Stay In Between

Leafy Yeh on how photography can be used to understand identity, culture and place 

American Home

Photography has many purposes. For Leafy Yeh, they make use of the camera as a means of exploring their identity. Born in China and currently based in LA, Leafy studied Media at The State University of New York and pursued roles as a designer and freelance photographer while working on their own art practice (not to mention the fact that they’ve recently joined Activision as a game capture artist). At the very beginning, Leafy centred their image-making on the more conceptual. Further down the line, however, and as they started to “grow”, Leafy began to steer more towards documentary, transfixed by its ability to “slow down and observe life more closely”. 

Applying this to practice, Leafy’s ongoing series Stay In Between encompasses their ethos as a photographer – and ultimately the reasons why they take pictures. It’s a long-term project that explores their traditional Chinese and Chinese American identity, having spent a decade in the US and constantly feeling adrift between these two cultures. Toeing the line between familiarity and disconnect, Leafy responds to feelings of unsettlement by taking pictures, using their lens to produce almost surrealist photography that channels their interests in heritage, place and the environment. Below, I chat to the photographer to find out more about the series. 

Chinese Takeout

What inspired you to start working on this project, what stories are you hoping to share?

This project comes from my experience as an immigrant. I live and work in the United States but China will always be my home. When I first came to America for college, I allowed myself to be very westernised so I could blend in. I started to loose a big part of myself and this has brought me a lot of pain. As I grow, I am embracing a unique space – where I am in between traditional Chinese culture and Chinese-American culture. My photos reflect the complexity of this journey through abstract forms in natural and urban settings. 

Having not been back to China for three years due to Covid-19, I’ve spent a lot of time at San Gabriel Valley and Chinatown to feel the familiarity again. Documenting these places evokes a lot of memories of my childhood, from ordinary objects to the architecture and language; they are reminiscent of China in the 80s. Based on my memories, I photograph this liminal space to imply concepts of continuity, isolation, transition and the overlapping of two cultures. This project is a way for me to navigate through them in search of a reconciliation of my inner juxtaposition: a home and a trip into normality. 


Can you share a few key moments from the series and explain their significance?

My favourite combinations are the bright red tree in the forest and the centre planter inside an office building in Chinatown, occupied by Chinese businesses. They’re the opposite of each other. One is so alive and outside, while one is trying to breath through the open air from inside. I love the connection and contrast between the two. 

Another two photos I really like are the long exposure of an airplane flying through electrical lines and the fan on fire. They share a sense of surreal-ness in reality. I photographed the fan when it was just lit so the original form is still showing. As the fan is burning away, the fire is opening up a gap. It’s reminiscent of the light beam slicing through the electrical lines and the sky over time. Both of the photos have a feeling of division – the power to break through space. 

Fan on Fire

How important is the environment and sustainability to your practice, is it something that you consider while making imagery? 

I try to keep a minimal impact on the environment when I am going into the nature. If I create something, I make sure it’s not harmful and very easy to remove. As I photograph more landscapes, the smaller I feel and the clearer I see the space inside. Environment and sustainability are more metaphorical elements in my practice – about finding balance in internal and external worlds. 

I think a good balance is finding a flow that overlaps the two worlds; I keep these themes in mind when I work on projects. But this could be a roadblock if I am overthinking. For a while, I didn’t know how to move forward, and I learned to let go and photograph with instinct. The action of photographing brings me inspiration later on when I see the connection to other photos in the series. I think if you are overthinking about the meanings, the photos lack flow. Overtime, as I go deeper into the project, some meanings change or I encounter other perspectives to talk about it differently. This is what I am still learning from this project. 

Cultural Publicity

What message do you hope to evoke from the work?

Most of my projects focus on looking inwards and finding a sense of home from within. The narrative of this project is a process of accepting and finding beauty where I am. I hope this project can speak to others that are like me – feeling in between things. When you can find a place inside, you can reflect that onto the outer world. There will be people telling you that you can only be one thing, but that’s very limiting. I hope you can find that space for you. 

What’s in the pipeline for you?

I am working on a story about a Shanghai hair salon located in a strip mall in San Gabriel. Strip malls are quite unique to American urban planning in my opinion, so it’s interesting to see how the Chinese community adapts the look of the architecture and turn that into a mixed style. I want to use this hair salon as a centre to document the people and surroundings as they look like they are stuck in time from when they immigrated. 

Lunch Break



Water Pond

Nigel Shafran: The Well

In a new book published by Loose Joints, the British photographer turns a critical and humanistic lens onto the fashion industry 

© Nigel Shafran 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

“This isn’t a book of best pictures, it’s more of a tight edit than that. It’s a book about the ideas that always end up somewhere in my work, I guess… Windows, shopping, making decisions and consuming…” So goes the opening phrase of Nigel Shafran’s new book The Well, penned by the British photographer himself. 

Recently published by Loose Joints, Nigel’s latest endeavour is a 376-page critique into the fashion industry. A steer away from the usual glitz and glamour, the pages are filled with impromptu photographs from a plethora of past commissions – the type that avoids studios or the cold poses and laser stares. Instead, his imagery offers up a well-rounded insight into his subjects, who are often caught mid-grin, having fun with their mates or dressed in an astronaut suit. Think lavished granny carrying her shopping trolly, a model trying not to be a model as she goofily places a globe on her head, and a black and white shot of some kids posing in baggy clothes, similar to garms we see on TikTok today.

© Nigel Shafran 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

Nigel’s career started in his younger years, where he’d trudge around his local village taking pictures of all sorts of people and places. His first gig was as a photographer’s assistant in London, before he moved to New York City in 1984 to assist in studios and on the streets, namely for commercial fashion photographers. After being deported in 1986 for working illegally, he returned to London and started photographing for magazines like The Face and i-D, utilising a set of 10 Pola Pan black and white 35mm slides, plus a viewer. “I was such a pain in the arse,” says Nigel in the book, often spending ages finding the right light for people to view his slides. 

