A group dedicated to helping black female photographers is going from strength to strength. Nigel Atherton talks to UKBFTOG founder Jemella Ukaegbu and showcases some of the members’ work
One of the benefits of social media is the way that it enables people to find and connect with other people like themselves, whether it be around a shared interest, background, experience, or around similar values and opinions. There are dozens of these groups in photography, some of which we have featured in the magazine and online, but one of the big success stories of recent years is the growth of a group exclusively for black female photographers called UKBFTOG.
It came about almost by chance when London-based portrait and wedding photographer Jemella Ukaegbu had a realisation one day back in December 2017. ‘I’d been a photographer for many years, and came to notice that whenever I went to anything within the industry – conventions, workshops and so forth – I never saw any other people who looked like me: who were black, who were female.
It was a bit confusing – I was thinking, I’m sure I can’t be the only black woman photographer in the UK. So I put a tweet out, saying “where are all the black female photographers?” and my phone went crazy with all these people saying, “I’m here!”. I thought, “Oh my gosh, there’s so many of us!” It was the same on Instagram.’
At first, there was no aspiration to start a group, but then someone messaged her and said, ‘I can’t wait to see what you’ve got planned,’ and it got her thinking. ‘I was like, “Huh? Oh, okay…” Being self-employed, you don’t get to go to Christmas parties and things like that and I wanted to hang out with other photographers like me who I could connect with and relate to, and go out shooting with.
So I thought I’d try and make something out of it. The first thing I did was set up a private Facebook group. To start with it was just for London photographers but I got so many messages from around the country that it changed within a week to encompassing the whole of the UK. There are nearly 400 of us now in the private Facebook group, plus more who are just on Twitter or Instagram.’
UKBFTOG fulfils several roles. On a basic level it’s a social group for the women to connect with each other, share their experiences, ask questions and go to events. ‘Someone would say, “Hey there’s this thing on, does anybody want to come?” and we’d all go together. We’d do studio meet-ups to practise our studio lighting, and night photo walks. We’d arrange picnics in the park. We’d have meet-ups in places like Bluewater and Hackney to do co-working.
We’d all be doing our own thing, emailing and editing, but just to be in the company of other people rather than on our own within our four walls at home.’ Then came Covid-19, and the group took on a slightly different role. ‘When lockdown happened, I created a WhatsApp group called The Aftermath so we could support and help each other and help us keep motivated, because obviously we didn’t know what was going to happen, or when we were going to get out.
We did weekly Zoom calls to check in on everybody. What’s your goal for this week, have you completed it, where’s your head at etc, just to keep everyone uplifted.’
But UKBFTOG isn’t just a social group. One of its aims is to help to raise the profile of black female photographers. ‘There’s a sense among black people that it’s more difficult for them to get their work seen,’ explains Jemella. ‘The photo industry is dominated by men, and its tougher for women in general coming in, but being black women and dealing with racial issues too adds another layer on top of that.’
In this regard, the group is becoming increasingly successful. This is partly due to the greater visibility that being part of a group brings, but also the confidence boost that comes from their support. When members see others in the group achieving success, it encourages them. With success comes increased visibility on social media, so more people see and follow the work, and it snowballs.
Then you start attracting the attention of the big brands. One of the first to offer their support was Nikon, who sponsored a major exhibition of members’ work in Walsall last year, and the financial support of MPB has enabled them to launch a slick new website, with new features still being developed. At the recent Photography Show at the NEC in September UKBFTOG staged another exhibition, printed by OneVision Imaging, and members gave talks on the various stages.
As the group has grown in size, Jemella has struggled to manage the workload on top of running her business. ‘Initially I was doing it myself – having meetings at one o’clock in the morning where I’d be falling asleep, but when I became pregnant that wasn’t possible. But now I have a team of volunteers who help me with everything. There are so many different things that everyone is doing within their communities to help out.
We’ve got members who help with publications, running the social media, organising our exhibitions… It is literally a sisterhood.’
So what are their future plans? ‘We have so many things we’d like to do,’ she says. ‘Weekend conferences, photography retreats for the girls… We want to continue developing ourselves as photographers but also developing ourselves as women, because if we don’t look after ourselves we can’t really thrive and become better photographers.’
Photography by UKBFTOG Members
Jemella has been a full-time photographer for eight years, since graduating from Kingston University with a first class photography degree. ‘I was working at a studio in Brixton while I was still at uni,’ she recalls, ‘so I was practising it professionally as well as studying it, picking up a few clients, and when I left uni, I registered my own business, Mellz Photography, and went full time.’
