Kemka Ajoku is a photographer born and raised in the UK, but who divides his time between his country of birth and his country of background, Nigeria. He has an innate talent with a camera, that goes without saying, but he is also in possession of a keen eye for shot composition, a preternatural ability to make an image look both wholly planned and unplanned at the same time. This makes his photos feel familiar but also uncanny, like family portraits from another world. An effect that imbues his (predominantly black) subjects, whether they be musicians, models, or artists with a sense of regality, even if they’re dressed in denim and stood in front of a city street.
Kemka’s most recent venture, ‘My Brother’s Keeper’, is a photo series that investigates the power of brotherhood. The importance of having non-blood-related peers to help you through the post-adolescent part of your life, where you may be feeling alone and lost.
He took the time out of his day to speak to POCC about the genesis of the project as well as his own feelings on the subject matter.
‘My Brother’s Keeper’ is about the importance of male friendships and connections. Who are some of the men in your life who you would consider your ‘brothers’? What did they do to earn that title?
Growing up and up until now, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge from various people, friends and family, and also from both men and women. But I feel that there have been certain lessons I’ve been taught growing up, from those I’d call my ‘brothers’, firstly being my older brother. Him being a couple of years older than me gave me the opportunity to learn certain lessons at a younger age, especially as we were taught many things by our parents at the same time. They say wisdom comes from learning from others, and I believe as the second-born I learnt a lot from him growing up. I learnt the true definition of a brother through him, and I think, first and foremost, my understanding of brotherhood came from growing up with him.
When I came to Nigeria to study Mechanical Engineering, it was through my course-mates that I understood the concept of brotherhood outside of family ties. Being in a male-dominated department in the university, I was surrounded by guys (which would sometimes drive you up the wall), but there’s a communal spirit among us that refuses to allow anyone to fall behind or fail. There’s a saying ‘you’re only as strong as your weakest teammate’ and that hasn’t been more evident than in my time with my course-mates in the university, as I’m facing the final weeks of my degree.
Lastly, growing up as a visual artist for the last couple of years, I faced a lot of trouble finding council amongst others who could relate to the psychological issues that being a young creative can bring. In recent years, a group of us have come together, both creatives and non-creatives, to form a group that we call “PainHub”, that allows us to console and advise each other on our creative fields, as well as just being a place to have a laugh. Having this safe space to express yourself emotionally at times, really allowed me to open up about things I normally would not share with others, and in return would receive guidance and advice on how to handle the situation. These guys to me earned the title of brothers, and it would be difficult to say where I’d be without them.
What was the decision-making process in terms of the shooting locations? How did the backdrops speak to you and to the message of the project?
First and foremost, this project really allowed me to do things that I’ve always wanted to do with my photography, shooting in Lagos being one of them. Growing up in London, which is such an urban place, I wasn’t able to truly appreciate nature because it wasn’t really something I was surrounded by. But when I came to Nigeria, nature was something I found a real appreciation for. The vastness of it, the greenery; it’s such a big part of our country’s identity that it’s in the green of our flag. In finding this appreciation, I decided nature was something that needed a presence in the project
For example, the shots taken at the beach, in part, to show the importance of water. Water is a core element in Nigeria and something we don’t take for granted. Growing up in the UK, I didn’t really get the real ‘beach experience’ due to the climate and the fact that they aren’t what you would imagine a ‘typical’ beach to be. But, in speaking with a lot of friends from Lagos, I learned about the importance of the beach to them. It’s a place of solace but there’s also a certain sense of intimacy there, especially at sunset. An intimacy that I wanted to capture. It’s close, it’s warm and it’s quite communal.
Other than touching on nature, another element I wanted to include was an insight into normal Lagos life. I chose to shoot a couple of the images on a regular street, somewhere not recognizable to the viewer and without any landmarks or prestige, to show the hustle of people’s days in Lagos, what the city looks like to the ordinary person. This idea of showing a slice-of-life is also there in the shots taken on the bike. If you’re from Lagos or Nigeria, you’re very familiar with Okada riders (motorcycle taxis) and those shots were taken around the same time that the local government was trying to enact an Okada ban. So, the references to them were my way of paying homage.
Was it a deliberate choice to feature black models of varying shades of colour? If so, why?
It was something that wasn’t exactly intentional as I wasn’t primarily in charge of the casting. That responsibility fell upon Faith, the fashion editor for the clothing line (Vrede919) that I was working in conjunction with, but I still think it bolstered the message of inclusivity. There’s definitely a problem of colourism in Nigeria that, like any cultural trend, seeps into its photography industry, with some shades being preferred to others to present a certain ‘look’ that the photographer wants. That’s not something I believe in, so I treated everyone equally, not focusing on one shade over the other and just having everyone together as ‘black’. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what they all are, black.