With a background predominantly in commercial fashion photography, The Well is a juxtaposing albeit welcomed foray into the more idiosyncratic parts of his image-making – the weird, simple and spontaneous. The title – The Well – refers to publishing jargon meaning the central spread of work of the issue, the place in which photographers and writers alike strive to have their work featured. It’s the creme de la creme of the magazine and usually where the most topical and high quality features can be found. So where does Nigel’s work sit amongst it all? 

“These weren’t usual fashion shoots that are often done in a day. You’d go out, come back to show me a picture, and then go back out to take another one. Then you’d take another two or three, and we’d get rid of the first two, over and over again,” writes Phil in the book, in reference to Lost in Space, published in The Face, Seven Sisters Road (1989).

© Nigel Shafran 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

Nigel’s photography is undeniably anti-fashion, which is interesting coming from a photographer who’s carved a career working predominantly in this corner of the industry. Yet his gentle and humanistic eye is what makes his work so captivating. His subjects pose sometimes humorously in carefully curated garments; they smile, jolt and jive in front of the lens without a care in the world. Let’s not forget the fashions either; the more every-day clothing that you’d see on a passer by during your stroll to the off-license. His work signals much about his subjects’ personality, as it does his own. He’s not pretentious, nor is he one to fit into the norm. He wants you to know this. 

“I grew up around the world of fashion, it’s a bit like family,” says Nigel in reference to Fashion Circus, shot for a Jean Paul Gautier show in Paris, and published in i-D, 1990. “Still I always considered myself an outsider, but I’m probably more of an insider, really.”

The Well by Nigel Shafran is published by Loose Joints.

© Nigel Shafran 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

© Nigel Shafran 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

© Nigel Shafran 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

© Nigel Shafran 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

© Nigel Shafran 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

© Nigel Shafran 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

© Nigel Shafran 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

© Nigel Shafran 2022 courtesy Loose Joints


The Road to Nowhere

Dalia Al-Dujaili on identity, storytelling and the importance of providing a platform for second-generation immigrants

Hark1karan, Zimmers of Southall (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2020-2021)

Identity is complex a complex thing. In The Road to Nowhere, a magazine from Dalia Al-Dujaili, a British-Iraqi editor and journalist, the concept of identity is torn apart, scrumpled and analysed as she addresses her frustration with a lack of accurate representation of second-generation immigrants – where so often are diaspora communities spoken for in the media and therefore turned into a “political issue only”, she says. Where in fact, migration is a vital part of global culture, and The Road To Nowhere – now in its second issue – seeks to highlight this through a celebratory merging of art and writing, told first-hand from “third-culture kids”. She says, “Humans are mosaics of their experiences, their upbringings, the people around them and their personal history. So none of us fit neatly into a box, we’re all so messy and complicated!” Below, Dalia reveals her reasons for making the magazine, what we can expect to find inside the latest issue and her personal thoughts on identity.

Courtesy of Angela Hui

What are your reasons for starting The Road to Nowhere, what provoked it?

Oof, so many reasons… I started it during lockdown of 2020 as a way to pass the time as I was still a uni student then and didn’t have much to do. It was partly a way to raise aid money for the famine in Yemen which remains one of the largest humanitarian crises in history yet receives almost no media coverage. 

However, mostly, I was frustrated at how little agency diaspora communities have over telling their own stories. Representation is few and far between; when we are represented, we are spoken for and don’t get to choose how we’re shown. I was annoyed at how migration was almost always made into a political issue only. Whilst obviously it’s inherently political, it’s so much more than that. Migration creates culture and art, feeds creativity, inspires us, connects communities and reminds us to be human, so I found the constant politicising aspects a bit objectifying, belittling and limiting. 

On the other hand, migration is one of the most important aspects of humankind’s growth and its richness and is the oldest and most natural phenomenon, yet under current policies in the UK and the EU, migration has never been under more scrutiny; immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers are fighting some of the most aggressive and oppressive policies. As children of immigrants, we owe our livelihoods to freedom of movement, so I’m desperate to fight totalitarian control of movement and borders through creativity and joy.

Edmund Arevalo

What can we expect to find inside issue two? How does it compare to the debut edition?

Firstly, it’s so much bigger than the last issue! Almost double the number of pages. And you can expect to find an extremely diverse range of stories; for this issue, we have contributors with backgrounds from Aotearoa, Ghana, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Poland, and many more. The contributors use a range of poetry, fiction, personal essays, photography, illustration, digital art and film, and we have several interviews with trailblazers like Rohan Rakhit and Angela Hui. So I really sought out stories which greatly differed from one another but, at the same, were all connected by the same thread of their very human and sometimes even mundane nature. 

Family meal before service

Can you pick out a couple of favourite stories featured in the magazine and talk me through them? 

Oh my goodness, very difficult to pick out just a couple. But if I have to… Zain’s story is one that I keep returning to. Not only is his personal story absolutely fascinating – the move from Lahore, Pakistan to East London, then Morecambe – but the way he talks about objects, and clothes especially, as archives of our families’ migration is so relatable and poetic. Again, it’s just a deeply human story that almost any diaspora kid can relate to, no matter their background. Also, Zain’s work is just absolutely stunning. 

My interview with Angela Hui is another that I really treasure and feel very honoured to have in the magazine. Angela is about to publish her own book, Growing Up in a Chinese Takeaway, and we discussed her upbringing in rural Wales working for her family’s business. What I love about her story is how deeply Welsh and Chinese she feels. It was fascinating hearing her speak so passionately about Welsh culture and a love of Wales. I think people often forget how we do in fact love the countries we grew up in, as well as loving the cultures our parents imported for us from their homelands; Angela’s story is a reminder that we don’t have to ‘pick a side’.

Natasha Zubar

What does identity mean to you? And how have you represented (or scrutinised) the concept of identity in the magazine?

Identity is both everything and nothing. It’s a made-up concept and whist I deeply resonate with my identity as an Arab Brit, I also try to reject rigid notions of ‘identity’ because they can be so limiting. Many diaspora feel the same way because we fit in “everywhere and nowhere at the same time”, to echo Theo Gould in his TRTN piece, Mixed. I also think some aspects of identity politics can be more harmful and divisive than uniting. Identity to me is just being able to express the different parts of yourself without feeling the need to cater to a certain audience or change yourself to fit into other people’s boxes. Humans are mosaics of their experiences, their upbringings, the people around them and their personal history. So none of us fit neatly into a box, we’re all so messy and complicated! 

