The Photographic Journal

David Uzochukwu

Interview 071 • Sep 24th 2018

Foreword

The work of David Uzochukwu is otherworldly, with a softness and subtlety that evokes many different emotions within the viewer. His touching self portraiture explores personal themes within his life, which many see as being well beyond his years. After spending a gap year working as a commercial photographer, we got to chat with David about being in school again surrounded by those his own age, his pursuit of film making, and aging out of the "young photographer" label.

Interview

So how are you enjoying school?

I like it, I really do. Some parts of it are totally crap, but I try to limit those, because you’re not technically studying for fun, so yeah, just really enjoying the additional input and making the best out of getting to know the people. I think it’s just super nice to use my brain again.

Ha! For your gap year, you pretty much did photography full time right?

Yeah.

Did you feel like part of your brain was withering from not being in school?

Definitely. I mean, I know that technically you can teach yourself, but I was just…I think it was both not being in school and being confronted with stuff that I didn’t know about and not having young people around me.

Oh yeah.

I think the combination of that, plus all the pressure I put on myself, even though I loved it for the most part, it was just getting to me like, “okay, let’s just try uni for a while.”

Yeah.

See how it goes.


Is it giving you what you wanted?

Yeah, yeah! It’s totally cool. I’m glad I made that choice. I slowed things down for the last couple months, and now I’m ready to work again, so I feel like that’s good.

Why did you choose to study philosophy?

Well, I loved it during my last two years of high school and it was either philosophy or biology actually, those are the topics that interest me most. I never felt like I wanted to study photography, because it’s something so personal already, so I don’t know, I feel like anything I need to figure out I can totally figure out on my own.

I was considering film, but I guess I can also just learn by doing. I did apply to go to film school in Germany and I didn’t get in, but it was a last-minute decision I had made a couple months ago, and when it didn’t work out. I was just like, “okay, just keep doing philosophy and working.”

What inspired you to apply to film school?

Actually, I’ve been really getting into the idea of making films for the last few years, but it was always so scary to me because, with photography obviously I’m telling a story in a way, and then I’m expressing myself, but at the same time, I feel like my photography is very vague, because it’s so much about emotion.


Right.

And so, what was killing me was, those people who were making projects, even in photography, where they’re very particular and pick a narrative, pick a story and tell it from A to Z. That was something that scared me, and somehow I felt like I had found what I wanted to do in photography right now, but with film, there would be so many challenging aspects about it, and then I never actually watched a lot of films, but that did really touch me, and I did start to catch up on the canon. So I’m still doing that, I have huge gaps.

And you directed something recently, right?

Yeah, I directed for the first time, actually, that was last February, it’s been ages, it still hasn’t come out, but my first directing experience was an ad! It was really cool, it was so much work, it was like half a year of prep, and then we shot for like six days, maybe five, and we have a huge crew and it was absolutely insane that that would be my first experience, but  it felt very natural for the process, but then at the same time, it wasn’t necessarily storytelling.

Right.

I was in my comfort zone creatively which was cool, I got to explore how it felt to be a director, and yeah, work with this huge team, synchronizing everything, digging deeper.


Do you enjoy working with a big creative team?

Sometimes…I mean there’s amazing potential, when everything goes right and there’s proper communication, and the energy’s right and the team’s been well chosen and the concept fits, then it can really elevate the project. The final result can be something that I could have never made alone, and I think that’s super super great.

Especially on that film, there were so many people who were just professionals and doing the thing and knew so much and that I could learn so much from. But at the same time, and also when I’m directing a photo crew, I get booked because of my vision, so I have to make my vision happen.

Right.

And I don’t have a problem with that, but at times it’s really hard to just get everything aligned. There are challenges, but it’s definitely nice in a way.

Do you feel like because you’re younger you’ve got to work a little harder to get people to respect you on set?

Hmm I’ve actually never had a problem with that, probably because most people, I mean either they’re warned I’m very young…

Ha!

Or they just don’t notice. I feel like a lot of people just show up to do their job, and because they see that I’m doing mine they’re like, “okay.”

I’ve actually just for the first time ever a few weeks ago had an issue with working because I was so young, someone  told this woman that I wasn’t getting this job because I was too young to take it on, and I was like, “oh okay.”

Was it a photo gig?

It was a photo campaign, for perfume, actually.

Only old people understand perfume, everyone knows that!

You can’t smell anything before you turn 21! Yeah, that was strange, but at the same time, maybe that means that in five years that job is waiting for me, so…


Yeah, there you go! Have you been able to balance school and work since you started university?

