Njeri // © Anna Laura Festa
Anna Laura Festa
The Story behind the Portrait
I took this portrait of Njeri as part Photo Mind, a collaborative photographic project with adults who identified themselves as part of an ethnic minority. Working alongside the Karibu Community Action Kent and the Ethnic Minority Independent Council of Canterbury and Districts, I developed and facilitated this project on wellbeing and mental health support for the BAME community in Kent. Black, Asian and minority ethnicities are only 6.3% of the total population in the area (2011 census) and statistics show that BAME community has been the most affected by the Covid pandemic, but at this time, the community was also less involved in the vaccine campaign. This project aimed to support the community by providing tools to each individual to better cope with the long-term effects of this pandemic which are yet to be fully understood.
The project ran online for 8 weeks from July to September 2021 and encouraged each participant to practice ‘awe’ on a daily basis – ‘the feeling of amazement that you have when you are faced with something wonderful’. Recent studies show that a sense of wonderment can have incredible benefits on well-being and mental health and can transform mundane details into something extraordinary.
Through interactive online activities, we covered key photographic concepts, from single image composition to the structure of a photo essay. Using their smartphones, participants were invited to take photographs based on how they felt, or on how what they were photographing made them feel, rather than on what things looked like. Weekly assignments were set and we reviewed images at the beginning of each session as a means of sharing and discussing the work.
We had a two-week break during the project when participants were asked to allocate a few minutes a day to practice ‘awe’. As an example, this could be done by walking in nature or sitting on a favourite chair, listening to favourite music and taking photographs for their ‘awe story‘. Additionally, during these two weeks, we took portraits of the participants, with the aim to decolonise the usage of words like BAME and to suggest new ways of addressing questions around identity and belonging. This shared and agreed consent of the outcome we wanted to achieve with the portraits triggered the collaboration when we met in person. Moreover, working initially together online for eight weeks made the in-person portrait shoots very spontaneous. It definitely felt like we already knew each other.
When I met Njeri, she welcomed me into her home and we ended up spending the whole afternoon taking photos in her garden, trying different poses and backdrops, using her African fabrics. Throughout the session, I showed her the photos as we did them and Njeri was the perfect model, very happy to explore different representational possibilities. She was very interested in the technical aspects of the portrait including the softbox and how it affected the lighting and mood. The process was intimate and trustworthy and the camera allowed me to get closer. It was a great experience to work with her on the portrait and a joy to hear about Kenya, her kids and her life in the UK.
The outcome of the whole project is an online exhibition launched at the beginning of October as part of Black History Month. The gallery displays both portraits that I took and a selection of the participant’s photographs that they edited including Njeri’s photo essay.
Recent studies show that a sense of wonderment can have incredible benefits on well-being and mental health and can transform mundane details into something extraordinary
Currently studying for the MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, I am a facilitator interested in portraiture and in collaborative, socially engaged projects, particularly about migrations, women representation and the ways in which we experience our hyper-connected, global world.
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