David Uzochukwu operates on an elevated plane. Packing a union of influences - being of Nigerian and Austrian descent, growing up in Luxembourg and Brussels, working while studying philosophy in Vienna - this fine art image-maker has travelled to far-flung reaches of the earth to pursue his lifeblood: creating stop-in-your-tracks imagery. This at a time in life when most are exclusively focused on not getting left on ‘read’ after locking glances during fourth period math. Being Gen Z is a trip.
What began on a humble Tumblr in 2011 with a sprinkling of followers has become a triumph of accomplishment and vast possibility (as well as a full-time job). As an autodidact who first picked up his mother’s camera in his early teens, David Uzochukwu explored photography and Photoshop through trial and error and online tutorials, shaping and changing his work at a determined pace. Starting out with self-portraiture, Uzochukwu has created his own landscapes of emotion with the aid of post-production – often imparting images with an aura of isolation hanging over his own body in physical manifestations of smoke, clouds, water and fire. His pictures are centred in nature, suffused with elements of the surreal and preternatural. Blue skies become walls, crystals float in mid-air, volcanic sand becomes a comforting shroud and blood turns into a mask.
Dedication like that doesn’t go unnoticed, as Uzochukwu hopped from bubbling up on important shortlists of promising young photographers to landing a global Nike campaign with FKA twigs and shooting artists like Ibeyi, Benjamin Clementine and Pharrell Williams before the eve of his 19th birthday. That isn’t happenstance but unyielding focus and tremendous talent for you. As Uzochukwu’s work is currently being highlighted at this year’s portrait-themed PhotoBrussels festival, running until January 20, we talked to the artist and got into the obsessive nature of creating, the energy of working with greats and what 2018 is shaping up like.
KNOTORYUS: How did you get involved with the PhotoBrussels Festival?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: I believe they found me through my Brussels gallery, Galerie Number 8. I saw the festival space and it’s just an absolutely beautiful setting. I haven’t been able to go yet, I hope I’ll be able to do that soon. I happen to know one of the artists exhibiting with me, Flora Borsi, since we were both part of Adobe Photoshop’s “25 Under 25” programme a couple of years ago.
KNOTORYUS: How has the response been so far?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: I’ve read a few articles where people were really excited about the show and I’ve had a couple of people who were introduced to my work through the show reach out personally, so that’s really cool.
KNOTORYUS: That's great! How connected do you feel to Brussels, what does the city represent to you?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: I moved to Brussels about three years ago and lived there for two years and off and on for one year. It took me some time to warm up to the city, it can be a very strange place at first. I had people asking me how I could stand to live in a place that’s quite ‘ugly’ and unkempt in certain parts. But Brussels has a particular charm; the longer you stay, the more it grows on you. You get drawn in and it’s a really social and laid-back place to live. The flair of the city to me is found in the space it gives everyone to breathe and to socialise. Plus, it’s really diverse. If I’d even leave my house in Brussels to shoot, I’d usually trek to the Parc de Woluwe or just go anywhere with a bit of nature.
KNOTORYUS: You’ve been working for quite a few years now, what do you think sparked your early interest in photography? Have you always felt that need to express?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: I think it was more about curiosity initially, wanting to document everything. I have a bit of an obsessive streak, an urge to collect. I wasn’t necessarily interested in depicting moments, but more in capturing different textures. That fascinated me, being able to draw parts from real life and rearranging and collecting them. Making them become interconnected in a way they hadn’t been in reality.
KNOTORYUS: Do you think that obsessive quality is still present in your work today? Or do you feel like you don’t shoot for the same reasons anymore?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: Maybe it’s still there but in a slightly different way. Usually when I finish an image, it consists of at least two pictures that have been combined. So a lot of the time I’m purposefully shooting photos and blending them or collecting different moments that I’ve lived through and creating new combinations. Using different aesthetics, visuals and experiences that I’ve had and constructing something new. I think my early urge to collect is still there, somehow.
KNOTORYUS: Do you ever revisit your early work?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: Sometimes I do, but not very often. It’s really strange to realise how quickly things are changing. The difference in the stuff I was making at sixteen compared to my work today is already quite astounding. Obviously it’s funny to go back and see what thirteen year-old David was doing. It’s kind of sweet, like a diary you can look back on.
KNOTORYUS: When I look at your work, it sometimes feels like the person that I’m seeing has just been born, your work feels profoundly natural to me. How would you describe your photographic eye and what triggers it?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: ‘Natural’ is actually pretty spot-on, I think. You could perhaps call it ‘organic’ or ‘minimalist’, in a way. That’s the aesthetic so I try to strip away everything that’s not needed for the mood or the message, if there is one.
