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Aisha Seriki, Ungrads (2020)
Aimina Fitzsimons by Aisha Seriki, Ungrads (2020)Photography Aisha Seriki

Celebrating women of colour graduates in a year of pandemic

Aisha Seriki’s stunning portrait project, Ungrads, gives women of colour recognition of their achievements in trying times

All around the world, the graduate classes of 2020 are undocumented cohort; a notable omission in the long tradition of celebrations that would usually mark such a huge achievement. Due to COVID-19, 2020 university graduates such as fashion photographer Aisha Seriki have been denied the rituals and recognition that should accompany such a rite of passage. Amid the shared disappointment, Seriki decided to take matters into her own hands.

“There were no celebrations and no recognition for our hard work,” she tells Dazed. “Instead of waiting for someone else or an institution to celebrate us, I decided to create a project for us graduates to celebrate our successes. I wanted to cast myself and my friends because society hardly celebrates the accomplishments of Black women and women of colour.” Ungrads is a joyful collection of graduation portraits shot by Seriki in an attempt to redress this gap in representation, and to mark this happy occasion in the lives of the graduates and their families.

Having emigrated to the UK with her family when she was eight-years-old, going to university was always a dream for the London-based Nigerian photographer. “University education is seen as a necessary investment for first-gen and second-generation migrants because it provides access to white-collar jobs and accelerates social mobility,” she explains. “For these reasons, graduation is seen as a form of emancipation for greener pastures.” Due to the status of her visa, and what she describes as a systemic lack of support in the schools she attended, accessing higher-education was a huge challenge. Therefore, the importance of marking this transition into graduate life – not just for her but for other women who had faced similar obstacles – felt absolutely vital.

As an ongoing project, Seriki has already taken graduation portraits for 20 women of colour who graduated last year, but she’s looking for more participants (you can register your interest on her website). 

Visit the gallery above to scroll through the joyful portraits from Ungrads while, below, we talk to Aisha Seriki about the importance of ceremony, fulfilling her dream of further education, and the joy of donning her graduation robes.

How did the idea for Ungrads first come about?

Aisha Seriki: Ungrads was initially a self-portrait shoot idea, inspired by the James Charles high school photograph that went viral in 2016. Graduation photos can be very mechanical, so I was drawn to James Charles’ photograph because it went against that grain. I saw it as a method of self-expression. At that point, I was considering my options after college. I wanted to go to university but, because of my visa restrictions I did not qualify for student finance and my parents providing me with £27,000 for my studies was also not an option. I told myself that if I was able to get a scholarship to enter university I would shoot a graduation self-portrait that truly represented me. 

Last year, Ungrads truly developed and the idea resurfaced because of the forced cancellation of graduation as a result of coronavirus. 

Please could you share with us a bit more about why the rituals and why the ceremony around graduation is so important for first and second-generation migrants?  

Aisha Seriki: Most economic migrants from the Global South relocate with the intention of providing a better life for their children and family. Higher education is important for the first generation and second generation for a myriad of reasons. High youth unemployment rates result in migrants having to move to the west and, upon arriving, their degrees are not recognised so they take up manual labour roles. So, university education is seen as a necessary investment for first-gen and second-generation migrants because it provides access to white-collar jobs and accelerates social mobility. For these reasons, graduation is seen as a form of emancipation for greener pastures. 

One of the most vivid memories of my childhood was my mother drumming into me the importance of having an education and the freedom that it allowed. Further education was especially important to my mother because she was robbed of the opportunity to experience it. For her, graduation signified that her hard work raising three children alone in a foreign land had not failed.  

“Further education was especially important to my mother because she was robbed of the opportunity to experience it. For her, graduation signified that her hard work raising three children alone in a foreign land had not failed” – Aisha Seriki 

How did you cast the 20 women who sat for you?

Aisha Seriki: The cancellations of graduation caused a feeling of disappointment that was near-universal amongst my friends. There were no celebrations and no recognition for our hard work. Instead of waiting for someone else or an institution to celebrate us, I decided to create a project for us graduates to celebrate our successes. I wanted to cast myself and my friends because society hardly celebrates the accomplishments of Black women and women of colour. 

 Do you have any particularly special memories connected with this project that especially stand out for you? 

Aisha Seriki: My favourite memory was shooting my best friend, Angelica (below). We grew up together and we have both been on the same educational journey, so I was extremely grateful that I was able to shoot her for the special occasion of graduation. The shoot was so special because growing up we often felt that the paths presented to us in school were very limited and we were often discouraged from dreaming bigger due to our racial backgrounds. 

The education system doesn't often support black students or empower them adequately. For example, the attainment gap between black and white students at university. I have personally witnessed the effects of the school to prison pipeline. Angelica and I both had the shared struggle of feeling like our potential was not being recognised or nurtured by some of our teachers, and this feeling was evident during our entire educational careers. Attending university was a dream we both had, but we both had doubts about whether it was possible. Despite the limitations placed on us, we didn't settle and were able to get a place in our desired universities. 

The pictures feel really joyful and full of optimism! What was the experience like of shooting these portraits? What was the atmosphere like on set?

Aisha Seriki: I really enjoyed shooting Ungrads, it was such a beautiful experience. I feel lucky that I was able to create the closest experience to a graduation ceremony for me and my friends. Shooting in my room also made the shooting experience very relaxed and meant that I could take as long as I wanted. Seeing the ways in which my friends lit up as soon as they wore the graduation gown was super rewarding and affirmed that the project was a necessity.  

The pictures honour the conventions of traditional graduate portraits, but do you think they also benefit from your experience as a fashion photographer? 

Aisha Seriki: I really wanted to show the personalities of the different subjects and I wanted it to be their truest expression. I would say the whole experience was a collaborative process with me and the graduates. I did not dictate their wardrobe and I also took a laid back approach with directing the models, allowing the women freedom to pose themselves. In that way, I feel I was able to showcase their individualities in a way which traditional graduation portraits do not.  

If you'd like your graduation portrait taken as part of Ungrads, you can register your interest here