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Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize: In Conversation with Kymara Akinpelumi

by Blandine Hausermann

“Caught in the ‘act’” © Kymara Akinpelumi

Out of all the portraits selected for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize 2021, Kymara Akinpelumi’s portrait from the series Dichotomy particularly touched and fascinated me in the way she uses self-portrait to explore her identity and reflect on her childhood. Only 22 years old and studying BA Photography at Arts University Bournemouth, she is one of the youngest photographers of the exhibition, but no less striking. Through her self-portrait, she engages in a self-reflective process, and at the same time is able to capture a certain state of vulnerability and reflection that many can have experienced during these unsettling times of pandemic and successive lockdowns. With enthusiasm, sincerity, and intimacy, Kymara reveals her experience of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize as a young artist and the story behind her self-portrait series.

How did you choose the portrait you submitted to the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait competition? Was it an easy choice?

Every time I try to enter something I get stuck on what I’m choosing because I think there are so many images in my Dichotomy series that summarize my story better and then there are some that I think are more accessible. Sometimes it’s about wanting people to receive it. In a way, “dichotomy” is about feeling that you can relate to everyone because everyone at some point feels that they don’t belong anywhere, so in that sense I want anyone to see it and not think that they don’t know anything about that topic. I wanted to feel quite shared I guess because I do feel shared. I have this very multicultural family. I’ve lived in really different environments within the UK. I’ve experienced middle-class parts of life and very lower-class parts of life, so I do feel like that.

How did your Dichotomy portrait series take root?

It’s so strange to think about it, it was such a weird time of life…

It was in January 2021, maybe like the third lockdown. We got this brief at uni and I didn’t know what to do it on at all at first. I was going through my diaries, and then at the back of my diary, I had written something which reminded me of what my housemate told me a few years ago. I was really stressed about my course at that time because when I started uni I was doing textiles and I wanted to change to photography. I was really stressed about that decision because it felt like this was the last time I could make a decision. I’ve been so confused up to that point and I just thought that whatever I do now, I can’t turn back on. He basically told me about this theory called “Schrödinger’s cat”, which was about being 50% alive 50% dead at the same time. He was saying that I wanted to dip my toe into textiles and I also wanted to be a photographer. I was not prepared to just be 100% of one thing. When he said it, I was like “oh no, you’ve really read into my soul!”. I was literally running around the house and he was telling me to calm down [laughs]. It was so funny.

But on a serious level, I’ve realized that I grew up in a really lower-class family and then I might go horseriding with my friend in the day, so I was living this lifestyle that was very different to coming home with sometimes no electricity. At the same time, I have a dual heritage so I’ve grown up in a completely white community and I’m mixed, my dad’s black, and that’s so many different situations in that sense. In education as well, being someone of colour in a very white environment, I felt like there were a lot of times that I was feeling split. Or coming home in such a different culture, like my mom she would blast old school hip hop, r&b, soul songs and I’d go to school and it was very different.

So he basically read me, and then when uni briefed us, I realized that was what I wanted to do it about. I needed to explore this thing and figure out what are the two differences I find and how I can combine them into one photo. When do I feel like I’ve been in situation when I feel one class and then the other or I feel like this culture and that culture.

“Clay Afro” © Kymara Akinpelumi

Can you explain your choice for self-portrait?

It’s strange because everyone’s doing self-portraits now, but I love them. I think it’s very interesting.

It’s the first time I was taking it that seriously, like decided I’m going to sit down and do this. I was shielding in lockdown as well, so I couldn’t see anyone anyway, so that’s kind of why I did self-portrait. There was a point where I was in my bedroom on my own for four months straight like you’re just with yourself and that is so intense. A lot is exposed. If you think about how busy we get to be now, all these things that build up in you, you keep on being distracted, but what if these thoughts are just at the front of your head and you can’t really distract yourself, you’re just sat there with them. It was the weirdest time in my life, but almost so important. Also to sort of understanding where you’re at.

Because this portrait was about, well all of them, go back on childhood. That is so interesting for me because I’m able to have an outside perspective looking in at myself. I think a lot of the time when you’re going through something, it’s really hard to do a series on it because you don’t have the distance to be able to theorize it. But I was so young and my life is so different in that space that I’m able to take a step back and be like “that was interesting!” and that’s why this happened.

What was your process for shooting this self-portrait? Did you already have a specific idea in mind or did you kind of experiment?

This photo is probably one of my favourites for this reason that out of all of them, this was the most accidental. I was experimenting with trying to put my hair like my dad used to be. This was me thinking about how different my mom and my dad are and how I feel split in that sense. I grew up living with my mom most of the time but went to my dad’s on the weekend. I was taking my t-shirt off, and when I took it off, that’s when I looked at the camera and I was like “oh my gosh, this is saying something!”.