Yeah, I’ve done a bit…well actually, I’ve gotten a bit too commercial over the last year, just like in my gap year, I didn’t take everything I was offered, but I took everything I felt was cool and had potential.

Right.

And I’m glad I did, we made a lot of cool stuff, but I’ve never really made a lot of personal work and at that point, I was like, “wow, I haven’t made any of the projects that I put on my list!”

Haha!

I don’t know, I did three, maybe four jobs this year, and apart from that I’ve just been focusing on making personal stuff, making self-portraits, I’ve worked with my sister a couple of times, getting back into the swing of things, and also I’ve been producing a really cool series that I’m excited about, so it’s better, long-term.

What are you exploring in your personal work right now?

Mostly family and sexuality in a way…growing up and making super-intimate work, like the kind that you’re scared to make.

Why are those things drawing you in right now?

I don’t know, I feel like the teenage years are coming to an end right now, is what I’m realizing.

Throughout the teenage years I was, in a way, very focused on myself, which makes sense when you’re a teenager. Now I’m like, “wow, my sister has grown into this full-fledged human, she’s a person! What happened?” And yeah, it’s also coming to terms with your parents being just regular people.


Right.

It’s been a lot of adjusting relationships and figuring out where I feel like I should go with them, because throughout my childhood I didn’t feel like it was my place to talk honestly or voice my opinions, with almost my entire family somehow, it’s super-strange. So I would just sit at a table during a discussion and be quiet because I didn’t feel like I had the right to talk, so I’m working through that!

Is one of the main uses for your work the ability to work through personal stuff?

Yeah, definitely. I feel like it’s easier to put stuff into an image, because then you don’t have to talk about it.

Right.

And then you can deal with it yourself and after that, it’s out there, and other people can profit from it, and yeah, it’s like a bit of healing. Dealing with stuff that’s inside you, then letting go.

When you look at your self-portraits, do you see the version of yourself you want to be?

Sometimes, yeah, but a lot of self-portraits I also just don’t really see myself, anymore.

Oh.

Sometimes it’s cathartic, because when I make them, having to go through certain images, I have to work through that. So it’s very practical and cathartic. But then, funnily enough, I don’t necessarily see myself in them, when I’m standing next to them, people often don’t recognize me, either, they don’t realize it’s a self-portrait!

Might be that you’re smiling in person and you’re not smiling in any of your photos.

Oh I’m sure, also all my photos look direct, most of them are profile.


Does it make you more self-critical because you’re looking at yourself all the time?

Oh god…

Ha!

I did a project where I went to Croatia with a friend for a week, and I exclusively made self-portraits, like three a day. And you get so sick of looking at your own stupid face, but at the same time that’s the face you’re stuck with.

Heh.

So that’s cool, that’s fine. When I was younger, it made me more confident to just be like, “okay that’s what you look like, that’s you.”

Right. Do you go back and look at old work a lot?

Hmm…I feel like once every three months I’ll scroll down my entire history of work on my Tumblr or something, and I’m like, okay, there’s a transition there that’s interesting to see, because it wasn’t conscious, it’s just how the work comes out. Sometimes that’s very uplifting when you feel like you’re not going anywhere.

Have you learned things about yourself going back and looking at the work? Seeing things you didn’t see at the time?

Yeah I feel like my old work was very sad. I was like, “how does that much sadness fit into a 14-year-old boy??”


Ha!

It always felt very strange when people did like my work and were impressed, and they were like, “you’re so mature for a 15-year-old.” Looking back at it, I can kind of see what they mean, and that’s the strangest thing, it’s like becoming an adult and you have this exterior of you and just be like, “that’s cool for a child.”

What do you see now that you think they saw at the time?

Just a lot of locked-up pain and stuff. But also a really cool aesthetic already, there was something there. Maybe it’s just weird to realize that kids are people, capable of feeling and making stuff, and capable of just reacting to their surroundings, I never want to forget that.

So it’s very strange when, for example, I’m not in touch with a lot of kids, I don’t have kids in my life anymore. When I do see my sister, it’s so weird to remind myself, “okay this is how I felt when I was 16.” I hate to have to do that, and I hate that my interior is changing, it always just felt like it was me.

She just turned 16, yeah. It feels so weird, it feels like she’s 7, I hate it!

Ha!

Growing up all together, it’s super-strange.


Is it weird that people treat you differently as you’re getting older? Like you’re kind of losing that identity of the “young” photographer?

I mean I was looking forward to that in a way, because to me, it was never about being young to me, it was about the work that I made, so it was actually annoying, at times.

Yeah.

But I realize that it’s just a cool headline, so I rolled with it, I was like, “yeah sure, whatever you want, in a couple years this will be over, anyhow!”

