The Sufi Architect

Suleika Mueller on photographing Nevine Nasser, the beauty of Sufi practices, plus the power of art and architecture

When photographer Suleika Mueller met London-based architect and practicing Sufi Muslim Nevine Nasser for the first time, she was utterly inspired by her work. Born and raised a Sufi Muslim herself, Suleika had often struggled to connect her medium with her spiritual practices. Nevine defies the stereotypes of Muslim Women and integrates her spirituality with creativity, most notably in the form of portraits offering a different perspective of Islam to what’s portrayed in Western media.  Suleika looks up to Nevine entirely, so much so that her work has inspired her “most personal” project yet, The Sufi Architect. Below, I talk to Suleika to understand more about the motives behind the series, the beauty of Sufi practices and the power of creativity. 

What excites you about the medium?

My work is extremely intimate and personal, I use photography to explore

subjects linked to my upbringing, identity, emotions and experiences. It’s a great tool to understand myself, the world and the people around me a little bit better and delve into subjects that I’m curious about. I think my spiritual, cross-cultural upbringing has shaped my artistic vision into a unique blend of Eastern and Western cultural values, traditions and references. My hybrid identity, the feeling of being in the in-between, though isolating as it might feel sometimes, actually has allowed me to understand and empathise with different kinds of people and point of views so I feel quite grateful to have been brought up in such an unusual way. I want to champion people, subjects and communities I truly care about, especially because I never saw any relatable representation of the Muslim community growing up.

What inspired you to start working on this project, why tell this story?

This project is one of the most personal ones to date, just because it is so closely linked to my background and highlights things I deeply care about. Growing up Sufi in the West meant that nobody around me knew anything about my practices and community. My aim has always been to spread more knowledge and highlight the practices, traditions and people I grew up with, challenging Western media’s harmful stereotypes by portraying

the Muslim community in a much more authentic and nuanced way. I was extremely inspired and touched by Nevine’s beautiful work and the space she designed and was even more so struck by how empowered and committed she is as a person. During her doctoral studies, she developed a methodology for designing transformative contemporary sacred spaces through creating the School of Sufi Teaching, a Sufi community centre in Bethnal Green where members of the Naqshbandī-Mujaddidī Sufi order regularly meet to pray, meditate and practice together. Nevine reclaimed the transformative power of sacred geometry, calligraphy, symbolism and understandings of light in the Quran to underpin and inspire the design of the space in order to support practitioners to turn towards the inner self, preparing them for meditation. This series is as much a celebration of Nevine as a person, as it emphasises and explores the beauty and transformative power of sacred Islamic art and architecture as well as Sufi practices and traditions. I believe it is truly important to tell this particular story as it gives insight into a widely unknown aspect of Islam, whilst at the same time exploring one woman’s intimate spiritual practice.

Traditionally, the majority of religious and spiritual figures are male, and architecture is still a very male dominated industry, so I really love how Nevine breaks all those stereotypes, setting an example of an empowered yet religious woman.

What was the creative process like, did you spend much time with Nevine? Where did you shoot etc.?

Nevine and I met at the community centre and she showed me around the space as we got to know each other better. We hadn’t met before so we talked about loads of different things whilst shooting. It turned out that Nevine and I share a lot of common interests and I could’ve stayed there forever just talking about our experiences, aims, practices and inspirations. I felt an instant connection to her because both our creative practices have very similar aims and goals, Nevine explores and pursues those through architecture whilst I use photography as a medium. I had prepared a few shot ideas in advance and Nevine had many ideas of her own so we just experimented and tried out different things throughout the day. A lot of the shots just emerged from her telling me where and how she usually practices within the space. Portraying Nevine’s intimate rituals felt a bit

like coming home, it brought me back in touch with the sacred traditions

of my upbringing. I’ve always wanted to show how meaningful and peaceful Sufi practices are and I guess this project is a first step in that direction. It was probably one of the most wholesome and effortless shoots I’ve done to this date. Everything seemed to just fall into place and the serenity of the space really infused the whole experience with peace and calm.

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

In Islamic culture, sacred geometry is believed to be the bridge to the spiritual realm, the instrument to purify the mind and the soul. Many spiritual and miraculous concepts are represented in the geometrical patterns, oftentimes acting as windows into the infinite, reminding of the greatness of Allah.

Nevine in meditation. Sufi practitioners regularly observe Murāqabah (arabic, translated ”to observe”). Through Murāqabah a person observes their spiritual heart and gains insight into the its relation with its creator, developing a personal relationship with Allah through self-knowledge and inquiry.

Tasbih is a form of Dhikr (arabic, translated “remembrance”) in which specific phrases or prayers are repeatedly chanted in order to remember God. The phrases are repeated 99 times, using the beads of the Subha (Muslim prayer beads) to keep track of counting.

