Hey, You’re Cool! Amarachi Nwosu
"I was able to tell a story that a lot of people wouldn’t see."
The talents of Amarachi Nwosu stretch across many different media. Whether she’s behind the camera, putting words on the page, or simply speaking them aloud—her focus on representation and storytelling is exciting and beautiful. Her personal website lists publications like Highsnobiety and Okayafrica. Her work has also been featured on CNN Africa and she’s worked on documentary projects with VICE Japan as well as shooting a social campaign for Adidas Tokyo that featured the first woman of color ever seen on their Instagram page. She has also worked with the London based women’s rights group Equality Now and is currently working documentary projects between Lagos, Nigeria and New York
Amarachi acknowledged early on the unique perspective her Nigerian-American upbringing bestowed upon her. That awareness, coupled with a newborn interest in photography (she got her first DSLR to document her holidays with more consideration than most). Fast-forward to the present day and her photography still aims to empower and embolden. Speaking to her via Skype was a relaxed affair that had us discussing our personal experiences as the interview easily floated into conversation.
You describe yourself as self-taught. How did you get into photography?
I got my first digital camera around age 11 and before that I had always used disposables. But I really got into photography because I wanted to share my experiences. I had learned at an early age that traveling and going out of the country was a privilege that a lot of my friends in America didn’t necessarily have, so that got me into it documenting my travels and the people that I met along the way. I was able to come back from those places and show people Nigeria, London or Spain… I was able to tell a story that a lot of people wouldn’t see.
I really started taking it serious age 20 and went to Japan. I saw so many dope things and people and was super interested in fashion. I documented the people who I thought had cool style or a dope personality. I think Japan is what really pushed that passion and from there I went to Lagos and started doing documentary and photojournalism—taking pictures of local people, at festivals or a masquerade in Benin. Ultimately it started from me wanting to show my experiences and then it shifted to fashion and lifestyle and just went from there.
You also write and shoot video, is the objective different with each or is there something that links them all?
I think for me the priority is just telling unique stories and exposing unique narratives. With writing it’s a space where you have to tell the story how it actually is or the closest to it. Photo and video are easier to bring your own vision and kinda manipulate things, using the environment or clothing to tell a story.
I try and bring something that makes you question the things around you. So for instance, playing around with gender norms in photography. Having girls wear masculine attire and the guys wearing things that are traditionally more feminine. I did a story in Nigeria called Formless and that was the main theme. I try and really shed light on peoples experiences. A lot of my work is to do with showcasing people of the African diaspora who are underrepresented in the mainstream media.
Do you believe art is the only way to represent those voices?
It’s more than just creating art but giving people the resources to really expose their story, making them feel that their story is something worth telling. People have to see value in things that are generally underrepresented and value comes from the messages people are getting through creative mediums like film, writing or photography. People need to see value in themselves and what they’re creating. It can start anywhere from the education system and telling people about their history, the positive aspects of it.
For example, I’m Nigerian-American and I have this unique experience of being West African but growing up in an environment where once I left my front door I was no longer anything more than African-American unless someone asked deeper questions. Growing up in America the things I learned about my American history was enslavement and inferiority but at home, I learned all these great things about Benin City—having streets lit up 100 years ago before they had that in Europe. It was just about exposing stories and adding value to the spaces around us. Actually showing what black people have been innovating for generations. I think it starts with education and through that comes understanding and when you understand something then you can either create it or you can consume it.
Is there anyone you take inspiration from that you feel is underrepresented?
I take inspiration from a lot of different spaces, it could be a conversation, things that I read or what someone created. So for example, I love Malik Sadibe. He was a photographer from Mali who started documenting black life in the ’60s and ’70s. He had a very unique style and you can see those elements in a lot of modern work. Putting cloth behind as a backdrop and having motorcycles in a studio setting, there wasn’t a lot of things coming out of Africa back then because it was quite expensive and a skill not a lot of people had so for Malik to offer that representation was rare. He was one of the first people to see value in his surrounding and want to show the rest of the world.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and her book Americanah was the first time I read a character and almost felt they could be me. Everything down to their name being Igbo to her having similar experiences I had being Nigerian-American. I think creating narratives that are universal is amazing. When I was in Tokyo reading Americanah, one of my friends from Hong Kong who is Chinese saw me reading it and said it was one of her favorite books.
Oprah is also a huge inspiration because she was one of the first black female hosts and to really expand her audience in a way no one had done before. It was her ability to relate to people on a human level and start conversations a lot of people had shy away from. As a black woman, talking about my experiences in so many ways can be uncomfortable for people who aren’t black or female because a lot of the times we are in a space where there are things no other race has to go through. We’re undervalued. She was the first woman to say: “Hey, regardless of these circumstances and what you are taught about women who look like me, I’m going to show you these stories.” She was fearless in projecting a unique narrative and not being afraid to show who she is.
Nowadays Oprah’s work focuses more so on empowering and pushing others forward. How do you go about achieving similar in your life?
Everything to me starts with self-love. I feel like in order to really love yourself you have to do things that breed love in yourself. I consciously think about what I’m consuming, how I’m spending my time, what self-help practices I take part in. I write a lot, that helps me personally. Meditating, really looking deeper into myself and finding what story I want to project into the world and understanding my headspace right now. Just being around people who inspire me. I’ve met so many people around the world; people who are taking risks and being themselves, they help me to be my better self. This all helps me with the story I want to leave with the world.
What did you do when you were in Japan?
I shot a short documentary on the black experience in Japan that will be out in fall. I had subjects from Africa and North America. For me, I wanted to learn about Japanese history in general. Looking into the history of a country will always tell you why people are the way they are now. When I was there I took Women’s Studies. I wanted to understand why Japan is one the most highly educated spaces for women but they only make up a very small percentage of the workforce. What in the traditional culture incentivizes women to get their education and still become stay at home moms? Do women in this culture excel? To what extent? Could I be a black female in Japan and still be able to do things to the highest extent? I am not a fluent speaker. I can get myself around but I can’t have in-depth conversations. I wanted to see if I could still survive in this space and what I learned was I was able to. It was about getting out of my comfort zone and learning a new space.
Would you encourage everyone to explore in that way?
Absolutely. I have this strong belief that nothing belongs in the comfort zone, people should travel. People of color especially should go to Asia because there’s not a lot of representation. The media isn’t going to do a good job and you can’t really expect people to understand you unless you put yourself in a space where you can be understood. Putting yourself in a space where people don’t look like you will really teach you about yourself. I learned more about myself in that one year than in the 20 years before that. That was probably the most impactful year I’ve ever had because I had to be in myself more than ever. I didn’t understand everything going on around me so I was having a lot more conversations in my head with myself.