Haha! Does being around people your own age again change your work in any way?

Hmm. I don’t really think so. I feel like I may just be more relaxed, like there’s more context to who I am when I’m around people my age casually, if that makes sense. I don’t know, it feels like it might be healthier to compare myself with people my own age, and surround myself with people my own age. Working all the time and being around forty year-olds and fifty year-olds, everyone takes themselves so seriously. It’s cool when people can just let loose. I mean, that’s my biggest issue, that I’m so high strung, I’m constantly under tension and I need to work and I need to do stuff…it always feels like there’s this electricity running through me and so when I sit still I feel very lazy, and sometimes it’s just nice to chat with other people who are super-young and have no clue where they’re going and it’s like, I feel at home.

Why do you feel you’re so high strung?

Do you remember the first series I did for you? With all the tar? I made it because I realized how much other people’s view of me has shaped me as a person, and how much racism, in particular, has shaped me. I almost felt like I had to prove my worth, and I don’t know, being so high strung, because I’m kind of an overachiever, if I care, and sometimes I always care, so yeah. There’s so much to do.


Where did you grow up again? Was it in Brussels?

No, I was in Brussels for three years and before that in Luxembourg.

What was it like being mixed in those cities?

There were a couple people from the Ivory Coast, so there were a handful of black people around, and my father is Nigerian, he has his community, but in general it’s super-white, super-small,  it’s very close-minded in a way, people try to be polite, but underneath the surface there’s always something lurking, I’ve had a lot of super-unfortunate run ins.

You can feel it.

Yeah, it felt very oppressive,  and there were other people around so it’s not like I grew up out in the country. I was here for the last nine months in Vienna, and it’s so white, you look around and there’s no one who looks like you.

When I was in Brussels for three years, which is very mixed and there are so many people of different cultures: black people, Arabs, you don’t really stand out anymore, and I kind of forgot what that felt like, and then I came back to Austria and I was like, “whoa, okay, everyone’s looking, what do I do, hide.”

Was that the only time you’d kind of played with those issues in photography? Or do you feel like that’s been something you’ve been working through continually?

Mmm, I would say it’s continually, but that series, that was my breakthrough moment in puberty where I had to realize, okay, “I’ve had to deal with a lot of shit that I shouldn’t have had to deal with,” and I just realized, “okay that messed me up in some ways,” it’s like when I got conscious.

And it’s very strange because, for example, I couldn’t talk with my sister about racism at all, she would block me, it’s been like a year or so, year and a half, where she’s slowly realized, actually, people do treat her differently than they treat her friends, her white friends.

That might just be a step in the teenage years of a person who’s perceived as black, where you have to deal with that. I had a lot of encounters with racist dudes when I was younger, I experienced a bit of prejudice, but I’ve never dealt with it, I was suppressing stuff…and that’s weird, when you’re in puberty you’re a mess, and you kind of have to grow, take a step back and deal with issues that don’t necessarily have anything to do with who you are.

Right.

But just the way people around you treat you and how you have to deal with that, so I think I was very angry for a while, and have to figure out how to live with that, because it’s not going to go away.

Are you still working through it with your photography?

I feel like I had my moment, I came to a time when I moved to Brussels where I was all of a sudden surrounded by more black people, and I think I came to realize I need to make work about people who look like me and who I can really see myself in.

And that’s been a shift. I had been doing just self-portraits, but now I want to really focus on people of color and people who I don’t feel haven’t been explored enough. I don’t want to say my work is reactionary or anything like that, I don’t want to be like, “oh no the media don’t picture black people enough so I gotta do it,” but I haven’t seen them enough. There are a lot of areas that I want to keep exploring, it’s like a dry field and I’m like, “hmm, I need the rain, for people of color!” I need to satisfy that somehow.


Yeah. What have you got coming up?

I started this series of self-portraits that hopefully I’m going to wrap soon. Also a group show just opened in Italy, in Milan, I think this week, I just went to check out. And towards the end of the year I have a couple of bigger series that I haven’t completely locked every aspect of yet, but it’s more collaborative in a way, I think.

So on the one hand I’m working just self-portraits, still trying to construct a series, which is counterintuitive to me, but I’m getting into it now, after years. And apart from that, just more collaborations, more series, too, and apart from that, ever since I started studying philosophy, I’ve also started writing and making scripts and pitching stuff, so hopefully some more film, too, soon.

What’s influencing you right now?

Since I toured with them, I barely listen to anything other than Little Dragon! So I’m working my way through their discography. And I’m still kind of trying to figure out what directors I really love, and what other people are doing cool stuff, so I’m watching a lot of films.