Nevine praying Zuhr, one of the five daily Islamic prayers, facing the Qibla, the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca.

 

How do you hope your audience will respond to this project?

I really hope this project gives insight into a community and practice that is usually quite mystical and secretive. My own Sufi order is a very close-knit community but at the same time, it’s quite isolated. I always thought that it was such a shame to keep the culture, community and practices so hidden from mainstream society. I would really love for the series to open the doors a little bit, allowing a glimpse of the beauty, depth and serenity of Sufi traditions and Islamic art. I also hope Nevine’s sincerity, passion and dedication in creating a space that supports spiritual development comes across in the imagery. She is a truly inspiring and empowered woman who’s story deserves to be told.

What’s next for you?

I feel like this project really opened my eyes and made me realise how passionate I am about the subjects it touches upon. I’ve decided to make this an ongoing personal project of mine, exploring women and non-binary people who use their creative practices as an extension of their spiritual ones. I’ve already shot another series with someone from a completely different background, using a completely different art form to connect to their spirituality and I’m very excited for that one to come out later this year. If anyone reading this is interested in participating I’d love for them to reach out to me!

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. 

Courtyard

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

Overtime

Self-Portrait

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

 

Constructed Landscapes

Dafna Talmor’s spellbinding landscape series encourages a more active way of looking from the viewer

You can immediately tell that this collection of imagery isn’t a literal depiction of a place. But how they’re crafted – so spellbindingly weird and off-kilter – might remain a mystery. These are the works found in Dafna Talmor’s Constructed Landscapes, an ongoing project conceived through a unique process of slicing and splicing. The work is housed over three sub-series and developed over 10 years, the result of which is a collection of remodelled environments shot over various locations in Venezuela, Israel, the US and UK. What’s interesting, though, is its merging familiarity and the unknown; maybe you’ll recognise a tree or lake, before it slowly it morphs into an experimental yet staged recreation.

Dafna is an artist and lecturer based in London whose work spans photography, video, education, fine arts, curation and collaborations. Her works have been exhibited wildly, and her pictures have been included in private collections internationally as well as public, including Deutsche Bank, Hiscox. Through her practice, she tosses all preconceptions of the photographic medium in the fire and asks us all to question the role and methods behind taking and constructing an image. Constructed Landscapes does just that as it features transformed colour negatives, alluding a version of utopia – somewhere far away from a concrete reality. 

In terms of the process, Dafna condenses multiple frames and collages the negatives. It’s a technique that enables her to re-centre the focus point of the photograph, placing more emphasis on the technique of layering and assembling, rather than an obvious subject matter. By doing so, elements from differing frames crossover and interact with one another, causing fragments to collide and, in essence, create a new version of itself. In somewhat of a succinct summary of her alluring methodology, this is how her hypnagogic photographs are formed. 

However, Dafna’s work goes far deeper than the intriguing process. In fact, the series references moments of photography history, such as pictorials processes, modernist experiments and film. Wonderfully allegorical, this opens up a dialogue about the role and study of manipulation, pointing the viewer at the crossroad of the analogue and digital divide. Yet aside from the questions that will arise, the work is simultaneously a beautiful merging of fact and fiction where burnt out hillsides, rusty toned bushes and treetops are combined. It’s a vision; one that transcends the 2D image into site specific vinyl wallpapers, spaces, photograms and publications. Not to mention the numerous exhibitions, including a recently closed show at Tobe Gallery in Budapest, accompanied by a book. 

Speaking of the works involved in this show, Dafna writes in the release: “Site-specific interventions have consisted of several iterations of a flatbed scan of a clear acrylic board – used to cut my negatives and protect my light box since the inception of the project – as source material. Over time, I became interested in the object beyond its practical function and the way in which the residue and traces of the incisions allude to the manual process in an abstract yet indexical way. Like a photographic plate, the embedded marks represent the manual labour and passing of time, acting as a pseudo document that continually evolves with each new incision.”

“Besides a series of spatial interventions, the cutting board has been used to produce several editions of direct colour contact prints to date,” she adds. “Alluding further to its subtle transformative nature, one could say the colour photograms bear a more analogous relationship via the preservation and reproduction of the one-to-one scale of the incisions. When printed, the orange reddish hues are in dialogue with the red flares – consequently transposed and scaled up from the cuts on the negatives – in the main exhibition prints.”

“Through the various components of the project, an intrinsic element of the work is embedded, suggested and explored within the photographic frame in a myriad of ways; diverse forms of reproduction, representation and notions of scale that get played out aim to defy a fixed point of view, in terms of how images of – and actual – landscapes, are experienced and mediated. Inviting the viewer to move in and out of the frame, aims to encourage a more active way of looking and perpetuate a heightened awareness of one’s position as a viewer.”

