Shenell Kennedy strives for authentic representation in her balmy photography
Having learnt the ropes through YouTube, the London-based photographer has spent the last few years snapping stories of people, fashion and music.
When London-based Shenell Kennedy first picked up a camera, it was with the intention of starting her own YouTube channel. But, as things turned out, she thoroughly enjoyed taking the photos much more than she did filming herself talking. “When I got my camera, I was honestly fascinated by the way it worked – I found having a shallow depth of field so satisfying that I just wanted to shoot everything up-close to see the blurry background,” she tells us.
Five years down the line and we find Shenell working as a fashion and portrait photographer, taking up-close and tranquil pictures of musicians, fashion models and friends. Adjacent to her photography, she’s also a social media manager at GUAP magazine and runs the online platform, WMN, alongside her friend Satori Cascoe. Even though she feels like she’s still in the early stages of her career, her portfolio to date is artistically rich and mature in every manner possible. The undercurrent throughout it all, however, is her devotion to authenticity, which is precisely why she’s part of this year’s The Next Generation. Below, we chat to Shenell about the power of storytelling, the importance of representation, and what it takes to excel in the medium (hint: it involves a lot of Googling).
It’s Nice That: You developed your photography skills by watching videos on YouTube and from various resources online. What was the process like, and how did this impact your journey into photography?
Shenell Kennedy: I initially used YouTube to teach myself camera basics like camera settings, basic lighting and stuff. It was honestly a long process because, sometimes, YouTube videos can have five minutes of actual worthwhile information spread out in a 20 minute video. You just have to sit through the whole thing to get what you need out of it. But when you’re genuinely interested in what you’re learning, you definitely get lost for hours in a rabbit hole of content. There’s so much to photography, from composition to lighting to colour, and there’s so many resources that can teach you about it online. I think it's taught me that I can genuinely do anything I want if I put my mind to it. There’s no colour grade I can’t achieve, no lighting setup I can’t do, no concept my mind can’t create because the resources I need are readily available to me if I look hard enough.
“My photography is like a visual diary of things I think are beautiful no matter what it may be.“Shenell Kenney
INT: We’d love to hear more about your subjects – who do you strive to capture in your photography, and how do you aim to represent them?
SK: A lot of the things I want to shoot are things I love; the concepts I’m invested in, musicians I like to listen to, stories I find interesting, people I’m inspired by and the clothes I love. In this sense, my photography is like a visual diary of things I think are beautiful no matter what it may be. I like to capture people in a way which represents who they are. Oftentimes, I build concepts around people’s identities – where they're from, what they do, what their personality is like and what their interests are. I then use that to inform the creative direction such as colours, styling and set.
INT: Your work has a beautifully soft and warm feel to it; how did you come to land on this aesthetic? What does the softness add to your imagery?
SK: Honestly, the point I realised how much I love warmth is when I did my first shoot with Kwaku Asante, and those are still some of my favourite photos I’ve ever taken to this day. I don’t even know what it is about warmth and warm tones – like oranges, yellows and reds – that I love so much, it’s so beautiful to me. I just think it’s so soothing to look at, it makes skin look glowy and it just seems natural to me. I love warmth so much. Anyone who knows me, knows that's my thing.
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Shenell Kennedy: Sudan for Guap (Copyright © Shenell Kennedy, 2021)
INT: Tell us about your process in general and how you get from the idea to the final image.
SK: The process is definitely heavily dependent on what I’m shooting. For example, when I’m shooting portraits and I have creative control, a lot of the creative direction is based on the subject's identity. However, when I work on an editorial, an idea can come from anywhere from a lyric in a song, something I’ve experienced, a quote, a movie or literally anything. From there I’ll create a moodboard so I’m able to physically visualise the idea in my head and also communicate that as best as I can to whoever I want to work with. I always reach out to people on social media to work with them; I love the idea of collaboration, so I always build a team that way. It allows me to meet and work with so many amazing and talented people.
INT: What stories or messages do you hope to evoke in your work?
SK: I really want my work to be seen as authentic. Whatever I do I want it to be authentic to me, authentic to what I want to create and authentic to the subject. I think authenticity is extremely important especially when it comes to something like photography. You're immortalising a moment in time – it’s important to make it as authentic as you can. I’ve said authentic so many times now lol.
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Shenell Kennedy: Saffron (Copyright © Shenell Kennedy, 2021)
”I think authenticity is extremely important especially when it comes to something like photography.“Shenell Kennedy
INT: If you had to pick a favourite project, which one are you most proud of and why?
SK: I love the GUAP cover I shot of Henrie. It was my first cover so it’ll always be something I'm proud of. The creative direction by the GUAP team was amazing as well. I also loved the BlackList that we did at GUAP – I met some amazing people over the weekend we shot it, it was a lot of fun. I also love all of the music stuff I’ve worked on as well; I’m a huge music fan so any opportunity I get to work with musicians is great.
Shenell Kennedy: Mary Sho for Guap Mag (Copyright © Shenell Kennedy, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent nearly a decade 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.