Gabriel Moses regularly flicked through his family photo albums as he grew up in south London. Shot by a local photographer, the images are simple snapshots that capture his Nigerian family at home in Catford.
“You could see that there’s a lot of personality in the images,” he says. “You can feel that there’s a lot of energy and for me now as a photographer that’s what I want to produce for my generation.”
For Moses and a group of young black photographers, the family photo album has become an unlikely creative catalyst. Moses, the Swedish-Somali artist Ikram Abdulkadir, the Nigerian photographer Isabel Okoro and the Ethiopian-American filmmaker and photographer Dawit NM have all looked into their old albums for inspiration.
The idea of representation is central. Moses says the reason he picked up a camera was to document the south London life as he knew. Dawit wanted to counter the popular image of Ethiopians and Abdulkadir wanted to do a similar thing for Somalis in Sweden.
“As an Ethiopian when I moved to America one thing that stood out was the lack of proper representation of Ethiopia,” says Dawit. “My goal as a photographer was to counter that narrative.”
‘A collage I made for my photo book, Don’t Make Me Look Like the Kids on TV (self published, 2018). The stamps were from letters my mother received from Ethiopia after she moved to the States.’ – Dawit NM
‘My mother, pregnant with me, Ethiopia.’ Right: ‘My father, carrying me out of the water, Ethiopia’ – Dawit NM
“I’m trying to take pictures of what I see – it’s not the image that the mainstream society might have of Somali people in Sweden,” Abdulkadir adds.
Abdulkadir’s images are often of friends, family and – in particular – her younger sister. They might not be posed in the same way as a typical family portrait, but their simplicity is inspired by them. “A lot of family albums that belong to Somali families here in Sweden are from their early years in Sweden,” she says. “It’s interesting to see the styles of clothes they wore – people used to take a lot of photos in the snow.”
Abdulkadir’s family moved to Sweden when she was two, to follow her grandfather, who had already moved there, while Dawit came to Maryland with his family at the age of six.
For both of them photography and photo albums was a way of connecting to their history and cultures. “Family photos have a function; there’s a reason why you’re taking them whether it’s to archive your family, their culture, or their way of life,” says Dawit, who published a book called Don’t Make Me Look Like the Kids on TV in 2018.
For Abdulkadir there was another function. “A lot of it is posing to send your family back home in order to reassure them that you’re doing great,” she says.
Moses says the work of Malick Sidibé – the Malian photographer who is famous for his studio photos – was an inspiration, with the idea of representation and how people choose to present themselves being a key part of his work. “His imagery reminded me of the pictures my mum showed me from when she was super-young and the photos that my grandma would make them take,” he says.
Okoro’s mother also influenced her. During lockdown she began to share photographs from her youth with Okoro. “When she was my age she loved to get photographs and would always spend time in studios. I feel like she’s a whole other reason why I started photography.”
Dawit has a strict rule: he only photographs his family, friends or people he knows. If he does take an image of someone not within his circle, he obscures their face. The reason is rooted in trying to counter classic western images of Africa. “A lot of the photos that come from Africa where photographers go there, and they don’t necessarily ask for permission,” he says.
Abdulkadir is also conscious of the types of images she produces. “I’m not really a big fan of the trauma porn kind of photography, where you just like portray black people in pain all the time,” she says.
Dawit hopes a new generation of people in the diaspora will continue the family album tradition, even with the advent of Instagram. “I wish people would invest more time in their family photos,” he says. “By doing that they can build a small community and encourage other people to do the same.”