Overture

Guilherme da Silva’s new zine provides a vision of utopia and safe space for the LGBTQ community  

In 2019, when Guilherme da Silva took a picture of his friend in Venice, he knew instantaneously that he needed to build a wider series. Perhaps it was the aftermath of being broken up with by his boyfriend – enduring a somewhat sensitive outlook on the world – or maybe it was more of an inherent drive hidden deep inside, that only needed a little nudge (or picture) to be let out. Either way, it was this very moment that sparked the idea to produce what would later become Overture, a zine which encapsulates Guilherme’s deep truths both as an individual and as a photographer: to support and provide a safe space for the LGBTQ community.

Nodding to the concept of Arcadia – a vision of utopia – and inspired by the work of Thomas Eakins, Guilherme has collated an intimate documentation of queerness in Brazil. As a country that’s less than accepting of the LGBTQ community, Guilherme turned towards photography as a way of understanding his own identity and experiences; he urges those who see themselves in his pictures, and those observing this works, to do the same. It’s not been an easy ride for the photographer, having experienced LGBTQ-phobic attitudes in the industry which sparked a bout of depression. But having self-published his own zine, Guilherme is taking matters into his own hands and hopes to continue building on this empowering body of work. In fact, it’s in the zine’s name Overture, which alludes to the opening of an opera. This edition is an introduction to a longer body of work in the future. I chat to Guilherme to find out more below. 

Dries at the park, 2021

What’s your ethos as a photographer, and what stories excite you?

I think it’s diversity to say the least. When it comes to my work, everything is so deep inside me that sometimes I can’t explain in words. But what has been driving me to create since the beginning is the people that I’ve met throughout the years; the connection I created with them. Part of what I’ve been doing lately in my work (and what I did with the zine) is creating this sort of tribe of young people who live in this utopian land away from the corruptions of society. And this is not just in the pictures; we ended up creating a community where everyone supports each other. What excites me about being a photographer is what comes after the photography.

Ayrton and Matheus at the park, 2021

What inspired you to make this zine?

Well, when I’m not doing my personal projects, I work as a very commercial fashion photographer in Brazil. What inspired me to start the zine was the frustration I had with people who wanted to shape the way I was supposed to be photographing – not just the technique, but also who I was photographing. I heard so many LGBTQ-phobic speeches during meetings and work that sometimes I felt like I was not welcomed, that I was there just to press a button. I ended up with anxiety and depression and, to pull me out of that dark place, I knew I had to find a place to be safe. During the process, the pandemic hit and I had to postpone the beginning of the project. The situation in Brazil has been awful because of the government and I knew this was another reason why I should start this project. The zine is about this group of queer people that I wanted to portray in this place that nobody knows where it is but everyone wants to go there. It’s Arcadia, it’s a scape. 

Heart-shaped tongue, 2021

Who are we meeting in the zine, where are we visiting, what stories are we hearing?

All of my personal work feels like a self-portrait to me, so the zine is pretty much about the feeling I was talking about in the answer above. We are meeting this group of queer people who lives in this utopian land, like the concept of Arcadia. I was very inspired by the ‘Arcadian’ paintings of Thomas Eakins, the political view behind the work of Justine Kurland in her book Girl Pictures, and also the works of Nan Goldin and David Armstrong. 

Tell me more about the people you’re photographing in your zine, and how you strive to represent them? 

I think everything happens so effortlessly. Most of them I meet online first and then we meet to take the pictures, most of the time with their own clothes, sometimes I use some of mine. It’s so simple and beautiful.

What does photography mean to you, what’s its purpose?

Photography for me is my joy, it’s what allows me to understand more about the world and more about who I am. It’s what makes me feel sane.

Kenzo at the park, 2022

What can your audience learn from this zine?

They can learn how important it is to create communities when you are LGBTQ+, where you can meet people and talk about your experiences. It’s important to have this safe place where there’s no judgement and you learn more about who you are. We spend so much of our lives trying to hide ourselves when we were kids that when we are adults we have to discover our true selves. Being inserted into a community that protects you can help a lot.

What’s next for you?

The title of zine means this one is just the first, I’m already working on my next publication and I definitely want to work more collectively with stylists, make-up artists and creative directors who are open to accept my view. 