I think a good example of this in the magazine is Hark1karan’s Zimmers of Southall series (the cover image). Other than being obviously stunning, this series is so refreshing because it’s almost got nothing to do with Sikh culture – it’s about a community which is devoted to classic BMWs and which happens to be Sikh. The subjects of the images are evidently Sikh because of their clothing and appearance, but the series isn’t making their Sikh identity the sole focus, which just really humanises this community and de-exoticises them. Hark, perhaps unintentionally, re-writes this stereotype of South Asians being associated with Bollywood, curry and turbans, but he also shows how this community haven’t rejected their culture either; they manage to fuse their saris and Bhangra with their love of German Whips. I mean, to me, it’s just quietly genius. 

I hope in this magazine I have shown how identity is both a beautiful thing and ultimately a futile exercise – you will never be able to fully embody one identity and the magazine is part of a mission to learn how to accept this as a beneficial and powerful existence instead of it being simply frustrating. 

Rachna, Mom, 2021

What are the key takeaways, what can the audience learn?

Joy! I just want people to feel joy, and feel more open to listening to stories that challenge their views.

What’s next for you?

We have a couple exciting events lined up this year with the magazine, including a sold out screening of shorts at the Barbican, Finding Home, Forging Identity, and we’ll be selling the magazine at Bow Arts with Baesianz Makers Market. 

Currently, I’m just pushing and promoting issue two as best I can. We already have ideas and collaborators for issue three – I’d like to keep growing our online platform to showcase more audio-visual content, and I’d love to keep collaborating with arts collectives, organisations and institutions on in-person events like workshops, exhibitions and screenings/readings. But to be transparent, we need funding to make the next one even better, and the bigger our audience, the easier it is to convince someone to give us money… And as you know, funding is competitive and extremely difficult to attain. So the work starts now in anticipation for next year. 

The Road to Nowhere can be purchased here.

Jyni and Chuey, by Jai Toor, 2022

Marco Russo

Mirror Mother, Lorena Levi, 2021

Mixed, Theo Gould, 2021

Senja, by Maddie Sellers

Yousef Sabry, for The Road to Nowhere, 2022

Zain Ali, by Nancy Haslam-Chance, courtesy of Zain Ali

Hark1karan, Zimmers of Southall, (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2020-2021)

Hark1karan, Zimmers of Southall, (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2020-2021)

Nearer To Me

Hélène Tchen utilises the power of photography to become “closer” to her identity

Jeanne and Valentine

“I realised that the people I shot had a huge impact on how it would make me feel,” explains Hélène Tchen, a photographer based in Paris. Born and raised in the French capital city to a Colombian mother and American-Chinese father, her identity as a woman of colour, she says, was therefore “quite complicated”. Having lacked in visibility and representation, this is where the arts come into play – a remedial outlet that allows creatives and subjects to form alliances and, in this case, to share personal experiences and perspectives on the world.

First off, Hélène decided to study cinema with the intentions of becoming a director of photography. Experimenting with analogue image-making on the side, a fascination with the medium grew. It wasn’t long until Hélène had taken up the practice professionally and started carving out her own personal projects, portraits and fashion stories – all of which expel a soft and tonal quality that signifies an intimate connection forged between two people. It allows her to address topics of identity and coming of age, protruded through a dynamism and relatability that not all can achieve through the snap of a shutter. It’s unsurprising to hear that she pulls influences from Wong Kar Wai, Leslie Zheng, Petra Collins and Nadine Ijewere, but equally, she’s identified her own language. “Shooting and creating with people that were like me – not having any visibility and presentation and either being a BIPOC or LQBTQIA+ person – is what inspired me and gave me a sense of my own aesthetic and how I wanted it,” she explains. 


One of Hélène’s recent and most prominent projects is entitled Nearer To Me, a series that she launched as a way of becoming closer to her heritage. “I grew up with an ‘identity complex’,” she adds, “where I never felt French, Colombian or Chinese enough as I knew nothing about this culture and don’t speak the language. I looked Chinese most of all. The racism towards Asian minorities impacted me negatively during my young years and this project is a way for me to reappropriate my Chinese identity how I needed to.” She began the work in Toronto as she visited her sister, a place in which has one of the largest settlements of Chinese immigrants. A call out was made via Instagram and through her sister’s friends, in which Hélène would ask if they could make “simple” portraits together. “It was the first time in my life I would walk in the streets and feel at peace.”

Nearer To Me evolved as she travelled back to Paris and began photographing Chinese women – those who are immigrants or are the child of an immigrant. “This was a way for me to be closer to my lost culture and learn more about it by myself.” Even the name, Nearer To Me, evokes a sense of yearning for understanding; to know oneself and be close to one’s roots. And the pictures resemble just that, as they show how a person’s identity isn’t always linear nor seeped in one definition, place or history. “Belonging to the country you were born or your own origins is something very personal that can be made in many ways,” says Hélène.


The photographer has captured many women over time, from the people she’d met online to those she knows more closely. This includes a woman named Christine, based in Toronto, whose portrait depicts her quietly leaning on a balcony, hair as fiery as the sun. Then there’s Xiaoyi, a young Chinese women she’d photographed previously for a fashion series, who later featured again in the project. Her portrait is drenched in a saturated shade of red, perceived in a tonal and cinematic style that’s influenced by the Chinese poem Magnolias Ballad, the same reference that inspired by the Disney film Mulan. She also regularly lenses her twin sister, Laure-Anne, the closest person to her and subject she perceives as being the “most special” throughout. 

“I hope my audience will receive this project with kindness and a different eye on the questions of race and social status in our societies,” shares Hélène. “The most important thing I wanted to convey in this artwork is the importance of identity, that it’s never too late to explore who you are of question yourself. And to not forget to be more kind towards ourselves and other people, nobody has the exact same experience in life and there is nothing we cannot do to grow in a better way.”