KNOTORYUS: When you’re shooting, what kind of headspace do you get into? Is it something you can recall afterwards?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: You can get into a super obsessive mood, where you don’t care if you’re wet or freezing or hurting anymore. You just push through out of a deep need to get that image. There’s a lot of running back and forth when I’m creating a self-portrait, spurting to the tripod for a check and diving back into ten-degree water in March, for example. The process is less intense when it involves someone else modelling but there’s always that moment where you’re absolutely focused on the image and the mood. You get these glimpses of what your result could look like, so you try to punch through and get everything just right to capture that glimpse.
KNOTORYUS: When are you satisfied with an image?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: I have to keep shooting until I’m happy but sometimes the circumstances don’t allow it, for example when it becomes absolutely unhealthy to stay in a freezing ditch or when someone has to go. Usually I know on the spot if I’m on to something but I try to shoot for as long as possible just to break through, even when I think I already have something that I’m happy with. I’ll want to experiment and see where I could really take it. You’re never quite done.
KNOTORYUS: It’s been quite a year, I imagine. You started it out and closed it off with the release of two different collaborations with FKA twigs, shooting that major Nike campaign and then her “AVANTgarden” digizine. How do you look back at that first collaboration?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: It was really, really, really exciting to be able to be on one creative wavelength with FKA twigs. For Nike, we were almost entirely aligned on where we should go visually. There was such a palpable energy on set, having all of these different people gather in such a beautiful location. I think what really impressed me is how everyone involved was just so incredibly talented. She had her amazing stylist and hair stylist there, everything was so on point. I wasn’t completely out of my depth because I had talked with twigs before and I’d already worked with the stylist who brought me in, Matthew Josephs. It felt surprisingly familiar, on that level, even if I obviously had never done a campaign or anything like it. There was a huge amount of pressure, but we thrived under that. I think it felt a lot like how I usually work but with a lot more energy. Even though I felt up to the task, it’s different when you’re actually doing it. Once it was over, I thought: “Hold up, I actually did that?” Apart from the week of preparation that we did and the three days of shooting, there was also a super intense post-production process that lasted for about a month and a half, where I had to direct a big team of retouching specialists in order to get everything done on time. It was a lengthy process but when I got through that it just felt amazing.
KNOTORYUS: What was your mutual concept for her latest AVANTgarden “Dream Warriors” issue?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: Both FKA twigs and Matthew envisioned an endless bedroom space, as a link to the pyjamas, and I pushed it towards something a bit more open, literally. I went for a slightly surreal harem feel. It was very low-key, but we were all happy with how the images ended up working together!
KNOTORYUS: You also recently shared an image you made of Pharrell Williams for Louis XIII. Is it part of a larger campaign being rolled out? How did you experience working with him?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: I made a single image and someone else from my Paris agency, Iconoclast Image, directed the other parts corresponding to it. This shoot was different because it was not a direct collaboration with Pharrell, we weren’t able to have a creative back and forth the way I really prefer it to be. We focused on making a good image in a really short amount of time.
KNOTORYUS: It turned out beautifully. To me, the portraits you shoot often highlight a certain kind of black girl and black boy magic. Growing up as a young black man in a small town myself, it’s very special for me to see you flourish and explore your own identity and blackness through your work. I was wondering what you have discovered about the world or how you wish to view it, through your work.
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: Actually, it’s through my work that I realised how important it is to focus on happiness, vulnerability, being in touch with your emotions and expressing yourself. It’s a ‘learning by doing’ thing. It was through the making of my work that I learned how much I actually needed to see specific kinds of images and what I was missing. I was just filling a gap that was there. That aspect is really special to me and it’s obviously something that I want to keep pursuing, to create facets of beauty that are open, out there and left to explore and try to just make exciting work that my people and me, personally, can relate to.
KNOTORYUS: What do you hope most that people get out of your work?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: That’s always a hard question, because I never think of anyone seeing my work in the first place. If I make anything, it’s more out of self-expression. But obviously sharing is an important part of the process. I’m at a point right now where I’ve made a lot of unpublished work that I’m still sitting on. It’s really not satisfying to be making everything just for myself. In a way, there always needs to be communication and openness. If I finish a piece of work and it’s good, I’m really happy with it for 24 hours, two days tops, you know? I get a feeling of having opened a portal to somewhere ‘other’. Someone once described it to me like going on a honeymoon with your piece of art. I think that nails it. If someone else can feel even a bit of the way I feel after finishing a good piece, then that would just be absolutely great.