Leo at the park, 2021

Lucas and Leo kissing at the monument, 2021

Pedro at the park, 2022

Common Place

In his ongoing series, Scott Rossi highlights the importance of public space for building community

Lily, Reef, Kane, and Luci, Central Park, New York, USA 2022

Capturing the world around you is one thing, yet doing so in a way that’s not only mesmerising and memorable but also rich in context and history is another. Scott Rossi, a Canadian photographer based in New York, does this utterly well in his photography work. With an ability to lens the moments of daily life around him, Scott draws from the quieter parts – those that are smaller and often missed to the untrained eye – to build stories about the people of the world. In this regard, subcultures and public spaces are the two key pillars to his practice, which have naturally informed his latest series, Common Place. A project that commenced during the pandemic while out and about on his daily walks, Scott set out to photograph the local community in Central Park and their relationship to the natural world. Below, Scott tells me more about the series and the importance of public space – a relationship that will continue in the future.

Untitled, Central Park, New York, USA, 2021

What’s your journey into photography like?

I grew up in the suburbs of Vancouver, B.C. When I was five years old, my father arrived home one evening with a go-kart. I spent the next 13 years racing go-karts around the world, from British Columbia to the streets of Monte Carlo. 

Photography was not always on the cards for me. After my dreams of becoming a professional race-car driver were over, I studied Psychology at university. I only began taking photographs in my final year by chance. In that elective photography course, my professor introduced me to the work of Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz, which derailed my plans. I couldn’t shake photography away. It gave me a new purpose. I spent the next two years primarily photographing my surroundings without much intent or reasoning behind my actions. I simply wanted to capture beautiful, fleeting moments. 

In 2018, I started making long-form projects. In them, I discovered the power of visual storytelling. I began to value not just the results, but the process of engaging with my subjects, establishing an intent to the work that previously lacked. In the first two projects I worked on, Burned Out (2018-19) and Jazz House (2018-20), I documented coming-of-age stories. Whereas Common Place (2021), which I began shortly after moving to New York City, explores the history of Central Park and the relationship between New Yorkers and the public space in the context of a global pandemic. 

Quinceañera, Central Park, New York, 2021.

What inspired you to start working on Common Place, what stories are you hoping to share?

In Vancouver I was surrounded by nature. After I arrived in New York City, in the height of the pandemic in 2020, I began to miss nature and felt lost and uninspired, so I started going on long walks through Central Park. I began photographing during those walks with a point-and-shoot camera. I was studying at ICP at the time, and I thought this point-and-shoot idea would be a good side project to my thesis, which was still undecided. Eventually, I realised the side project was worthy of the main thesis idea. I bought a new pair of shoes, switched to a medium format camera, and began photographing Central Park every day. I hoped to share the stories of the people I met there through photographs. 

The work highlights the importance of public spaces, especially in a city like New York, for the overall wellbeing of its people. This city and Central Park, have a complicated but also rich history. Today, despite its history, I think the Park is seen as a sanctuary and a place to be yourself and I hope that comes through in my photos.  

South of Sheep Meadow, Central Park, New York, 2021.

Who are your subjects? Did you spend much time getting to know them?

I meet all my subjects while wandering around the park and typically photograph them as they were. It is that level of comfort and intimacy that piques my interest in the first place. Most of my subjects happened to be New Yorkers, with a few exceptions. 

How long I spent with them really depended on the person. With some people we would spend hours talking, while others gave me only five minutes. Regardless of how long, I was always transparent about what I was doing.

Aaron and Eralissa, Central Park, New York, 2021.

Can you share any personal favourites from the series?

Aaron holding his baby daughter Eralissa has always been a favorite. There is subtext in this image, but for me, the cutest part is thim holding his daughter on his dog tag necklace. Once I noticed that, my heart melted. 

Then of course, Dave. He is a Latin professor and track and field coach at an Upper East Side high school. I think it’s his oversized tie and baggy suit that made it all come together so well, along with the fact that he is marking student’s papers while they run laps around the reservoir. 

A third favourite of mine is the trees with afternoon light passing through. This is exactly how I feel about Central Park. It has been my home away from home. I feel a warmth when I am there and am constantly “invited” down new pathways. This picture, with the pathway leading us into it, invites the viewer. 

Spring Bloom, Central Park, New York, 2021.

How do you hope your audience will respond to this project?

I hope people feel something when they look at the images. Whether they feel love, hope, or sadness, it doesn’t really matter. I just hope people feel something. As with all photography, for me, an emotional response is the most important.

Untitled, Central Park, New York, USA, 2021

Dave, Central Park, New York, USA, 2021

Geese, Central Park, New York, 2021.

