We talk to elusive photographer AboveGround about his ongoing work within the realms of graffiti and hip hop
“I see underground culture as an iceberg. The top is seen by everyone but to understand the size of the iceberg you have to go underwater.” Filmmaker and photographer AboveGround is talking to us about his work with the UK and America’s underground scenes – predominantly with graffiti writers and hip hop artists. “The majority of people I document are low key superheroes and most of the shoots I do lead to new adventures and interesting consequences. I have a camera with me at all times so occasionally when I go on a mission with my mates I end up doing some mad shit or even wake up in a different country,” he adds.
At 31-years-old, the Paris-born artist finds himself flitting between both sides of the Atlantic, residing in London and New York where he continues to build an oeuvre of work that is raw and candid. It’s an inside look into what and who makes the underbelly of these cities tick. Below, we caught up with the elusive artist over email.
Can you tell us about your relationship with the subjects you shoot? Is it difficult given the nature of what they do – graffiti writers, for example?
AboveGround: When it comes to capturing graffiti writers, different rules apply – it’s a different game. I’m exposing someone that doesn’t necessarily want to be exposed because of their mysterious, illegal background. I have to gain trust and respect before taking any action because if some of the photos end up in the wrong hands things can get a bit dramatic. I take it very very seriously. Documenting pure illegal street graffiti is still my favourite thing, though. To get to the level where the artist can actually feel comfortable with me taking photos involves quite a few sleepless nights getting extremely fucked on Hennessy, sharing a last pizza slice with them and a bit of street politics. For the record, most of the writers I shot became very close to me and certain stories will never be told for rock n roll reasons.
What’s your approach?
AboveGround: I don't really plan my shoots but I know what it takes to make a good photograph or video. I kind of feel privileged to make sure that certain events, people or places are caught on camera. I want to show people how the meal was made.
Why did you begin taking photos?
AboveGround: I was young, ambitious had too much stuff going on my mind but I didn’t have the right tools to do me at the time. Eventually, I got to the point when graffiti and music wasn’t enough to feed my habits. I had a bit of money saved on the side from working in a factory. I’ve spent a couple of years doing shitty jobs and testing myself out. Then one day on my way back from work I took a random bus to a city that had a camera shop, spent all my savings on a camera kit, decided to start documenting my perspective and eventually got hooked and couldn’t stop. Why I take photos? I don’t really know. Maybe it’s for a selfish fulfilment in most cases. But I really do care about this, I think I live in a very beautiful era full of different music, fashion and art styles emerging. I’m curious to know how people will see my work in 2040 or so. This AboveGround journey was very interesting rollercoaster so far.
Why do you like to shoot on film?
AboveGround: I'm comfortable feeling uncomfortable. There were at least 20 times when I collected my negatives from the lab and all photos came out blank. Film got damaged or the camera jammed during the shoot. There’s always a slight risk that I won’t see the photos I’ve taken. Maybe I should stop buying cameras from charity shops. Film is more organic and there are no gimmicks. I still shoot digital, time after time, and I don’t see a problem with it. I have fun with both analogue and digital. In the end of the day, it’s not about what you use – iPhone, film, mk3 – if you really live this life, you can be a photographer. Time shows what tools work best.
Why do you think it’s important to share underground culture with a wider audience?
AboveGround: I see underground culture as an iceberg. The top is seen by everyone but to understand the size of the iceberg you have to go underwater. For me, this summarises the importance of why people need to know what’s what. You don’t drown by falling in the water, you drown by staying there… (Rest in peace Jack).