All photography courtesy of the artist


Xiaoyi Magnolias Ballad

Laure-Anne in Erquy








Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

The eponymous British photographer’s new book provides a nostalgic snapshot of 90s club culture

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

Conjure up an image of a club goer – the type who sways, dances, gropes, kisses and sleeps without a care in the world – and it will most likely be one of Ewen Spencer’s. Synonymous with exposing the antics of British nightlife, the photographer and filmmaker has carved a reputable name for his work documenting (and revealing) youth, fashion, music and subculture, particularly that which depicts a time when smoking in clubs was allowed and people were a lot less tied to their phones. In fact, phones weren’t really a thing back then. Could anything be more nostalgic?

While studying at Brighton School of Art in the 90s, Ewen began photographing topics in tune with society – snapping people having a 20-minute break at a service station on the M4, for example. This is where his interest in subcultures arose and, having attended Northern Soul all-nighters at the time, he decided to start bringing his camera in tow. It was the perfect subject matter. Then, upon graduating in 1997, Ewen took his imagery to Shoreditch-based Sleazenation magazine and launched his career capturing nightclub moments for the publication. He proceeded to document the UK’s garage and grime scenes and worked with NME, The Face, Dazed, Nike, Apple among others – he also took the inner liner photographs for The Streets’ album Original Pirate Material, and has released a handful of books including Open Mic, UKG, Open Mic Vol.2 and Young Love.

A flourishing career so far, it seems only right for the photographer to look back at his archive. Doing just that in his new publication titled While You Were Sleeping, these very pictures – featuring those previously unseen – are an enjoyable reminder of a bygone era, a time when clubbing and clubbers were oblivious to the photographer’s lens. Will nightlife and club photography ever be the same again? Below, Ewen tells me about these prolific pictures. 

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

What inspired you to start photographing nightlife, and why make this book now?

I began making pictures around youth scenes out of my own interests. I was involved in the northern soul scene and the many off-shoots from that: modern soul, rare groove, house and garage throughout the late 80s and 90s. I just began to apply what I’d been researching and testing out while studying photography in those places that I loved. It blossomed into a visual language that made sense to me and discussed a myriad of social and perhaps political concerns and considerations at a time, when that was still conceivable in a club or around a dance floor.

Who caught your eye back then?

If you have an interest in people I think you probably gravitate towards interesting characters. In the late 90s, I was going into spaces that would hold no more than 200 people in some instances – in a basement in Brixton, let’s say. I’d look for characters interacting together, begin working around them and at times integrate myself with them to the extent where we’d have a drink and become friendly. I might stay with these people for a while and then work around the room; I might stay a couple of hours and shoot 10 rolls of film, and then move onto the next place. Unless it was a bigger club, or somewhere I was particularly interested in hearing a DJ or a particular sound, I’d stay and work all night and maybe know a few people in there. Sonic Mook Experiment was a place where I knew folks who were working in fashion, music and art. I photographed Jerry Dammers, DJ-ing here for Sleazenation in 1998.

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

The photos are an incredible record of the past, where smoking in clubs was legal, people wouldn’t be glued to their phones; everyone seems less aware of themselves. How does it feel looking back on a time like this through your imagery? And has your process changed now that people are more self-conscious?

I think it all depends on where you go. I was at Guttering last weekend in Bermondsey and the folks were really up for the evening, dancing hard, mixing it up with one another. I love to see it; there were some real faces in there. 

I’m always surprised by kids approaching me who know my pictures and are maybe more sussed to the dynamic, and that is in someway making the act of shooting around scenes a little more performative, in that the consent seems quite immediate. I had a few acknowledgments of satisfaction from people I’d photographed and a few kids came up and shared their pictures they’d been working on… Photography is obviously far more accessible and democratic now. However I’m not encouraging people to come and show me your pictures at parties, thanks x

Ewen Spencer’s While You Were Sleeping is published by Damiani at £40

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

Philipp Mueller: 120 bpm

Relive the Swiss techno scene of the 90s in a new book published by Edition Patrick Frey

As the world continues to grapple with the pandemic, more so do we yearn for moments from the past, nightlife being one of them. Here in the UK, we had a blissful and somewhat wary few months reliving the sweaty, body-to-body movements only found in the dark and bassy depths of a club. But the potential for these nights to be put on hold, yet again, still looms. So for now, the easier days of dancing can be experienced in a more 2D (yet still utterly dynamic) form through the pages of Philipp Mueller’s latest book, 120 bpm – a comprehensive documentation of the rise of the Swiss techno scene in the 90s.

Published by Edition Patrick Frey, the Swiss photographer looks at the magnanimous impact that Switzerland’s techno scene has had on clubs, dance music and nightlife over the years. Rebellious and free, we see the dawn of Zürich’s street parades and the synonymous underground raves and parties, housed amongst warehouses or private venues. The flash-lit shots of party-goers are paired with archival clippings from rave magazines and fanzines, giving the book an almost allegorical feel and one that can stand the test of time. The book’s name, too, is given a musical stamp of approval as it denotes the average number of beats per minute on a club track, luring you in to the succinct and heart-racing photo sequences found within. Below, I chat to Philipp to find out more.

What inspired you to start working on a project about the Swiss techno scene?

I wasn’t part of a rave scene to begin with, and it didn’t start as a project. What you can discover in the photographs, which grow through the years, is that I was involved in the nightlife scene in Zürich, and that I got hired by independent magazines to cover parties, fashion shows and of course rave and techno events.

First, I have to tell you that all the material for this book was in my archive for a very long time. I almost forgot about it until I rediscovered it, picture by picture. This means I looked at them as if was seeing them for the first time. 

I pulled a presentation in a PDF together and started to show it to my friends in London, Paris and Zürich. I was testing if those photographs were of any interest for people outside of Switzerland. My friends were surprised of the vibrant scene in Zürich, they thought I took the pictures in London or Paris. They were even more surprised when I told them that the photographs are over 20 years’ old. My agent encouraged my to send it to Editions Patrick Frey, and I was pleased the publisher wanted to work together on this book.