Untitled, Central Park, New York, USA, 2021

A Certain Movement

Soft and meditative, Sam Laughlin captures the ebb and flow of the natural world

Wood Ants (Formica rufa), 2017 ©Sam Laughlin

It’s not uncommon to hear of an artist’s key influence as being that of a parent or familial figure. Growing up, Sam Laughlin’s father, a zoologist, would hand over an abundance of field guides for him to look at – Sam would sink into the contents, memorise the illustrations, and identify the different species of insects in the process. His dad would also joyfully spout out many interesting facts about the natural world which, inevitably, had a large impact on Sam – later inspiring him to study documentary photography at university. What’s somewhat surprising, though, is that although nature has been a primary pillar for Sam, it wasn’t until 2014 that he started working creatively in this field. “I found my way back to that childhood fascination through books and walking,” he tells me, “and my work quickly followed suit. Now, I can’t imagine my life without walking and birdwatching.”

Alongside various photography commissions, Sam pays extra attention to his personal work – the side of his practice that enables him to explore his deep-rooted interests in nature. He also cites The Jerwood/Photoworks awards as being hugely catalytic for his photography, which is how he debuted his most recent accomplishment: a project named A Certain Movement. Lensing topics of the environment and how animals interact with the space, the work is a quiet, meditative depiction of the world, albeit a curious contemplation of the cyclical nature of earth and its inhabitants – the type of relationship that’s in a constant rhythm, flow and movement. Currently on show at Serchia Gallery in Bristol, I chat to Sam about the project, what his personal relationship is like with the environment, and why it’s such nature has become such an enduring muse.

Adders basking (Vipera berus), 2017 ©Sam Laughlin

How would you describe your own personal relationship with the environment?

My personal relationship with the environment is probably a blend of love, fascination and obsession. Some of the experiences I’ve been lucky enough to have border on the ‘religious’, like listening to a dozen nightingales singing in the dead of night last week, or standing in a vortex of 5,000 terns forced into flight by a peregrine falcon. These are just some of the ‘happenings’ in nature that go beyond words and enter the realm of the profound. The world is – for now and despite us – still full of such happenings and most go unseen. I think essentially I walk around in awe half the time, simply because I always try to be receptive to what’s happening around me day-to-day, particularly in relation to birds. Incredible things happen all the time which it seems most people miss entirely.

Nature is an enduring subject for me because my fascination only deepens the more I discover and experience it. But the word ‘subject’ is slightly problematic for me; I take great pains not to turn nature into a ‘subject’, but rather try to let things speak for themselves through my pictures. 

I continue to focus on it out of love, but also concern, at the rate of disappearance and decline – the ‘thinning out’. 

Deer browse-line (various species), 2017 ©Sam Laughlin

And similarly, tell me more about the relationship between animals and the environment. Can you describe the synergy and how they affect and shape each other?

The myriad relationships between animals and their environments can be almost overwhelmingly complex. In simple terms though, as I see it, other animals are ‘at home’ in the world in a way which we humans no longer are. We radically alter the surface of the earth to suit our needs, taking far more than we need. But most animals live in such a delicate balance with their environments that they are inseparable from them–  they live within and are part of their surroundings, usually altering them only in subtle ways that are actually a natural extension of the places themselves. Birds nests are one perfect example of this: materials gathered from the immediate area are made into a structure that supports life there. A manifestation of the bird’s way of living, its behaviour and a material expression of the locale and of the bird’s relationship with it. Then, when you’re talking about migratory birds, the nest is also an expression of those annual cycles of movement, and by extension the tilt of the earth on its axis and the seasonality this causes.

A snail could be seen as an expression of a set of relationships, and so could the song thrush which feeds upon the snail by first breaking its shell on a rock, which it uses as an ‘anvil’. The snail is, in a sense, made of plants, just as the song thrush is made of snails, but that rock is part of the equation too. It’s all inseparable and this is what interests me. So I try to make pictures where interconnections express themselves, often manifested through the movements of animals and the traces these movements leave behind. 

Honeybee swarm (Apis mellifera), 2017 ©Sam Laughlin

Can you give some examples from A Certain Movement, are there any favourite pictures that you could tell me more about?

Water Striders (Gerridae) is a favourite picture of mine, chosen for its subtlety and for certain elements of the composition, but mostly for what it symbolises. Water Striders (also known as Pond Skaters) live much of their lives on the water. Their lives are defined by surface tension, which prevents them from sinking. If one looks closely at the picture you can see the ‘meniscus’ around each of their legs. Their movements cause ripples in the water; each one represents a movement and moment in time, with a significance that is briefly visible before it dissipates, rippling out, as I feel all things do. The title of my new exhibition comes from a text written by Adam Nicolson to accompany the project, in which he references this picture and all that it symbolises about the quiet events unfolding through time – Ripples in the Surface of Things.