What mindset did you have when composing the models for the shoot? How did the way you posed them communicate brotherhood in your eyes?
Some of the shots were more composed with more intention than the others, a good example being the shot of the two models on the boat. The open sea is something that is vast and large and lonesome, so having two people sitting on it in a small canoe, with one behind the other, literally watching his back, I feel, highlights the importance of reliance and of friendship against those feelings of loneliness that happen when one is adrift and by themselves.
Another shot whose composition I thought told a story, was the one with the six models: three of them on a bench, the other three standing behind them, and with each trio facing opposite directions. This was to show a group of people looking out for each other, with one half vigilantly looking out for the side that the other wasn’t and vice-versa. Leaving no blind-spots. This shot was the one I felt most powerfully conveyed what it means to be a ‘brother’s keeper’ and to look out for each other.
In your opinion, how has the definition of brotherhood changed over time? What are the ways that our generation show male kinship, that differentiate us from our fathers or their fathers before them?
I do think what brotherhood is has changed over time for example, in the 20th century, the Western idea of brotherhood would have been defined in warfare. In both the World Wars as well as the many wars that followed and preceded them, brotherhood was found in battle. Where people who weren’t related by blood, or didn’t know each other too well, would find a connection in bloodshed and in the protection of each other.
In today’s society, however, more than ever before, there’s been a focus on male kinship in the service of battling mental health. Using brotherhood as a way of helping people face issues such as anxiety and depression, fighting an internal war rather than an external one. There’s also been a lot of work, especially in photography, being put into breaking down ideas of (toxic) masculinity, and redefining what masculinity truly means. Separating masculinity from specific sexualities and forms of expression and allowing men to be freer in the way they present themselves and choose to live. ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ is all about the idea that men should be free to ask for help and be free from the idea that they have to be fully self-reliant in order to be men.
There have been times, even in my own life where I’ve been told to ‘man up’ and face issues on my own and it’s only till recently where I found the courage to ask for a hand. I don’t think that is an evolution that I would have had in another generation
Do you think there are acts of brotherhood that are quintessentially black? Ways that we show love and support for each other, that men of non-African descent aren’t privy to?
Definitely! I feel like this is something you truly understand once you’re not in Africa. Growing up in London, a multicultural city, I was able to notice there’s this sense of community amongst black people. You can be walking down a predominantly white street in London and the minute you see a black person; you feel an instant sort of connection you don’t really feel with anyone else. Coming to Nigeria, I definitely experienced that familial energy that I didn’t in London. While I can’t pinpoint exact examples of brotherhood amongst Nigerians, or other black people, I do know that we support each other whenever we can. There’s a lot of nepotism in Nigeria, and while that can sometimes be a bad thing, I feel that, when used in the right way and in the right spaces, it’s something that black people do better than anyone else. We are always there to help. Always. The Nigerian diaspora has spread to every single part of the world, and there is no Nigerian you will meet in any country that, as a Nigerian, you won’t feel a connection to. That’s something I’m proud that we have kept with us no matter where we are. No sense of competition, just helping each other go forwards mutually.
Your project is obviously about the safety of numbers and of friendship, however, there are a few photographs featuring men on their own. Why this choice?
The essence of this shoot was the power in numbers, but it was also about showing the self-reliance that men put upon themselves once they begin to start a life of their own. I felt like, if this project had only been based around groups, it wouldn’t really have shown the vulnerability and the loneliness that you feel at that transitory stage of your life. You’re surrounded by people that should make you feel like you’re in a community (workplaces, parties) but more often than not, you still feel alone. I think in highlighting that feeling; of being lost, of being helpless, that I emphasised the power of brotherhood in contrast.
Do you have anything to say to men who see themselves as ‘lone wolves’? A statement about the beauty of brotherhood that you would say to them to convince them of its importance?
Personally, I feel like, men today are starting to understand the significance of brotherhood. This idea of lone wolves or standing on your own, is starting to slowly crumble and dissolve. Look, I can only speak for myself, I can’t judge someone who considers themselves a loner without knowing what made them that way, but I would share with anyone intent on going it alone, the old proverb: ‘a problem shared, is a problem half solved’. If one extra person halves a problem, imagine the power of more. Once you find that team of people you know you can trust and who will care, your problems are their problems too.