Talk me through your photography featured in the book, what did you seek to include?

My photography always reflects on the zeitgeist of society. Therefore, the book shows my perspective of the 90s; it was a free time where everyone could express themselves. It includes photographs of my friends, models, drag queens, musicians, rave kids and other creatures of the night. 

You’ve also incorporated a mix of clippings from magazines and fanzines, what does this add to the narrative and structure of the work?

Those magazines were my first clients. They didn’t pay me, but the freedom in creativity was priceless. They are like a time capsule, representing what was going on in society and culture at this time. They formed the very foundation of my work until today.

Can you pick out a couple of favourite images and talk me through them?

The cover with the girl sticking her tongue out is my first choice. It has an iconic and rebellious touch. Then, a little further back in the book, there’s the gay couple shot (the guy with short hair and the guy/drag queen with long black hair). Love is love – that is it what it means. And there are so many more.

Any particular message you’re trying to convey in the work?

It was never meant to be a memory lane book. I hope I will inspire people to live free, be creative and tolerant.

What’s next for you?

I have 30 years’ worth of photography work from new wave and punk, shot in Paris and London, as well as parties, fashion and celebrities. Some stuff has never seen the light of day, such as Hugh Hefner’s birthday party in Paris and John Galliano’s legendary cardboard fashion for Dior, shot backstage to be precise. Maybe there will be another book….

All photography courtesy of the photographer

120 bpm is published by Edition Patrick Frey and available here

Town of C

In the rural lands of the Rocky Mountains, Richard Rothman exposes the unsettling truth of American culture and its reliance on the environment

On the introductory page of Richard Rothman’s Town of C, a book published by Stanley/Barker, a naked couple pose starkly in front of the camera. The image, shot in a tonal shade of monochrome, depicts the pair in an embrace, standing amongst a prison cemetery located in the rural lands of Colorado – the part that’s allocated to the state penitentiary for inmate burials. This is unusual for a prison to be located in the middle of a town, but this one in particular was first a territorial prison (meaning medium security) that housed 25 prisoners, which was then formed into its own prison around 1874. The couple, more so on the woman’s side, instigated the idea to pose nude upon meeting with Richard, and this inadvertently set up what the photographer now goes on to describe as a metaphor “tied up with a bow” – that which hints to the biblical, spiritual and the natural.

“I met the woman in this photograph when she was a child,” says Richard, stating how the couple now live particularly close to the cemetery. “The man in the picture is the father of three of her five children, two of whom feature in another picture, in the doorway of a rehab house. He had a long association with LA gangs before moving out to Colorado. Anyway, she persuaded her partner to pose nude with her for me. As soon as I set up for this picture it began to rain, so I was in a hurry and it hadn’t occurred to me that this was going to be an Adam and Eve picture. Months later, on a visit to the Morgan Library, I came upon a postcard of the Dürer etching depicting The Fall of Man, and the expulsion from the garden. It had been an unconscious connection, because I grew up with that story and that particular image, which I was fascinated by, and I realised, much later, that it was a fitting opening to the narrative of the book that unfolds, that it spoke to the current environmental situation, and that it is an enduring, eloquent myth about the universal experience of loss of innocence.”

In this part of the world, more specifically the Front Range of the Southern Rocky Mountains, the landscape reigns supreme. The summits tower over the valleys, stretching around 300 miles from Colorado to southern Wyoming. Hikers and mountaineers are drawn to its vast populous of treks, climbs and views, where peaks exceed 4,000 metres and wrap around a variety of rivers. In contrast with this almost inimitable backdrop, there are also vast cities and towns resting on the banks and outer edges of the ranges. This includes the small rural town that Richard photographically paints through the pages of Town of C, one that remains unnamed. “I wanted to tell the biggest story I could, starting with a portrait of a small town, reflecting on the national culture at large and moving out to the mystery – the world beyond our planet – that we’ve all come from,” he adds. And it’s through the very town, its people, its architecture, roads and undeveloped lands, that Richard aims to shed light on the relationship between these two beings: the human and the environment.

A shy away from the typical American road trip conceived through the work of photography greats like Robert Frank and Walker Evans, Town of C does things a little differently. Instead, Richard looks at the archetypal town and, more specifically, a settlement that he’s visited regularly over the years, revealing the societal and economic complexities of the place through considered compositions and adequate time spent in each location. “Almost everything about the way we live in America, and so much of the world now, is obviously unsustainable and drastically out of tune with the environment we inherited,” he explains. 

“When I began work on the project, climate change wasn’t as widely understood. Today, you have to be wilfully ignorant not to be aware of it. I think there are people who are there because they appreciate its beauty, and I think there are many more for whom life is so challenging they don’t have the luxury to enjoy the beauty around them. So many of us are forced to look down at our shoes and live month-to-month, just taking one step at a time to survive. Americans in general aren’t encouraged to appreciate beautiful land. We don’t teach aesthetics to children in most schools, and it gets in the way of businesses that want to exploit natural resources for profit. Our relationship to nature is deeply troubled and ill considered.”

There are multiple layers hidden throughout Town of C, the most notable being the portrayal of nature’s fragility. Humankind’s reliance on the environment is massive, and in this book, we see this brought to the fore through the energy of the river that runs through Colorado and the Rocky Mountains – the lifeline to all that settle upon the water’s edge. Then, as we meander through the remaining parts of the book, this consuming visual narrative expels themes of the American dream and how, especially in the American small town, these ideologies and dreams of endless natural resources are dwindling. What does the future hold for these lands?

As the book comes to a close, I’m reminded again of the first image of the naked couple and its explicit synergy between place and person. For Richard, this single picture resonates with him for its rich symbolism, as well as its relationship to the Grant Wood painting called American Gothic – “of the stone-faced man and his ill-at-ease-partner, pitchfork in hand, all business and no joy,” he says. “I felt the graveyard picture had a potential iconic quality. The myths of American small town steely resilience and self-sufficiency have collided here with the relentless forces of contemporary socio-economics, and the finite nature of land and resources. The little metal places in the picture serve as gravestones, all of them identified with the initials CSP, which stands for Colorado State Penitentiary. The prison used to make the license plates for Colorado vehicles. The grave markers were made in the same workshop by prisoners for their fellow inmates. They represent people whose families couldn’t afford, or didn’t care enough, to place actual stones on their burial plots, and I couldn’t help but think that said something revealing about their lives, and perhaps why they ended up there in the first place.”