Then there is a picture which is more ‘obvious’: Tawny Owlet Branching (Strix aluco). I love this picture because it results from one of the purest and most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. After hearing some unusual bird calls emanating from a thicket, I ventured inside and found two fledgling tawny owls (owlets) perching on branches. A phase of their lives known quite poetically as ‘branching’, where after leaving the nest they wait on nearby perches to be fed by the adult. One of the owls was in a good position for a picture, but I had to edge very close to it. I work mainly with large format film and therefore don’t use ‘zoom’ lenses. In those moments as I made the photograph, the owlet was no more than two or three feet away from me, but remained completely still. Time stretched out, and although I didn’t linger so as not to disturb the birds, it felt like an eternity as I stood face to face with it.

Lime Hawk-moths Mating (Mimas tiliae), 2021 ©Sam Laughlin

What’s the purpose of the project, what can the audience learn?

I hope that my audience will feel the same sense of quiet awe that I do. There’s a kind of reverence in the way I approach my work, which stems from the way I feel about the natural world, and I want the viewer to feel that; not a ‘quick fix’ of the spectacular, but a slow-burning sense of wonder. My work has been called melancholy, but I simply don’t see that. That’s the nice thing about art though; people can get different things from it.

I don’t really want to reduce my pictures to ‘illustrations’ with captions that say ‘here is X doing Y and they do this because… ’, but I do want people to understand better the beautiful intricacies of the lives that are lived all around us, that go on regardless (or despite of) our human activities or our awareness. I think if people understand more, and are more aware, then they might cherish these small things as I do, and hopefully try to do a little more to stem the tide of losses.

A Certain Movement is on show at Serchia Gallery until 17 July. All photography courtesy of Sam Laughlin

Linnet (Linaria cannabina), 2018 ©Sam Laughlin

Nuthatch at nest (Sitta europaea), 2020 ©Sam Laughlin

Seabird Colony #2 (four species), 2017 ©Sam Laughlin

Tawny Owlet Branching (Strix aluco), 2018 ©Sam Laughlin

Water Striders (Gerridae), 2019 ©Sam Laughlin

Whitethroat (Sylvia communis), 2021 ©Sam Laughlin

The Golden City

Mimi Plumb’s new book documents a world grappling with climate change, war and poverty

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

There are countless reasons why someone might refer to San Francisco as The Golden city – the consuming, orange sunsets; the constant rolling fog that heats up the air between the buildings; or its involvement in the California Gold Rush. But even before it was nicknamed The Golden City, San Francisco wasn’t even called San Fransisco. It was only in 1847 that it was given its title, just a year before the Gold Rush which sparked a surge in the population. Then, in 1906, California experienced what’s deemed the worst earthquake of all time, shaking miles upon miles with impact reaching the Bay area. In fact, it’s noted that some remember it as the fire that ripped through the city, giving it a misleading title of San Fransisco Earthquake. San Francisco has an interesting past – its history still looms and is felt in the hills, landscapes and even the people.

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

Mimi Plumb, is an American photographer currently based in Berkley, California, beholds distinctive memories of the area of San Fransisco. So much so that she’s now compiled these past thoughts and snapshots into a book, aptly named The Golden City and published by Stanley / Barker. Mimi grew up on the edges of the city, where the rents were cheap and humdrum of city life was more diluted and dispersed. “San Francisco, known as The Golden City, truly is a golden city,” Mimi tells me. “But, as with most cities, it has an underbelly, which is where I lived and what I photographed in the 1980s.” The city during this time was rife in radical activism, with inhabitants taking to the streets in opposition of gentrification and the policies coming from the White House. It was a tumultuous time for politics and society, which caused sharp contrasts to those living in a gentrified, inner-city world and those on the fringe. Protests and anarchism subsequently forged and the arrival of a more underground, DIY culture, music and art stared to grow. But it wasn’t without its downside. 

“I was an art student working at a minimum wage job,” explains Mimi of the time. “I lived on the edge of the city where the rents were cheap. I photographed the environment around me, often taking daily walks in my neighbourhood of Bernal Heights; Dog Patch, along the bay; and the Mission District.” In one part of the neighbourhood named Warm Water Cove, located on the bay, Mimi observed captured a pile of tires and abandoned cars. In another spot, she climbed the chimney of a power station that was positioned above the 25th Street Pier – she’d sit and watch the planes swooshing above. Mimi is an observer and this becomes explicitly clear in her photography, that which steers from bleak landscape shots to the more intimate, candid portrait. All of which is shot in signature black and white and features a distinctive luminous tone – an ominous hue that probably couldn’t be captured anywhere else apart from The Golden City. “I actually began this project in the early 1980s using colour film,” says Mimi, “but the blue skies didn’t convey the edgy content of the work.”