KNOTORYUS: I caught a few reactions on the piece you Instagrammed recently about the feelings of dissociation you’ve experienced in the past. People were saying you really captured that experience for them. How does that make you feel?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: It’s really cool if people can relate because in a way, I almost can’t relate to that. (laughs) When I have a show or real-life events, which I don’t do very often, it’s almost overwhelming to have people’s reactions up in my face like that. I go: “Woah, hold up, this is too much.” Getting social media comments and occasionally longer messages that are actually really touching is different. It’s not actual, human interaction. That seems like a good deal to me; if people can get something out of my work it makes me super happy but at the same time, I think it messes you up in the long run to get constant feedback and to have other people’s emotional lives pushing back into yours.
KNOTORYUS: So you don’t linger in the comment section too much.
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: I go over my comments, definitely, and I appreciate every person taking the time to reach out to me and I try to answer whenever I can. It’s really nice to have feedback, but sometimes I’m glad there’s this barrier where you can acknowledge comments and be happy about them but at the same time, it doesn’t put too much on you.
KNOTORYUS: Is there something you do, actively, to stay grounded or centred?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: I think making work overall, whatever it is, gives me a feeling of being able to process what’s going on in life. There are projects that I’m extremely excited about and that I’m trying to make happen but if things aren’t flowing creatively, I try to sit down and think about what it is I want to say or express. I analyse my circumstances and why I’m feeling a certain way. I try to really listen to myself, go for a walk and mull over the music that I’m currently drawn to. Apart from that, it’s about spontaneously making work in hopes of becoming more inspired and to keep going.
KNOTORYUS: You mentioned music, are there certain artists that have been moving you lately? Perhaps in different fields of art?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: Recently I’ve been obsessed with Alice Smith, who recorded this insane cover of Nina Simone’s “I Put A Spell On You.” I get goose bumps, it’s just six minutes and forty seconds of pure magic. There are obviously images or pieces of art that I’m attracted to, but I can’t think of other artists right now that I’m really obsessed with because it always changes. Depends on my mood of the day. (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: The WWF campaign you worked on this year looked unreal. What are the places you’re still aching to shoot at?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: There are so many spots. Personally, I really wanted to get to Chile last year but I wasn’t able to. For the WWF campaign I was in Asia for the first time, in Thailand, so there are lots of locations there I’d like to check out still. Maybe I’d start with South-Korea, because a lot of my photographer friends are excited about that. And I’d love to travel more in the African continent, overall. That’s a bucket list thing.
KNOTORYUS: You were part of the Lagos photo festival as well last year, were you able to go?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: I’ve been to Lagos multiple times, but I didn’t get to go to the photo festival because the timing didn’t work out. I was in Nigeria last Christmas, I couldn’t make a lot of work but I’m very excited to go back there or to neighbouring countries and just make work in an environment where I know my roots lie.
KNOTORYUS: One of your pieces, ‘Skins’, was presented as a 3D installation at Atelier Relief in Brussels. Is that something you’re looking to develop further, the way you show your work?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: I entered that collaboration because it pushes towards getting away from screens only and letting people get close to my work in a physical space, which is something I’d like to do more of next year. It also shifts the boundaries of what I’m doing a bit more. I try not to corner myself, over the past year I’ve been experimenting a lot with different styles of photography and I’d like to keep doing that, maybe even try out different forms of art. I thought that Atelier Relief presentation was a small step into the right direction.
KNOTORYUS: What else are you hoping to explore further, starting with next year?
DAVID UZOCHUKWU: There are a few things I’m excited about that I can’t share yet, but I’m definitely looking into making more motion work. I directed for the first time this year, the result is coming out in January, and that’s a discipline I’m really looking forward to keep pushing. It’s opening this entirely new can of worms, a new field of something to suck at that I have to improve upon and it’s really thrilling. I also want to do more collaborations with different artists that I can relate to, musicians or just creatives in general. I want to dig in deeper into personal work and really centre and focus on making the work that I need to be making. I’ve come to a point where I can say: this is my process, this is how I make stuff that makes me happy or releases emotions. I’m just looking forward to pushing forward.
David Uzochukwu at PhotoBrussels
November 17 - January 20 2018
Tuesday - Saturday: 12 AM - 6 PM
Hangar Art Center
Place du Châtelain 18