All photography courtesy of Richard Rothman

Town of C is published by Stanley/Barker

E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition

What role does fashion play in society? A new exhibition at Antwerp’s ModeMuseum explores

Cover image by David Sims, The Face, January 1998, © David Sims / Art Partner, model: Bridget Hall, makeup: Linda Cantello

Fashion is a mirror of society, often reflecting the shifts in attitudes, ideas, tastes and preferences that evolve throughout the years; it’s a Zeitgeist. An early example harks back to the hemline, with skirt lengths shortening along with the fight for women’s rights and equality. While in more recent times, the influx of globalisation and the internet – and thus the immediacy of information and access to goods – has also altered our perceptions and ideals of identity, meaning that, on the one hand, fashion choices have become more liberal, conscious and sustainable, while the other is quite the opposite (taking fast fashion into account). Then there’s health crises, a pandemic, economic inequality and social movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo signalling to a change in a global society. But what is fashion’s role amongst it all, and where does it sit in the recent world?

Posing this very question is a new exhibition titled E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition. Presented as part of the reopening of ModeMuseum (MoMu) in Antwerp – which opened its doors on 4 September – the exhibition is curated by Elisa De Wyngaert and features works from Helmut Lang, Walter Van Bierendonck, Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela, Hussein Chalayan, John Galliano, Raf Simons, Versace and more. A time capsule of sorts, E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition, looks at how fashion has “served as a visual signifier of contemporary instabilities, concerns and emotions since the 1990s,” explains Kaat Debo, MoMu’s director and chief curator. Below, I chat to Kaat about the role of fashion and how it can evoke real change.

‘Boxing Gisele’ editorial, Big Magazine, 1999, © Photo: Vincent Peters

What does emotion mean in the context of this exhibition and in the wider sense of fashion?

The choice for the title E/MOTION was motivated by a need for genuine emotion. Over the past 18 months, we’ve all had to work, live and create from home and a large part of our lives took place online. Also, designers have been forced to work digitally because of the pandemic. We wanted to research whether there’s place for genuine emotion in a digital world. We felt the need for real human interaction and the wish to integrate a live aspect in the exhibition, which is difficult within the static context of a (fashion) exhibition. We invited director, performer and countertenor Benjamin Abel Meirhaeghe, in collaboration with the opera house in Antwerp (Opera/Ballet Vlaanderen) and the exhibition designers (Jan Versweyveld & HuismanVanmerode) to create a live performance for the exhibition. A challenging but also very exciting experiment. 

In order to reflect on the future of fashion, as well as on the recent past, we conducted numerous interviews with fashion students and established designers during the pandemic. The designers gave their personal views on a wide range of subjects: what impact does the digital (r)evolution have on their creativity? Are fashion shows important? Can fashion evoke genuine emotions? What is the importance of craftsmanship, local production and sustainability? And what do you hope for the future? Fragments of these interviews formed the basis for this performance, that will be the closing installation in the exhibition. The performance will be brought 20 times during the entire exhibition period (September – January).

Untitled # 359, 2000. © Photo: Cindy Sherman Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Fashion has long mirrored certain shifts in society. Can you tell me a bit more about this, and how fashion responds to particular events?

Over the last three decades, we have borne witness to unprecedented globalisation, which has had its impact on the creation, production, dissemination, communication and consumption of fashion. More than ever before, it has pushed fashion into the barriers of its own complex system and made it a stage for international political crises, from the Gulf War in the 1990s to terrorist attacks at the start of the new millennium, as well as for financial crises and recessions, the ecological crisis, and such health crises as the AIDS or the current Covid-19 pandemic. Fashion always reflects the prevailing zeitgeist, from social and economic inequality to global social movements, including Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. How have these evolutions impacted the way we see and perceive emotion, success, beauty, creativity, authorship and collaboration? And how has the role of the fashion designer changed in all this upheaval? Some examples…

Kristen Owen, Helmut Lang backstage series, Spring Summer 1994, Paris, 1993, © Photo: Juergen Teller, All rights reserved

90s recession: Against a backdrop of recession, a deflated job market and pessimism about the future among the younger generation in the 1990s, the Heroin Chic look became popular in fashion imagery. Fragile-looking models with messy make-up and drugged expressions appeared not only in photography, but also in fashion shows. The emergence of the look was linked to the Junk Culture of contemporary movies about addiction, such as Trainspotting (1996). The embrace of heroin and unhealthy body images in fashion drew vitriol. After the turn of the millennium, the Heroin Chic look was replaced by a tanned, toned and – in contrast to its predecessor – ‘healthy’ looking body.

Health crises: Our fear of death and disease during the past three decades has been further fuelled by various epidemics and pandemics, including HIV, swine flu and Covid-19. These health crises also affected the fashion industry. In the early 1990s, Benetton, the Italian fashion brand, ran controversial advertising campaigns referring to the AIDS crisis; while Martin Margiela created t-shirts for charity to encourage open conversations about AIDS; and Walter Van Beirendonck included rubber pieces as protective shields and printed messages about safe sex in his activist collections. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the face mask has emerged as a symbol of the crisis.

Joan Didion, Celine Campaign, Spring-Summer 2015, New York 2014, © Photo: Juergen Teller, All rights reserved

Terrorist attacks: The euphoria of entering the new millennium ended abruptly in September 2001. The repercussions of the terrorist attacks in the USA were complex, violent and disruptive, changing the course of world politics. The attacks occurred on the fourth day of New York Fashion Week, making fashion journalists the first to report them. Though incomparable to the tragic loss of life, the financial impact of 9/11 forced many independent designers to file for bankruptcy or to look for outside investment. Another challenge occurred when, against the sudden trauma of 9/11, some of the Spring-Summer 2002 collections were reinterpreted by the press and buyers as inappropriate and insensitive. Some fashion photographers faced the same issues when a few editorials had to be cut at the last minute. In these, models were depicted falling from buildings or looked like survivors covered in dirt; they suddenly seemed too close to reality.