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

To accurately (and artfully) tell her stories, Mimi has divided the book into sequences. The first half features notes from The Golden City itself, “predominantly of landscapes in and around the city,” she says. The work in this part is particularly distinguished as she documents the link between “wealth and power to climate change and poverty” – that which is pictured through angular cliff edges framing the city, almost like a colony of concrete ants in the distance; or busy streets peppered with suited city dwellers juxtaposed with the stark, deteriorating landscapes. Then, you reach the middle point: “The breaking heart and the two spreads that follow represent the heart of the book for me,” she adds. “The second half of the book, mostly portraits of both friends and strangers, reflects the psychological angst that I felt in myself and my community, both then and still now. One of the last pictures in the book – the girl in the polka dot dress hiding her head – is a stand-in for me not knowing what to do about it all. And my cat, Pearl, waiting and crouching is a portrait of me, as the world grapples with climate change, war and poverty.”

What’s most interesting, however, is that although the work in The Golden City was shot between 1984 and 2000, the topics, themes and issues explored are especially relevant today. The world over continues to tackle the warming climate, the dangerous policies imposed by the government and increasing poverty, not least in San Francisco. Mimi’s work, then, reminds us of the cyclical nature of things – that life and history tends to repeat itself. She concludes: “I see this book as a testament to the time and place that we are all experiencing.”

Mimi Plumb’s The Golden City is published by Stanley/Barker

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

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. 

Ruiye

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.

Jeanne

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

Christine

Xiaoyi Magnolias Ballad

Laure-Anne in Erquy

Iris

Yahui

Estelle

Fei

Chuo

Leah

 

Sem Langendijk: Haven

In an exclusive chat with the photographer, Sem reveals the details behind his new book documenting the effects of gentrification across post-industrial cities of the Western world

Look around at your local dwelling and you’ll likely notice change of some sorts. And not just the seasonal kind – the blossoming trees or sprouting bulbs, for example – but more in the way of concrete; the gentrification of our cities. Whether it’s the increasing density of luxury flats, the growing peaks of the buildings or the demolition of community-led spaces, our environments are becoming dispersed, pushing those unable to afford its increasing prices out onto the edges. We’re in the height of long-term displacement and our cities are becoming sterile.

This is the crux of Sem Langendijk’s new book Haven. An in-depth study into the displacement of urban citizens, the project is shot in an atypical documentary style and told through the distinctive lens of the photographer. Having grown up in the “hinterland” of Amsterdam, he witnessed first-hand the effects of gentrification over the years, inspiring him to start researching the disused docklands in his home country, as well as the harbours of New York and London. This was between 2015 and 2020, during which he published a three-part, site-specific series named The Docklands Project, telling “stories about those specific communities and district”the backbone to this latest accomplishment, Haven.

An unavoidably autobiographical book, Haven is a coming-of-age tale that sees the narrator, Sem, navigate adulthood amongst the growth of the world around him. It feels personal just as much as it does activist, achieved through a mix of intimate portraits and stark (although oddly warming) imagery of the urban landscape. Yet surprisingly, less so is it about the places specifically, and more is it an open-ended project structured around the lives of the people, published for infinite interpretations. We see subjects building their own structures on the waters edge, posing in front of the lens with might and force; empty buildings and forgotten facades left to decay; the children growing up here. Each element throughout Haven has its own chronicle, its own history.

What we do know, though, is that what Sem has experienced is something of a universal one. We’ve all witnessed the mass evolution of the modern world and the effects it’s had on the civilians. But some might just not be aware of it yet. And through Haven, these matters are revealed and confronted head on. Below, in an exclusive chat with Sem, he shares the details about the project, what displacement means to him and what he hopes to achieve from the work.

What does displacement mean to you and how have you addressed this within Haven?

As fringes of the city are redeveloped into waterfront districts, which are to attract high incomes and offer luxurious housing, the displacement that occurs here is that of the communities that had previously been cast to these abandoned areas, where no one else wanted to live. Often these communities are referred to as city nomads, people who only temporarily live somewhere. But the fact was, these people ended up staying in these fringes for decades due to the postponement of redevelopment. It’s enough time to build a home, have a family and get grounded there. One of the environments I photographed for the project is very similar to where I lived as a child. In the book, this is where portraits are dominant. In the later stages of the book, the portraits are less frequent and become more anonymous. The people are replaced by the urban fabric of a modern city; glass, concrete, hard shadows. I wanted to gradually change the atmosphere of the book, and through doing so, address the issue of communities being forced out of the city. 

You’ve also described the book as being autobiographical, how so? In what way have you tied this in with your own personal experiences?

In the edit for Haven, I decided to build a narrative around a boy who grows up simultaneously with the city’s transformation. Gentrification is a general phenomenon occurring in a lot of Western, former industrial cities. My motivation to make this work was very personal, and the voice I wanted to use was my own, the subjective one. Who am I to make this project and what is my relation to it? 

