Embodying the project’s essence of belief and determination, we talk to photographer David Uzochukwu about his transition from self-portraits to shooting the artist
It’s a steep transition from feeling too afraid to take photos of others to shooting a global campaign for Nike, led by FKA twigs. But 18-year-old photographer David Uzochukwu is taking it all in his stride with admirable tenacity.
Despite his young age, his portfolio boasts editorial shoots, projects with Adobe Photoshop and now a mammoth campaign. His self-assured manner is impressive: he's self-taught, has a catalogue of perfectly executed shots with him at the centre (“self-portraiture is what I started out with, before working up the guts to ask others”) and when asked whether he had top tips for shooting a megastar the likes of twigs he responded: “I'm a bit uncomfortable answering that question. It makes me sound like a Pokémon trainer. If I answer without calling you out I’m propagating celebrity culture.”
Although seemingly worlds apart, you can draw comparisons between the two artists without dwelling on arbitrary characteristics like global fame. Uzochukwu and twigs both have an admirable autonomy over their own work, and a drive to be involved in many aspects of the creative process. The pair also share the experience of growing up in places with little diversity (racially and artistically). While twigs’ upbringing in a Spanish-Jamaican household in Gloucestershire framed her as an outsider from the outset of her career, Uzochukwu, an Austrian-born Luxembourger of Nigerian descent living in Brussels, makes sure his work carves a space for others who don’t feel like they belong.
The fine arts photographer and the multi-hyphenate twigs met after the man who styled the campaign (“and absolutely killed it”) showed Uzochukwu’s work to the singer. We spoke to him about the experience and where his work is headed next:
The concept of the shoot was “do you believe in more?” Were the gravity-defying poses, contorted bodies, and dreamy landscapes all meticulously planned beforehand to fit that slogan of the accompanying zine?
David Uzochukwu: It’s not very conscious – there’s always the question of how to turn a feeling I have into something visual. When I find this frequency in myself that I really want to create to, the rest just falls into place. The campaign’s slogan, “Do you believe in more?”, became my mantra for a few weeks. It was all about this sensation of going beyond the ordinary.
What was it like transitioning from such personal work which focuses on and is shot/ edited by you alone to such a big campaign?
David Uzochukwu: Self-portraiture is cathartic, you get all the time in the world. Being solely responsible for a creation feels amazing. There’s no space for excuses. The toughest thing was putting the client’s vision first while preserving my identity, even though I loved the challenge. And I couldn’t retouch the entire campaign myself because of the tight deadlines, but always wanted to grab it right back from the retouchers.
Did you feel like you had less freedom or autonomy over the finished product? Did she have quite strong ideas for the direction of the shoot?
David Uzochukwu: The amount of freedom I had was astounding! But I think it’s close to impossible to make something this big happen without compromise. Which isn’t necessarily bad - everyone surrounding me is an expert in their field, and the final result is a group effort. twigs was the campaign’s Creative Director when she approached me, she already had a clear vision for the project. I got to build on that, and on set it grew into more - partly because she always knew exactly if something did or did not work. I loved that.
“There’s so much beauty in the human experience and I think we’re far from having explored all of its facets. That’s what I want to keep doing” – David Uzochukwu
The reaction on social media has been extremely positive but you recently took a hiatus and decided to limit your internet presence. Do you find it easier to work when you don’t get sucked into instant (positive/negative) feedback?
David Uzochukwu: It’s a completely different experience to not share everything right away. After finishing a piece, I need to experience this little honeymoon with it all on my own. If I still think I’ve made something that’s true to myself after the initial spark has faded, I can get honestly excited about sharing it. My highest priority isn’t to change the world with my photography. First and foremost, I need to heal myself.
How has that motivation impacted other projects you’ve done?
David Uzochukwu: Last year I finished a self-portrait series about how racism shaped me, for which I kept covering myself in colour. It burned my eyes, I was always freezing. It was an absolute pain to clean up, and I was an emotional wreck shooting it - but wow, did I need to make these pictures.
You said that you recently became aware that the act of depicting a black body in western art is revolutionary and that this is starting to affect your work. How?
David Uzochukwu: There’s so much beauty in the human experience and I think we’re far from having explored all of its facets. That’s what I want to keep doing. When I think of eight year old me, there’s nothing I want to do more than show myself that there’s a space for me in the world. To feel like I belong would have meant everything to me.