As her first UK solo exhibition opens at the South London Gallery, the photographer opens her archive
Taken from the summer 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here
Photographer Liz Johnson Artur first began taking pictures of black communities after visiting New York for the first time in the mid-80s. Born in Bulgaria to Russian-Ghanaian parents, the photographer grew up a “product of migration”: “I had never really been around black communities,” she says, “so for me, going (to New York) was my first experience of being able to dive into them.” Johnson has lived in London since 1991 and her first UK solo exhibition showcases photographs depicting the richness and creative expression of London’s black communities, taken all over the city, from East London club night PDA, to Brixton Splash. “I don’t approach people because they are black,” she says, “I approach them because there’s something that interests me about them.”
“I started taking photographs in the mid-80s. In 1986 I came to New York – I had never really been around black communities, so for me going (there) was my first experience of being able to dive into them. I didn’t plan to photograph the African diaspora for 30 years, I think I just grew into it. It became my way of looking at things.
One reason I started doing these pictures is I didn’t see them anywhere (else). I saw glamour shots, sports shots, and horror shots, but I didn’t see regular life – people just being represented for who they are. I guess that’s how I got into it, and that’s why I’m still doing it.
A lot of what I knew about black culture came from books or magazines; I didn’t have one-to-one experiences. Where I’m at now, I just want to see how much I can actually capture of it; it’s very enriching. But I don’t approach people because they’re black, I approach them because there’s something that interests me about them, something that I love about how they present themselves.”
“To be thought of as normal is an absolute luxury. People take you for who you are but as soon as you step out of that image or standard you have to explain yourself all the time. At PDA (east London club night run by Ms Carrie Stacks, Crack Stevens and Mischa Mafia) they make an atmosphere where they can be who they want to be. I was taken by (the fact that) it’s a warm place. A lot of people who go there live at home and have to pretend they are something they’re not. The atmosphere and the acceptance is an extraordinary thing, and it needs to be shown in that way. When you go, it’s not about fashion labels, it’s not about money, it’s about individuality. You don’t see one particular style; each one has their own – it’s something that’s wonderful when it’s so concentrated (like this).
At the end of the day, that’s what my pictures try to represent: people who are who they are... I want to celebrate them, but more than anything I want to make a point that there is so much out there. Maybe (my photography) will make people look at things differently. Maybe it will help make ‘normality’ a more inclusive place. That’s what I can hope for. But I’m no politician; I’m not trying to win over the masses. I think these things can sometimes happen over a very simple thing, and photography is one of those tools that can help it happen.”
If You Know the Beginning, the End Is No Trouble is at the South London Gallery June 14 – September 1 2019