As someone who has lived through 30 years of city renewal, it is an autobiographical story. The opening image of the book is a portrait of Tommy; when I made this photo it felt as if I was looking at myself, 25 years back in time. The edit jumps to different environments, from an industrial ship wharf turned into an experimental living site, to the areas where we encounter metal and wood workers, garage shops and other businesses that relate to the harbour. It comes to an end in a financial district, which is a completely different world from where it started. These all share the history that they were once the docklands where ships were built, and relate to the different stages of gentrification. 

Can you give some more detail about the places you visited?

I picked the places I photographed and researched specifically. I wanted to trace back the timeline of the change I witnessed, and compare how former ship wharf areas were used. 

The Docklands Project is divided into three different series. The first is dedicated to a community that had lived on an abandoned ship wharf for over twenty years; I lived in an abandoned rail station next to the Central Station in Amsterdam, which was a similar place. I had stayed with this community over winter in a caravan, two years prior to starting this project (2013). From 2017 to 2019 I visited the community frequently, up to the point when they had to vacate the land, after legal procedures were lost. 

For the second chapter, I looked for a ship wharf in Red Hook, a former Dutch settlement, and found a lot of resemblance with the area I lived in during my teenage years. The second series deals with its contrasts in architecture and the increase of wealth to the area. The public space is changing, I encountered a more privatised use of the space around houses. In some cases, the architecture almost seems to turn its back on the street, with blind walls which make it less inviting for visitors to enter the area. The urban landscape is becoming more structured and planned, with less options for the citizens to shape and alter their environment. The final chapter looks at the Docklands of London, a city which early on invested into these areas and saw a potential. Now a new financial district, these docklands are private lands, managed by corporate companies from overseas. Instead of police, private security patrols the streets. In some areas you’re asked for ID and proof of address. It is almost dystopian to me, but it is the direction that regeneration has resulted to that’s steered by capitalistic ideals. In Haven, the work is brought together and mixed, to create the idea of one city that transforms over time. 

Who did you meet while photographing? Tell me more about your subjects.

I’ve photographed a number of people who I thought were inspiring, often young adults who were still discovering their place in the city, attracted to the buzz, whether it were artists, musicians or high school kids that were having a lunch break. I’m photographing strangers, people whom I’ve never met before, but I am intrigued by people who, sometimes distinctively, express they’re out of the norm. Whether it’s as small as an earring or tattoos, or more expressive hairstyles, I tend to turn my camera to people who show some type of resistance. At least, that’s my interpretation of it, what I project on them. 

The work deals with freedom and the freedom to be different – to be present in the city’s demography. One effect of gentrification in an increasingly more homogeneous demography of the citizens, and more segregation. The people I photographed for Haven are part of marginalised communities. By making a book about place, but including the portraits as a significant element of the work, I mean to amplify their existence and presence, and importance within the city. I believe diversity and inclusivity are essential for the city’s dynamic. If we lose these elements, we might create cities that lose their importance in our society. It is here that innovative (new) ideas are born, often by looking at something from a different perspective, fuelled by the input of the unexpected.

What are the main causes of displacement and what can be done to preserve our environments? 

I think that is difficult to answer. The systems that are resulting into displacement are not so easy to separate into main causes, besides maybe rising rent. Something I’ve experienced is the dispersing of communities and the vast demolition of old parts of the city. When a large part of a community is replaced by different people, the social infrastructure is disrupted. Your neighbour moves, but if all your neighbours move, why would you stay? 

Next to the people, the urban fabric is something we relate to, as anchors and reference points. In many cases, large parts of the industrial buildings were demolished, to make way for apartment blocks, with different materials. I feel like the aim should be for a more diverse type of urban fabric in regenerated areas. Leave some of the old, both physical as socially – not everyone needs the same luxury. Keep these affordable, so people can stay. Integrate the new into the old. In a way, would it not be beautiful if everything that is present in Haven, can co-exist in the same time, the same area? Cross-pollination is key for the city’s progressive nature. I think this can be increased, or at least preserved within cities, by being more aware of the potential of some old areas. 

What are they key takeaways from Haven, what can the audience learn?

The intention of the book is to leave things open for the viewer to interpret. The second chapter is more informative: a short history of harbour areas after the 1980’s, with additional perspectives from sociologists who studied our cities in length. But there is a focus in the book on people that shape their own environment, that re-invent space for new, needed purposes. In today’s cities we face scarcity of affordable housing, while office buildings sit empty. There is a need for experimental solutions. Certain communities and their way of life can be valuable to how we think about city renewal. 

All photography courtesy of Sem Langendijk. Haven is available to pre-order here.