Interview: Somali Photographer Amaal Said Uses Her Lens to Create Beautiful Portraits Of Inspiring Young WOC.
After catching sight of her beautiful portraits of fellow women of colour, on instagram, I felt compelled to send Amaal a message gushing at the beauty of her work. Centered on capturing women of colour, or ‘small beauties’ as she refers to them, each portrait is as delicate as it is striking. Not only a poet with words, but through the fruit of her lens, my ‘fangirling’ led to intrigue and curiosity. With that, it only made sense to get to know Amaal and her equally inspiring project a little better.
Can you tell us a little bit about you - who is Amaal Said in a nutshell?
I’m a Danish-born Somali girl. I was born in Denmark and I lived there until I was eight. I’m nineteen, I’m a writer and I’m also a photographer. Growing up, Iwas the kid in class constantly scribbling something in the back of her book and I guess it stuck. I live in London now and I call it a home.
You fell on my radar after I happened upon your photography on instagram. It’s always so refreshing for me to see Africans in and from different parts of the globe and continent producing work in the creative arts. Have you always had an interest in photography and the arts in general? How did your venture into photography come about?
We have huge family albums and I can’t remember a time growing up where my father didn’t own a camera. Sadly, he doesn’t believe in photography very much anymore. When I brought my first film camera home a couple of months ago he said, ‘what’s the use of that now?’
I remember the excitement of getting the prints of film back when we were kids. We moved from town to town and house to house so my parents took all the pictures they could to root us someplace.
I also remember being fascinated with water. I’d get super excited. I’d hold the camera too close to the water and cry when it broke. I don’t remember how many family cameras I’ve broken. I’ve been an arts/photography lover for a long time. I dwell in galleries and spend a lot of money on books.
It’s interesting to hear about your personal relationship with photography and how it impacted your childhood. But now it seems that you’ve crossed over to a point of taking it more seriously, especially with your portrait photography project focusing on talented and inspiring Women of Colour (WOC) you know. Where, when or how did the idea for this project come about?
I was standing in the photography section of the Tate Modern bookstore with a friend. I remember asking her, ‘imagine if we opened a book up and saw women that looked like our mothers and aunts?’ There is something so warm about looking at a picture and being able to recognize yourself in it.
My initial idea was to capture black women in a gallery space. I wanted to make them part of the art, to take up space in an institution that wasn’t speaking to us. It ended up becoming a much larger project and I wanted to involve the subjects more. So I asked what their favourite scarves or pieces of jewelry were, and which things connected them to their homes.
That is so inspiring and such an important perspective. How do you go about choosing subjects for this series?
The women are mostly my friends, women close to my heart. I’m a poet and being part of collectives has brought brilliant women into my life. I also do this thing where I send messages to random women who have something warm about them and ask to take their portrait. We end up going to tea and becoming friends. The photography has made me braver. So being engaged in the process of the work has introduced me to the most amazing women as well.
Why is it important for you to photograph (talented) women of colour specifically? Does it relate in any way to your experience as a WOC in the UK?
My work is absolutely about filling a void. I keep asking myself, ‘if you don’t take the pictures then who will? Who’s going to photograph the women you love in a light that is fair to them, in a way that they recognize themselves?’ There was the realization that I had to take the pictures, that I couldn’t afford to wait around for someone else to represent us.
It also has a lot to do with my identity. There’s a lot I’m working through when it comes to pinning myself down somewhere, whether that be country or town. I’m coming from a specific place. I’m a Londoner. I’m the eldest daughter of parents who are immigrants. I’m Somali. These factors are all specific to me, but what ties me to the women I’ve photographed is that we are all British WOC.
I’ve noticed that a lot of your portraits feature flowers - is there any significance to this?
I’m drawn to flowers. The initial reason for opting for flowers was to put the person I was photographing at ease. I think it’s easier when you have something in your hand, or at the side of your face. Then I was doing a shoot with my friend Belinda Zhawi. She had such beautiful braids and I stuck a few flower pieces in her hair. We’re never seen as delicate things as black women. Putting those flowers in her hair meant something. It was more than just beauty, but what beauty meant being a black woman. Every shoot is different. Sometimes flowers work and there are times when other things are more suitable, but I ask ‘what things do you like? What makes you feel beautiful?’ And we just go from there.
Who and what are some of the people and things that influence you and/or your work?
I have to start with Alfredo Jaar. He said, ‘images are not innocent.’ I’ve always known that photography is political but his work showed me how important it was to be conscious of what you were photographing and in which way you were portraying your subjects, which stance you were taking.
I’m also in love with Malick Sidibe’s work. His portraits are incredible and they make me want to hold on to and keep old pictures of my parents safe. Most recently, the photography of Hernan Diaz has my heart. I feel something when I look at his pictures. I don’t know which words to use yet. I’ll just say that I felt like I knew Cartagena when I was flicking through his collection, ‘Cartagena forever’.
Then there are photographers whose work I follow: Andre Wagner, Sanaa Hamid, Nadine Ijewere, Jalani Morgan, Emmanuel Afolabi, Alex Webbe, Krissane Johnson, Rog Walker, Matt Eich, Dexter R. Jones, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson. There are so many more. I’m constantly falling in love with photography and finding inspiration in so many places.
You write poetry too, can you tell us a little bit about your writing and the subjects you explore?
The writing came out of nowhere. I don’t remember when I started. It’s my way of trying to understand why things happened in my family and why there was so much silence growing up, why so much shame came with womanhood. I keep writing about my mother. I keep writing about my father too. I have a lot of questions in mind, like what they were like before they had children. I’ve been making up their former lives in my head.
I’m working with a couple of amazing poets on a project about translation. I finally get to sit down and ask my parents about particular stories. I’m looking at what’s lost in translation, what’s gained, what we make up and what we try our hardest to forget.
I came off the stage recently and a woman told me, ‘that was so violent.’ I found myself wanting to apologize, to take back the words, to give her something lighter. But i’m discovering a very violent history and I’m writing through it. I keep having to remind myself that there are people who have died because of their writing, who might also have been imprisoned or beaten. There is so much to write about, so much to document and I realize now that I shouldn’t apologize for the work.
Find more from Amaal on instagram, twitter, facebook on tumblr.
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