I got loads of photos, but this is the one where I’ve almost paused in time, and I don’t really think I was necessarily thinking about it at the time. It was when I came to edit and I looked at my eyes and expression in that photo that I thought that there was so much in that image and something happened – maybe because it wasn’t structured and I just left the t-shirt half across my head and now it’s something else. In my childhood when me and my sister used to go to bed, we’d put tights on our hair and the point is to lock the moisture in your afro. This just reminds me of that so much.

So I would say that I had things that I had in mind and then the amazing thing about self-portraiture, because no one else is there, you can just play around so much. What happens is things reveal themselves to you, which is the most special thing about it. Ever since then, for the next projects, I always do self-portraits at some point in the process because things I didn’t realize I was thinking I find because it’s so private and sincere in that way.

Why did you choose black and white for the photo?

They’re made on digital so not made of black and white film. But I felt black and white serves itself to the whole point of dichotomy, having these two sides. But the message is in the grey. The whole point is that when you look at black and white photo, you’ve got all these shades between, this huge spectrum. When I started the series, it was about feeling in a state of extremes. Being in my mom’s house and feeling like a certain way, being at my dad’s house and feeling the opposite. Being at school feeling an extreme feeling, being at home and feeling so different, so it was about this distance. I felt that often you feel like you have to be in one group or the other, but that each of these groups are way more multifaceted in themselves, which is why the title 'Dichotomy' is less of a statement and more of a question.

“Retrospective Glasses” © Kymara Akinpelumi

Do you think this expression through photography somehow helped you to process certain life events or feelings?

I think so, definitely. I was speaking to you before about how I really like research probably more than taking images and I think maybe photography is the best method of translation for me. I think everyone has their thing. It could be anything – maybe you’re a writer, maybe you like to fix things – but from what I need to get out, this is the method that translates it the best for me. I feel like as soon as I show someone an image, they can take it somewhere in their mind, it now exists in their brain. It’s then something to think about, and they’ve seen something they perhaps hadn’t seen before.

Did you make the choice of type of paper for the photograph? If so, which type of paper did you choose and why? Was it an easy choice?

Yeah, I did, but it was so hard. At this stage, it was my first uni project, and I hadn’t been going through those processes yet, especially being in lockdown, where I’m not considering any of that at that point. This is the point where I’m starting to just think about my ideas and how to deliver them. So, when you’re entering something that is so prestigious you have a short time frame. People that have had more practice probably have stuff ready.

I was so stressed. I found it really hard just thinking about how I’m going to get it around the timeframe, who do I speak to, and who do I ask for help because since it’s a private thing when they let you know that you got in the exhibition, you’re not meant to tell anyone. They were also using jargon that you would only know if you were maybe exhibited before. I was googling these words thinking about what they were asking for and it was coming with really bad results. It would tell me what it is, but not tell me how to get it. I didn’t know if I needed to make it on Photoshop, I just didn’t understand it at all. In the end, I worked with the company that came to visit the uni, and I asked them to print my image. They did, amazingly. Luckily for me, they already had done a talk at university where they said that they could send us free samples of paper, so I had these free samples of paper stocked with me. I went through the papers, and I got two tests. I went for “Photo Rag Ultra Smooth”. It’s like this almost etched-textured paper. It looks quite vintage and old, and because my image feels timeless, it just seems to work so well, so I chose that one.

But it wasn’t easy. I guess it’s taught me huge lessons.

Can you talk a bit about the process of submission?

First, I sent the digital image on its own. I then got an email congratulating me, and they sent a form where I had to fill in my biography, my title, what the image was about, and why I think it is a successful image. That was so hard to answer. That was when the pressure came in. All my pictures had these stories. I had written exactly what I wanted to put down for each image and then they ask you for a limited amount of words. So, I had to reduce something that I thought was so important to keep. That was a huge written process.

What does it feel like to be a young artist exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery? Do you sometimes get “impostor syndrome”?

I’m so privileged to have had that experience at 22. I just feel very educated from the whole experience. In terms of people that worked with me at the gallery, they have just been so amazing. Being able to have a conversation with them and feel intimate with them is so good, especially when you feel like your work is quite personal. It feels fragile and you’re kind of scared about it, but they have been and still are amazing.

It is an amazing thing to be a young person in that position. It is so educational to be in a corporate setting so early. I didn’t really think about that before it happened. To obviously just exhibit the work, to see how people see the work, to make contact with those people that manage exhibitions and curate exhibitions as well, and to speak with all the artists that were mind-blowing.