Her studio space for most of that time was her mum’s front room. ‘I had to move the dining table and chairs every single weekend because my mum was a childminder, so in the week the front room was a nursery, and come the weekend it was my studio space,’ she says. Jemella finally opened her own studio, in Hither Green, last year, but 2020 was eventful for other reasons too.
‘I got married, fell pregnant, had a baby and opened my studio all in the same year, in the middle of a pandemic,’ she laughs, ‘so it was very stressful. But it’s now or never. I’ve been given an opportunity and if you don’t try you don’t know. To make a living in photography today you have to be brave, and know your worth.
When I was learning I was only focused on the creative side, but now I know it’s just as important to focus on the business side. I want to scale up, I want to grow, and you have to make that transitional change in your head that you’re actually running a business. How am I going to do this, what are my overheads, what do I need to charge? When I started out, social media wasn’t really a thing so I had to do all the market-stall pop-ups, the leaflets through the doors and so on, to build awareness.’
Born and raised in Nigeria, Ada moved to the UK to join her husband who was a trainee GP at the time. Now based in Oban, Scotland, she combines her photography business with a role as a biomedical scientist at the local hospital.
‘I bought my first DSLR when I became pregnant with my first daughter,’ she tells us. ‘Friends saw my photos on social media and started paying me to photograph their babies too, and today I am a multi-award winning newborn and family photographer.’
‘I’m a British-Nigerian author and photographer with a penchant for storytelling and wanderlust,’ Elizabeth tells us. Her journey in photography began at 15 years old when she found an old camera in her parents’ room. ‘As a portrait photographer,
I specialise in empowering women through the art of boudoir photography.’
Liliana Séca Santos
‘I was inspired to pursue a career in portraiture by the stunning b&w images of the photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, while studying media and journalism in my native Portugal,’ recalls Liliana, who now lives in Walthamstow and specialises in newborn and baby photos. ‘Photography, and in particular photographing babies, is my absolute passion.’
Helen is a London and Essex-based beauty-focused photographer.‘I became serious about photography about five years ago, initially to show off my work as a hair and make-up artist,’ she explains. ‘Having worked in the beauty industry for over 20 years, I knew the standard expected for high-end beauty photography, so I studied photography and took pictures of everything I could whenever I could to build my portfolio. I haven’t looked back since.’
Tobi is a British-Nigerian multi- disciplinary writer, photographer and architectural designer, with an academic background in architecture. She was born and raised in London and currently resides there. ‘Growing up, I battled with insecurities regarding my appearance and used photography to repair my relationship with my self-image and explore ideas around value and self-worth,’ she tells us.
Her photography showcases the beauty and diversity of black women. ‘I want them to see my work and feel empowered, encouraged, and inspired.’
Shayo is a doctor and freelance photographer based in Birmingham. ‘My photography journey started at medical school but didn’t develop into a true passion until lockdown, when I started self-portraits,’ she says. ‘Being thrown into the front lines of the NHS during a pandemic was incredibly demanding.
Self-portraits forced me to take a step back, become more introspective and appreciate who I am, and help me focus on who I want to become. Portraits are especially magical to me as I believe a whole story can be seen on a face if you look hard enough.’
Camille is a multi-disciplinary creative based in London. ‘I use photography and film to document society and explore frameworks of normative narratives,’ she says. ‘My current project The Home Series explores the relationship between location, citizenship and identity from within the global African diaspora.’
Julietta is based in Northamptonshire and started her family photography business six years ago after soul-searching for a new career. ‘I love the portraits of my mother holding me as baby and they have been my inspiration,’ she tells us.
‘Most mothers hate having their photo taken but I’m making it my mission to show how I can make them look and feel beautiful in photographs. I am also motivated by knowing my work is creating a visual legacy for children. A photo proudly displayed in their home reminds them they are loved.’
Adeseun is based in Chesterfield and shoots under the name of DFSD Photography. She describes herself as a wife, mother and a dreamer with a passion for photography. ‘I derive joy in capturing and freezing moments in life which will be treasured and make families and individuals smile for many years to come,’ she says.
Londoner LA is interested in capturing the essence of people from her Caribbean community. ‘Growing up was difficult, as I didn’t believe I was beautiful,’ she recalls.