Military references in fashion were often in direct response to pervasive images in the news about war and terror. In the last two decades, a series of terrorist attacks in European cities led to increased military presence. The surreal experience of encountering soldiers in camouflage uniforms – previously out of context in cities – heightened a sense of unease and fear. Directly or indirectly, these ongoing emotions of anxiety and terror prompted fashion designers to investigate the dichotomies between feeling protected and feeling threatened, between soldiers and female warriors.

Vivienne Westwood campaign image, Spring-Summer 1999, © Photo: Gian Paolo Barbieri

Can you give an example of what’s involved in the exhibition and how this relates to the theme?

One of the exhibition themes is dedicated to the digital evolution and the internet. In this theme, we present a chiffon Versace dress, that was worn by Jennifer Lopez in 2000 during the Grammy Awards. People all around the world Googled her photo. This sudden peak in the search for a specific image was the reason Google Images was invented. The look became a metaphor of the ever more powerful symbiosis between fashion and celebrity culture. Twenty years later, Jennifer Lopez appeared on the Versace runway in this very dress.

What can the audience learn from this exhibition? 

I hope the exhibition will inspire and move our visitors, as well as provoke conversation about fashion culture and its impact on society.

E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition is on show at MoMu from 4 September 2021 – 23 January 2022

Delphine Desane, cover image for Vogue Italia, January 2020, Model: Assa Baradji, © Photo: Laurence Prat. Condé Nast Italia
Exactitudes, 104 Commandos, Rotterdam/Paris, 2008, © Photo: Ellie Uyttenbroek
Y/Project by Glenn Martens, Autumn-Winter 2019-20, Model: Leopold van der Noot d’Aasche, (c) Photo: Noel Quintela
Walter Van Beirendonck, æstheticterrorists® collection, Spring-Summer 2002, © Photo: Ronald Stoops
Untitled # 588, 2016/2018. © Photo: Cindy Sherman Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Copyright: MoMu Antwerp, Photo by Stany Dederen
Copyright: MoMu Antwerp, Photo by Stany Dederen
Copyright: MoMu Antwerp, Photo by Matthias De Boeck

Finding Common Ground

Kemka Ajoku’s new series captures migration and settlement of Black people in the UK after the Windrush era

The After Party

A photographer of fashion and portraiture, Kemka Ajoku – who’s born and raised in London – strives to rewrite the stories of Black British culture. Done so through a mix of personal projects and commissions, Kemka has documented all sorts of meaningful tales from the locals of Lagos, busy in the tasks of their everyday jobs, and the beauty of brotherhood in the post-adolescent stage of life. Each picture he takes reverberates with purpose and passion; he’s a storyteller of truth, and someone who employs visual art as a tool for spreading his messages.

Over the last year, which has been a difficult one for many, if not all, Kemka has managed to find a sense of fulfilment. Not only did he graduate at the end of 2020 form a degree in Mechanical Engineering, he also arrived back home and broke away from the educational system for the first time in his life. “I felt free to creatively understand more about who I am,” he tells me, “looking back at my lineage as a guide to learning more about myself, having never given myself the space or time to truly be introspective.”

Gestural Greetings

A period of self-awareness and contemplation, Kemka’s ventures out into the ‘real world’ arose alongside the arrival of the pandemic. Coupled with the increase in racist hate crimes and injustice the globe, he began to question his role as a photographer, “a Black British photographer for that matter.” A sense of responsibility emerged: “a need to document the life of my people both in Nigeria and the diaspora,” he says. “To me, this was more important than taking a pretty photo. And so, a paradigm shift took place within me, a shift which led to me working with more intentionality, giving more meaning to the work with the hopes of lasting the test of time.”

This matured sensibility has manifested into his latest photo series, titled Finding Common Ground. Months in the making, the body of work is currently exhibiting at Wrest Park as part of the England’s New Lenses project with Photoworks, in partnership with English Heritage’s Shout Out Loud programme. In comparison to his previous series – although motivated in their own right – Kemka has never worked with such drive and ethos. “I sat down and really articulated what I wanted to achieve before picking up my camera.” A lengthy bout of research and exploration later, he came to learn more about the migration and settlement of Black people in the UK after the Windrush era, “a story that me, my parents, and their parents are part of.”

Tami’s Portrait

The photos involved are therefore contemplative, powerful and historical. Shot in Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, the location protrudes with British heritage as it’s built atop the style of an 18th Century French Chateau. He cast a selection of his friends to sit for him, each representing a specific demographic within the Black British community. Referred to as “characters”, Kemka explains how each of his models’ personas have been developed from “watching British Blaxploitation films from the 70s and 80s; films such as Black Joy, Babylon Burning an Illusion and Pressure to name a few.” To accentuate this, Kemka worked with stylists Daniel Obaweya, Charles Ndoimu and Lingani Noah who assisted with adorning the models in Black British clothing lines from both young and more established labels. 

Western Union

“The styling for this project was broken into two parts, highlighting two generations of Black British citizens,” adds Kemka, “from the tailored style of the late 40s and early 50s, to the more relaxed and youthful looks of the 70s and 80s. Fashion is an important part of British culture, used in a way to express identity with the community one associates themselves with. Many fashion nuances migrated from foreign land have interwoven with British styling over recent years, and this integration of style was a focal point in styling the models.”

Observing the completed works and you’ll notice how the poses or gestures appear to have been caught in a freeze frame – recording not only that moment in time, but also an experience and learning exuded from the photographer who’s captured them. “The intention with this work is to artistically depict an important era in Black British history (not in a common documentary photography fashion) that will have longevity long after I’m around,” he concludes. “Thinking back to my intentions as a photographer, one thing I revert to is the legacy my work will have for other Black British creatives, looking for a reference upon which to build their creative career upon.”