One night, there was an award ceremony with the artists and a lot of guests. They did the awards, which was great, but it was just a lot of talking. The second day was my favourite day because it almost slowed down. The artists were very present with their work. It was meant to be a press review. We managed to have conversations about their work. I would speak to them about it and it would just blow my mind. I think the amazing thing about competitions, which I didn’t really know or consider, is that every single portrait has such a story behind it. When you go in, you’re reading so many different interesting stories. You don’t even have to like photography if you don’t want. To speak with the photographers that have been in the experience and tell you what happened and how they arrived in this situation is amazing. It’s such a privilege.

Do you have a favourite portrait in the exhibition?

I have a few favourite works.

The one by Delali Ayivi is so great. It’s everywhere. She’s a young artist, and I love the colours. The first question I wanted to know was “who are these people in the photo? Where did you find them?”, and they turned out to be her brothers. I didn’t think about it until now but there is an obvious connection in the image. You can’t get this staging of two models. This is an amazing picture. She was describing to me the birdcage that is reflected in one of her brother’s back. Everything about it is amazing, and I love how she’s so young. She amazes me.

© Delali Ayivi

There’s another artist as well: Pierre-Elie de Pibrac. Basically, I think he was touring. He is French. What I found so interesting about him is his life, and his process of working was something that was magical. He was saying how his whole family was involved in the whole process. I thought that was so special. These are not only amazing photographs and extremely cinematic, they’re also big memories for him. That is such an ambition for me to create a space where these images are happy things to look back on. He was so interesting to me. He also found self-portraits really interesting, so it was like a mutual exchange.

Miyashita San, from the series Hakanai Sonzai

© Pierre-Elie de Pibrac

What was your favourite and most challenging part of the whole process?

I think I sort of answered that. To just meet people and listen to their stories is just the most fun thing for me ever. It is a kind of dream world where I get to ask all these questions and where people ask me questions as well.

I think just being a young person in that situation was challenging because it’s very new. It’s not something that I learned over time and watched and understood how it was, it’s something that I never felt.

Generally, where do you get your sources of inspiration and research?

Research is mostly just reading magazines. I love fashion so much. I saw this quote from Andy Warhol that said “fashion is more art than art is”. I just agree. I think it contains everything in one: sociology, culture, geography, history, the future. Fashion is trying to call out the future. I really love fashion magazines, and I love reading interviews. One of my favourite things to do if I like what someone’s done, no matter if they’re a stylist, sculptor, writer, as soon as you listen to an interview of them and think about where they get their stuff from, that’s way more interesting than the work in itself. Within the magazine, they might speak just about their piece, but then you might go on YouTube and find an interview on them and they’re talking about a whole spectrum of things – who they are, how they live, how they get their ideas, not what their ideas are. That’s so interesting.

More recently, I’ve also been getting a lot of inspiration from rap lyrics. People lyrically and poetically say so much and I can digest it in rap. I can start to think about what they’re saying, the tone of voice… I find like I relate to lyrics so much that they’ll make me think about things in my life and will then give rise to some type of work.

With reference to what you said about “impostor syndrome”, do you have any general photography tips or tips on how to develop an artistic eye?

I would say consider why not because there are so many people in the world that are doing it. There are literally millions that do creative work, so why in these millions can’t you be one of them? Even if that’s just being creative in a different scheme of work. If it’s someone else, why not you. It’s definitely about changing your mindset. It’s probably my biggest tip for any artist, it’s just deciding that that could be you.

In terms of training the eye, it’s a hard one because everyone has their tastes. I don’t know what I’ve built my skill off, but maybe the interest in fashion has helped me because I get a sense of fashion imagery and the reception of stylistic pieces.

Are you currently working on a new photographic project?

Yes, it’s called “Somb”. It’s about culture. It’s a new perspective for me. Last summer, I went to Spain and I lived with a family for two and a half weeks. When I was in Spain, I realised that, as part of the younger generation UK, it feels as though our value is largely based on climbing this work ladder or about what I do in my professional life that is impressive or valuable. But when I lived with the family, none of it mattered; I was just there to integrate. I had to take responsibility for my 'Britishness' in this sense and question a lot of things.

So, basically, the series is about being in the shadows and trying to be comfortable in that. It’s me almost desiring to sort of snatch the light. It’s a self-portrait. It’s more of an essay-based project where I’m thinking about where I am culturally and what is happening. Those ideas will present themselves maybe in different works as well outside that portrait.

“Somb” © Kymara Akinpelumi


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