I’m kind of focused on ethics right now, and it’s super-interesting, because there are a lot of questions that have been floating around in my mind, and then you realize that people have been discussing this stuff for hundreds of years, I’ve got a lot to catching up to do.

Do you think that act of discovery is one of the driving forces of your work and life? Discovering who you are, you know, what you feel, what these feelings mean?

Yeah, I think so. But at the same time, I always feel like I know who I am, and it’s always felt that way, I never really felt lost per se, but it might be a lot more of working things out, getting them outside of me and polishing them and realizing that what is going on is alright and who I am is alright, and that there are beautiful aspects to who I am, and that there are tragic aspects to who I am, and that there are ugly aspects, and just getting all that out and kind of validating it. It’s more about validation than just discovery.

Recognizing something in yourself and saying that’s okay.

Yeah. I feel like that is like a chunk of it. Realizing that you can make something beautiful.

That you have value?

Yeah, I think that’s it.


And then the last question would be, which do you prefer: the process of making photos or the result?

Hmm. I think it’s got to be the process. Every single time I go out and shoot pictures, even if I end up hating the pictures, which ends up being like four out of five times, I always feel very cleansed, and it’s very satisfying. I feel like that electricity buzzing, it keeps for a while. Even if I don’t finish the images up, if I delete them right away, I feel like I did something, so it’s probably the process.

It feels like those things almost run side by side, that you’re making work as validation, so once you make the work, you feel the validation occurs, and you’re settled for a while.

Yeah, it’s just that. But it’s really cool to have the finished work, you can print it, you can frame it, you can touch it, it’s right there, and things have been set in stone, so to speak. I mean most of my work, they’re like my children, but at the same time, I don’t care, they can go out and live their lives! Sometimes they don’t really feel like they belong to me anyway, once they’re out there, it’s more like they belong to other people.

I was sitting on quite a bit of work for a while that I also do need to share, and sharing is a pretty important part of the whole process, which is very strange because I used to always say I did it for myself, and I also really think that I need to do it for myself in the first place for it to be honest and valuable. But without ever having anything to share, there’s an aspect that’s missing, somehow.

What is it about sharing that’s so important?

It might actually just be the value, the value thing, because I don’t care about other people when I’m making work! I’m not making the work for anyone else but me, but just knowing that people see me, in a way, or recognize me, or even if it’s just my mom…I might just make a picture and send it to my mom, and so maybe there are times when I speak to people through my images, and you were right.

Do you have a particular image that you sent her that was trying to tell her something?

Yeah, a few weeks ago I made this self portrait where I just laid in this pool of blood…and then I sent her that!


Ha!

It’s not a cry for help, it just feels respectful…when other people are concerned by something, we’re family, we’re tight, we’re a super-close circle, my mom, sister, and I, so sometimes it feels like they shouldn’t see an image of mine at the same time everyone else sees it.

Ahh.

Like hey, this is me, and I’m going to share it with thousands of people, but you get to see it first.

Right, everything’s okay!

Everything’s fine, by the way!  It’s reserved for the images, that’s why I make that stuff.

With sharing…has your relationship to social media changed?

I’m very selective, step one, and I hate sharing anything that’s not up to my standards. Instagram itself consists out of regular images that you share, but also stories are this huge part of it. A) I don’t want to share art that I’m not 100% proud of and B) I don’t, people don’t care about my lunch.

Ha!

I’ve always had a very weird relationship with it because first it brought bliss, then it made me super-anxious, in a way. There were a few years where I was basically just making work and uploading it right away and not reflecting on it, and now, whenever I have something to say, I say it, and I share, I try to share whenever I really feel like it, I try not to stress about it. Just be a bit like Adele, she disappears for three years and then brings out a banger album and she’s just like, hello, she’s back.


Have the friendships you’ve made through Tumblr and Flickr changed as you’ve become more popular?

No, actually that’s the cool thing, because I made a bunch of friends when I was 14, 15…

Going on big Flickr trips…

Yeah exactly, staying in the Alps for a week, stuff like that, as you do. Actually yeah, probably the best friends I’ve made were just like that, and it’s really cool to see each other grow and develop. So many people stop taking pictures, or make pictures but don’t make the jump to being a professional photographer, or I don’t know, working for anyone, so it’s just interesting to see what path people take, and the only thing that I’m super-happy about is occasionally I can…someone wants a job and I can actually help link them up with someone, so that’s really cool to be in that position and be able to link people up, like a matchmaker high.

Yeah, always great to help friends out! And I think that does it, I think we got it.

Super cool!

Thank you so much!