‘I had to change my mindset and in doing so I realised that more women needed to do the same. I now use my camera to empower women to love the skin you’re in’ with my boudoir and nude art photography.’
‘My work explores different facets of black beauty, womanhood and the female human experience,’ says 23-year-old south Londoner Latoya, who only took up photography as recently as May 2019, out of a desire to document and learn more about the world around her. ‘My work is mostly based around creating intentionally colourful and playful yet striking imagery.’
Dionne runs Diamondclass photography in Harrow, London, shooting portraits, events and commercial projects. ‘My passion for photography comes from my teenage years when I always carried my film camera around and took pictures of family and friends, and soon became the designated photographer.’
Kimberley hails from Sheffield but is now based in London where she shoots portraiture, events and weddings. ‘I didn’t go down the route of studying photography at university,’ she admits. ‘Instead, I learned through being able to borrow other people’s cameras. Scholar and poet Rumi said, “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” I am privileged to say that I do what I love.’
Laura Rose Whereatt
Laura is from Bristol but now lives in London. ‘I rediscovered my love of photography after having my second daughter and in trying
to find myself,’ she tells us. ‘After many years of just being a working mum, I found that taking pictures had always, though without really knowing, been a massive part of my being.’
Carla is an international wedding and portrait photographer who, for over 15 years, has infused her love of storytelling into her photography. She says, ‘I love connecting with my clients and anticipating the moment to create photos that tell their story and capture their individuality.’ Carla also loves to travel and photograph the world around her.
‘Half of my photography is documentary and photojournalism and the other 50% is creative, fun and dramatic,’ explains Ruby. ‘I am putting together a photobook to document the lives of 50 successful black women. It aims to improve the representation of the varied careers of black women in England. The book will be distributed to schools and the profit donated to a charity.’
‘I fell into photography like people fall in love,’ admits Keisha. ‘I woke up one day and said “I want to be a photographer” and took the necessary steps to make that come true. I realised that I had a natural eye and it has brought me a lot of unexpected joy. I try to make it my mission to create a positive atmosphere with a fun vibe.’
Shade O Thompson
‘For me, getting the “perfect picture” is all about building a connection with the subject,’ says London-based photographer Shade, who shoots fashion, portraiture and weddings.
Margaret Hanson-Omani is a married mother of two daughters based in London. ‘My love for capturing moments began when I had my first daughter and I have not been seen without a camera since,’ Margaret tells us.
Morlene graduated from Goldsmiths College in London with a MA in Photography and Urban Cultures. Since finishing her studies, she continues her exploration of the black British identity. ‘I use portraiture to explore stories around belonging and identity, racism and migration,’ she says, ‘but since moving to picturesque Kent I have started to explore landscape and seascape photography.’
‘“Yu lef yu good job fi gu tek picture!” These were the words of my Jamaican nan when I told her I was leaving the NHS to become a photographer. It translates as “You’re leaving your good job to take photos!” says Denise, who works under the name of Lensi Photography.
She has now been a successful multi-genre photographer for 11 years, with a portfolio that includes sports, events, fashion, weddings, documentary, red carpet and corporate work. ‘It is important for me to be challenged by my work,’ she adds.
Mariam took up photography when she was living in the US and her family were back in her native Uganda. ‘I only saw them once a year for two weeks, so photography was my way to preserve moments with my loved ones and comfort me when the homesickness hit,’ explains Mariam, now based in Milton Keynes. ‘As I shared these photos online, friends and acquaintances started hiring me to take their photos.’ She now specialises in weddings.
Born and raised in London, Sahara discovered photography when she was a bridesmaid at a wedding in 2012. ‘I needed to take care of the children and entertained them by instigating a photo session. Since then my passion has grown into a photography business.’
NK is a photography graduate from the University of East London and has specialised in weddings, portraits and events for 14 years. ‘I have an immense love for photography, so it only made sense to make my passion my business,’ she says. ‘My work is influenced by fashion and documentary photography, taking posed yet emotion-filled moments.’
Sherion specialises in fashion and lifestyle photography. ‘I like to shoot reportage of fast-paced street style and backstage at fashion shows,’ she says. Her list of published work includes Italian Vogue and is licensed through Alamy and Rex Features. She is also a mother of twins.
Naomi St Juste
‘I originally bought my camera for blogging, not photography,’ says Naomi, who hails from Birmingham, ‘but it was the taking photos I fell in love with, not the blogging.’ Naomi has always enjoyed photography but only recently realised that this was the career path she wanted to follow.