adama jalloh's intimate gaze

Photographer Adama Jalloh has fast made a name for herself shooting up close and personal moments from her life experience.

“I picked it as a GCSE subject and the teacher I had really encouraged us to experiment,” says Adama Jalloh, “that’s when I really started taking an interest in photography and shot anything I could think of – friends, family, surfaces…” Gifted a camera by her parents at 16, she began Identity, an intimate portrait of black hair salons in south London, while in her second year at Arts University Bournemouth; at 22 she took home the British Journal of Photography’s Breakthrough Award for a follow up assignment, You Fit The Description.

Focusing her lens on the Black British experience, Jalloh uses the camera as a tool for visual narration, exposing the ugly traits of police stop and search, dispelling tired stereotypes, and, perhaps most gloriously, celebrating the everyday of Peckham’s Rye Lane. “It’s hard for me not to be drawn to things like identity or my surroundings, especially now,” she says. “Focusing on the black community is one aspect of my work I don’t think I can ever ignore, it’s what I’ve grown up around. I just want to show honest and genuine images, even if it is the most simple thing.”

A mixture of un-posed street scenes that reference earlier documentary photography and portraiture that echoes a similar relaxed attitude, coupled with an obvious affection for her subjects – amongst them the poets Siana Bangura and Abondance Matanda, NON Records’ Nkisi, and Campbell Addy of Nii Journal – Jalloh’s photographs paint a rich narrative packed with warmth and a familiarity that separates her work from others today.

Stretching from heavyweights to her contemporaries, Liz Johnson Artur, James Barnor, Mary Ellen Mark and Seydou Keïta are namechecked alongside Ronan McKenzie, Ruth Ossai and Andre D’Wagner as influences, while, perhaps unsurprisingly with such a blueprint, representation is an increasingly vital component of her practice. “Coming across Liz Johnson Artur three years ago really made me think more about how I want to portray people in my images,” she explains, “more so even how they want to portray themselves, because it often works both ways.”

Despite an affiliation with traditional film processing today, Jalloh admits she was not an immediate fan, struggling with school sessions in the dark room and going through “a fair amount of rolls where nearly everything would come out blank. It put me off for a while.” Since achieving the required skill set (and some), the photographer now favours the aesthetic analogue delivers – a distinctive sense of depth for example – while reflecting on her preference for shooting in black and white, something she simply “fell into the habit of”, is the result of her photographic heroes. “I’m so used to visualising things in black and white, but every now and again I look back and think ‘that could have looked better in color’ – so I just now make sure I give myself the option”.

I just want to show honest and genuine images, even if it is the most simple thing

Valuing the collaboration element of her medium, Jalloh is keen to build relationships with her subjects, chiefly from her native Southwark and the neighbouring borough of Lewisham, that extend beyond sitter and photographer; as part of You Fit The Description she spoke openly with young men of colour about their experiences of the Met Police. “Most of the time I’m asking to photograph people I don’t know, so there is that slight hesitation with a few, while others become even more confident in front of the lens,” she asserts, “Some ask me to send them their photo, or I just print a copy (for them) as a way of saying thank you.”

Tapped by curators Ashleigh Kane and Grace Miceli for last summer’s group show A New Sensation, a one night only showcase exploring the reality of being a young creative in the capital, the previous year saw Identity form part of all female show, Black British Girlhood. On the presence of the female gaze, here the photographer’s attitude is principally instinctive: “I won’t even lie, it’s not something I think about when I’m shooting street photography – I don’t have time to think thoroughly during those moments because everything is moving so fast – but I’m definitely aware of the gaze when I’m shooting more thought out projects, and I think it carries a lot of weight with the results that I get from those images.”

With plans to advance beyond the M25, the photographs displayed here, selected by Adama from a catalogue that marries common routine with striking portraiture, are all personal favourites: “They bear memories in different ways, whether it’s me thinking back to what I was like when I was younger and the type of environments I was in, or just the way I interacted with those I photographed. I think,” she continues, considering her words, “just by talking to others for the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot more about wanting the images I take to be something people can look back on, maybe in decades.”

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