a true child of the noughties, there were afternoons spent dressing up and taking self-portraits on self-timer, which she then manipulated on the website.
All these experiences eventually brought Amber to London to study. “I didn’t want to be in London at all to be honest,” elucidating how it wasn’t her first choice. Before London was on the cards, Amber had her heart set on NYU. She’d got in, yet as is the case with many international students, she couldn’t afford it. “I applied to all these scholarships,” she remembers, including Rihanna’s (a philanthropic attempt to lessen student debt) amongst a bunch of others, but wasn’t chosen as a recipient. Then, approximately two weeks prior to universities opening their doors again, she decided to go to London. As Amber’s father is British Guyanese, the transition was simpler. “I applied to this film school in Ealing,” she says. She got in a few days later, jumped on a plane, and didn’t leave the West London suburb for another year or so.
Due to the disproportionate exchange rate from the Jamaican dollar to the British sterling, in these years, Amber found herself restricted geographically yet unbridled by a growing creative expression. “Today, I can see all the societal gaps in British society,” she says, “but back then, I was coming from a small island where freedom of expression is quite restricted.” On one hand, she felt elated by the city’s many subcultures and the variety each neighbourhood offered, but on the other, there was a sense of unease as she began to understand the insidious undertones contributing to London’s glamour; a byproduct of Britain’s exploitative, colonial past.
This marks a pivot in Amber’s story. Though her first year in London was exciting in some respects, the inequality she saw and experienced first hand inspired new themes to rush into the work. Her photography became less centred on fashion, and instead started taking up an activist stance – highlighting issues of colourism, representation and identity at the crux of the photography. “I started to feel that otherness,” she tells us, after being in London for a while. “I started to feel quite isolated as well, because I didn’t know any Caribbean people for years and years.” Surrounded by a majority white student body, she found herself “suddenly in this space of discomfort”. And for the first time in her life, she felt estranged.
Amber soon dropped out of film school and started to build a freelance photography career, with her own intentions at the forefront of the photography. Instead of emulating the established editorial oeuvre, she looked within to discover her own unique form of creative expression – a way of thinking that took her across the Atlantic Ocean and back to Jamaica. Looking at her early work now, Amber can see a subconscious message starting to poke through the surface. These images are imbued in undertones of race and class, but the message appears timid and uncertain in its communication. “There was a part of me that felt quite uncomfortable with it,” she reflects. “Like it was going to rub some people the wrong way.”
Race politics in Jamaica and the UK are largely different. Where much of the UK’s issues come down to comparisons to the white hegemony, in Jamaica, there is more colourism at play which sees “the Black community divided by skin tone or class.” The challenge for Amber was to navigate these two very separate issues at the same time, underlining her work with an assured universality that applies to any context. She does this wholeheartedly through casting.
“I like to use real people,” says the photographer, centring people “who are usually unseen or underrepresented in some way.” She admits how this ethos is something of a cliché today, as many an ad campaign can adopt this lingo to boost its public-facing morale. But when it comes to Amber’s work, the lensing of Jamaica’s residents is “a form of adoration” that she hasn’t seen previously. In this regard, she’s observed photographers highlight what Jamaicans don’t have, and wanted to flip this around. “For me, it’s more about the humanity and showing that these people are just people, like everyone else.” She continues of her street-cast shoots: “people might categorise [their outfits] as ghetto or ugly, or whatever it is. But to me, I feel like those people are the heart of Jamaican culture, because as you go up the hierarchy of class, you find that the culture withers away more and more.” The privileged classes, she notes, are more likely to take fashion or cultural cues from neighbouring America.
From time to time, Amber faces backlash from her work; some are confused as to why Amber wants to photograph street-cast models in a high fashion editorial context. But the difference now – in comparison to a few years ago when her work wasn’t fully realised – is her reaction to such responses. Where she once felt apprehensive, today it’s quite the contrary. “I think now, I find it really interesting and quite like it to some extent.” Any response to her work, whether it’s positive or negative, propels her to keep asking questions of her audience, “because that’s how I know the work is doing something or saying something.”
At a mere 23 years of age, this is just the very beginning of Amber’s creative ambitions. And we’ve only told a fraction of her story so far – from a teenager touching down in Ealing to an internationally recognised photographer showing the world what Jamaica looks like from the perspective of one of its own. It’s a coming-of-age tale where the technical maturity synchronises with her conceptual endeavours and if this is what Amber’s achieving now, the question remains, what might she be doing in five years from now?
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.