One View of the Temple
Kozy’s Portrait
Couple in Wrest garden
The Consultation
Wrest River
The Essence of Chi
Lover’s Rock


Photographer: Kemka Ajoku

Assistant Photographer: Anu Akande

Talent: Kozy, Ore Ajala, Amidu Kebbie, Chieloka Uzokwe, Tami Bolu, Feranmi Eso

Hair: Shamara Roper

Styling Team: Daniel Obaweya, Charles Ndiomu, Lingani Noah

Special Thanks: Mahtab Hussain, Ingrid Pollard

And special thanks to Photoworks and English Heritage for giving me the opportunity to create this body of work through their ‘England’s New Lenses’ project

Bad Form: Caribbean Literature

In an excerpt from the literary magazine’s seventh issue, guest editor Mireille Cassandra Harper celebrates the Caribbean through stories, essays, reviews and poetry

Illustration by Tomekah George

I am a second-generation Jamaican. Despite my grandmother moving here in the 1960s, my mother remained in Jamaica, a ‘barrel child’ and spent her childhood in the parishes of Clarendon and St. Catherine, raised by her grandparents and later her aunt. She has often entertained me with stories of her childhood, visiting then-untouched beaches, fond memories of picking fresh mangoes, oranges and cashew fruit (often surreptitiously), the goats, chickens and other animals that her grandparents reared on their farm, and the joys of a rural and idyllic childhood. 

I grew up with an intense love and appreciation of my Jamaican heritage, that was always supported and nourished. Our home was filled with the sounds of Morgan Heritage, Richie Spice, Tarrus Riley and other music icons. From Lover’s Rock Sunday sessions and Vibes FM car journeys (those who are familiar will recall the hilarity of the incessant interruptions declaring that the station was ‘the wickedest in the whole world’) to late nights on holiday in southern Italy, where my parents would drive out to arid, empty locations in the middle of nowhere so we could enjoy open-air reggae concerts with the likes of Jah Mason, my mother and I belting out “My Princess Gone” without a care in the world. Storytelling and literature played a big part too. I was regaled by tales of Jamaican folklore, my favourite being the story of River Mumma, a mythical sea siren. A literary lover from a young age, my mother sought out books that put Caribbean literature front and centre. She travelled far and wide to buy me countless titles about the Caribbean, many of which I still own. My personal favourites, Kwame and Netta’s Story, came from Black River Books, an independent publisher that sought to revive the fullness of Caribbean heritage by telling beautiful stories of the lives of Caribbean children, putting them front and centre of stories, rather than on the sidelines. I was taken to meet my heroes, John Agard and Grace Nichols, and cherish the beloved signed copies I went away with to this day.

As I’ve grown older, more complexities around my heritage have come to light. In recent years, I have grappled with difficult conversations with my grandma – if you have ever tried to persuade your grandma, especially a 92-year-old Jamaican grandma, to consider a different way of thinking, you’ll know how challenging that can be. I’ve also attempted to reckon with the fact that my family is split across towns, states and countries – disjointed in more ways than one, and tried to reckon with intricate and at times, painful family histories and hidden secrets that inevitably have come to light as I grow older. At the same time, I have built deeper connections with family members, expanded my knowledge on my family history and heritage, and both listened and taken in the wisdom of my elders. Outside of my familial relationships, I am seeing what it means to be of the Caribbean diaspora, redefined through music, art and of course, literature.

When I came across Bad Form last year, I felt like I had finally found a literary space that encompassed the richness, vibrancy and sheer brilliance of Black, Asian and marginalised writers. Headed up by the phenomenal Amy Baxter (who will likely own her own publishing house one day, mark my words!) and the stellar team – Morgan, Sophie and Emma who are all immensely impressive in their own right – I found Bad Form’s active and dynamic approach to platforming Black, Asian and marginalised writers a breath of fresh air in what can often be a stagnant, elitist and if I am to speak frankly, institutionally racist industry. I knew instantly that I would love nothing more than to work on an issue celebrating Caribbean writers and so the idea for Issue 7 (my lucky number, what are the chances?) was born.

We picked June by chance, but writing now, this publication marks an important time for the Caribbean diaspora. As this issue lands in your hands, Caribbean American citizens are honouring their heritage during Caribbean American Heritage Month and the UK celebrates the 73rd anniversary of the Windrush generation coming to Britain. This feels, in this moment, like a literary ode to what is a month of both remembrance and celebration. A celebration of the Caribbean and all its greatness, this issue boasts 17 stellar writers who each share their stories, essays, reviews and poetry for your literary pleasure. From opinion pieces on Jamaican patois and revelations on queer and non-binary defiance in contemporary Caribbean poetry to literary essays on West Indian revolutionaries and narrative poetry that bring folktales and legends to life, each piece is a gem in its own right.

Like Amy, I’m not one for favourites – each of these contributions is equally brilliant – but some left me reeling after reading. Ashley Roach McFarlane’s spectacular piece on the historical development and exportation of homophobia to Jamaica and Desta Haile’s breathtaking poem, Blue Blood – an ode to her late sister and her childhood years spent in Barbados are two I would recommend you devour instantly.

This issue’s mesmerising cover comes from illustrator, Tomekah George, who creates colourful artworks which sit between collages and paintings. Her abstract design pays homage to the diversity of the Caribbean – across its peoples, cultures and landscapes – coupled with the connectedness of its persons. A huge thanks goes to Tomekah, who approached this with such care and love. 

Thanks also to Duppy Share who have kindly partially sponsored this issue. Many brands co-opt Caribbean culture without consideration for its people. It has been a pleasure to work with an organisation that appreciates the labour, effort and time that the team at Bad Form undertakes for each issue, respects how we choose to present our respective cultures and heritages and recognises the value in this work.

And, of course, thank you, Bad Form readers. Without your support, this issue wouldn’t exist. I hope reading this nourishes your spirit. It has been an honour to work on this, to encounter incredible writers, poets and essayists, and to work with such a brilliant team of brilliant women. May you cherish it as much as I have.

Mireille x

Bad Form is available to purchase here