We spoke to Juliana Kasuma, a British-Nigerian photographer about her journey into photography and her focus on West African women, their traditions and lasting effects on today's society.
When do you identify your photographic style? And what was that process?
The process involved a lot of experimentation, as with everything. I think it was when I committed to traditional photography 100%. A lot of it wasn’t conscious, it’s remembering a particular kind of film, or a developer that I use and although I won’t know what it is going to look like, I know I’m going to be happy with it. Also the context of the stories that I tell, within the last year and a half I’ve opened up to tell these stories about West Africa that relate to me and it’s comes together in a way that makes it my style.
I feel like my photography represents me more than anything else. I’m not really one to write, I’m not really one to be on Twitter or social media but with my photography you can look at those images and know they are a reflection of me, and things that connect to myself, my past and my family. I’m almost like an open book. I’m happy to be in that place now – whereas I couldn’t have said that when I first started.
"With my photography you can look at those images
and know they are a reflection of me"
What was your path into photography?
In regards to photography I actually took it as a doss lesson in A Levels I was really trying to get into psychology but photography just turned out to be the one I enjoyed the most. There was this immense pressure in the second year of A Levels where you had to apply to University and I was wondering what I was going to apply for because I wasn’t as keen on psychology as I used to be.
I was very much into graphic design. The course I did at Birmingham City University was called Visual Communication and during your first year you experiment with illustration, graphic design and photography then you make up your mind in regards to what you want to do – which was perfect for me. I specialised in photography, but I would say I have only been serious for the last two years in fairness. In the last two years I have found my direction in regards to where I want to take my photography, my photographic style for example and my decision to only develop in black and white has formed the path I am on now.
Looking back on it now I find it so funny how a lot of people didn’t have the opportunity to take the time to think ‘ok what do you actually want to do’ like my little sister did. From her seeing me she decided not to go to University straight away, she decided to work for a little bit and find out what she likes to do. It was a lot of pressure from my parents, it was; ‘you need to go to university’ ‘you need to get this degree’ and the pressure of being the first in the family, so there was all of that. So looking back on it, I can’t 100% say that I would have gone to University.
What was your family's response to you choosing photography?
It was very much no at first. I had to spin it. I had to make it up to be like television or media, because the course wasn’t called photography it was Visual Communication. I see it now, them being afraid of failure and them not having any knowledge or information about what it actually means to make a career out of photographic arts. They know academic career paths like doctors, lawyers and engineers but they didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing which didn’t help because I didn’t know either as I was still on that journey. It still is difficult, even to this day they ask if I have an exhibition up or what’s next? They are always on edge which I understand, so I see it as my job to now show them my success.
It seems like it’s a topic that re-occurs within our community. If it’s not an academic subject some families question how are you making money?
It’s a constant fight and a constant struggle to the point where you have kids – I say kids like I’m not a kid myself – who are really looking for our parent’s acceptance and not getting that, you start to see those effects and they’re some deep psychological effects.
I think it’s about getting to a place yourself where you’re not constantly seeking that approval from anyone, otherwise you will just give up.
What do you think motivates you most to keep going?
Funnily enough, my mum. She is such a strong independent woman in ways that when I was younger I didn’t really understand. Even though she again doesn’t fully understand, she still does everything she can – she supports me fully and puts her trust and faith in me as a human being and I think that’s definitely motivation to keep pushing.
As well as my observations of the world around me, seeing that there is still a lack in conversation about certain issues or there is a lack of understanding from other people on certain issues. I feel like I’m here to provide that representation and to keep telling these stories as a black British woman. I can’t have other people telling my story.
Within your photography you have looked at hair, identity and culture are there any other aspects you’re looking to explore?
There is a lot I haven’t addressed yet. For example with ‘Irun Kiko’ the hair project; it was about symbolisms that go back to traditional religions before colonialism, because some of the hairstyles these women used to wear, they wore to pray to their deities. There are a lot of conversations on these women who didn’t have a say during slavery, but they were so entrepreneurial and powerful within their communities. We are seeing that again today where black women are taking people’s lack of appreciation for them and spinning it back on their heads and things like hair and beauty are topics I feel that black women converse about everyday. Those topics fall under feminism, mental health and again the importance of decolonising your minds, and I feel until you are able to do that there is no process of self healing. I think we are still in that process of trying to heal that eternal pain.
"I’m here to provide that representation and to keep
telling these stories as a black British woman."
Is there a particular reaction you want to get from your images?
I hope for my projects to be conversation starters. A lot of the projects are heavily researched and there are still stories I want to share. If anything I want people to take away something they’ve learnt, something new about colonisation and its’ effects on women today.
Another reason why I shoot in black and white is because I want my work to be archived, and to be part of a collection of archives. When researching, there were a lot of things I couldn’t find in the archives, unfortunately. If my work can be placed and archived so that one day, someone who is on their photography degree or just wanting to do some research can stumble across my projects and either fill in gaps I may have missed or it could give them a point of enlightenment and extra bit of education. That’s really important to me.
It’s funny when people say we (millennials) are the lazy generation! All around me I am seeing startups and people are so hardworking. We are all in full time jobs but we’re still trying to have our entrepreneurial dreams. The next generation are seeing this and that’s what they’re aspiring to. It’s always in the back of my mind – that they’re watching and looking up to us.