During a recent project at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, London, we had the pleasure of working with a young photographer called Robbie Spotswood. He told us that he has an exhibition in Portsmouth until 7th December, so we decided to find out more about what sparked his passion for photography and his ambitions for the future.
“My mother is Ghanaian and raised me in London, all by herself. She was a huge inspiration”, Robbie told us. “Growing up, I really looked forward to visiting Ghana and seeing my grandmother in Accra. I’d always be discovering something new. I love it there”.
We asked about his exhibition, his connection with Portsmouth and what got him interested in photography in the first place.
“Growing up, I loved art but took photography at GCSE. I was finding traditional art boring and once I picked up a camera, I never looked back. That was seven years ago now and today I’m studying photography at Portsmouth University and my first exhibition is running at the Make and the Craft Kitchen”.
“For as long as I can remember, whenever I had a camera I would deliberately compose every shot. Even as a child with disposable cameras, I wanted my photos to be ‘nice’, but didn’t have any compositional rules or knowledge of the history of art and photography”.
“One image changed everything for me and that was the first time I saw Andreas Feininger’s ‘The Photojournalist’. I was blown away by the creativity and precision use of lighting”, Robbie told us. “Ever since, I deliberately composed every shot I took. Later, when I discovered Dianne Arbus, Richard Avedon, André Kertész and Henri Cartier-Bresson, I understood how photography is a valid form of personal expression”.
“Alongside the professional inspiration, I have to say that the photographer who set-in-stone my passion for photography was a man called Robert Taylor – introduced to me by my godparents”, said Robbie. “He gave me my first ever DSLR and he shared some very good advice. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what he was trying to teach me, but when I think back on his words I realise that they built the foundation upon which I now understand photography”.
“Like any artist, I am very self-critical”, he told us. “It took ages to shoot anything that I felt was worthwhile. I am often not happy with what I produce. I often change shooting styles or the way I process my images. I love working with film”.
“Aesthetically I have always loved the use of chiaroscuro and high contrast black and white print”, Robbie explained. “As for subject matter I have always loved portraiture. I think when the person you photograph is comfortable with you and the camera, they stop posing and start being themselves. There can be mutual or collaborative expression. I’m continuously learning and evolving. I always want to express something new”.
“I would routinely stare out of windows in the house I stay in here in Portsmouth”, said Robbie. “I consider myself an introvert and I am very quiet. I often sit back to observe. I can be a voyeur in social situations”.
“That formed a theme for a recent project, where I was struggling for inspiration”, he told us. “When I finally picked up my camera I decided I wanted to interpret the feeling of voyeurism and getting lost in a scene. I shot through windows and doors, being a voyeur from within my own personal territory”.
“As well as the feeling of isolation I tried to portray in this particular series, I want to talk about one picture in particular. I looked at rear windows from the rear window of my own home. The houses where I stay are so close together, yet I don’t know any of the people who live in the surrounding houses; all I see are anonymous people’s windows. My inner voyeur is intrigued and my imagination makes up stories”.
“I tried to direct the viewer’s gaze through this particular image using light and dark sections, almost highlighting a path to explore with your eyes”.
“I want to invite the viewer to see what I see and, hopefully, feel what I felt – but in the end all art is up for interpretation. The photograph, ultimately is just a document. The story it tells and from what perspective is where the expression and creativity comes from”.
At Africa Fashion, we’re of the opinion that if most of your photography consists of food, friends or furry animals on Facebook, then you might not stop to consider the amazing amount of thought that an artist puts into a photo.
“Someday, I will shoot a series similar to ‘Subway Portraits’ by Walker Evans or Harry Callahan’s ‘Women lost in thought‘ series”, he said. “Recently, I went to ‘Black Georgians: The Shock of the Familiar‘ and it was interesting to see how black people were represented throughout history and how hidden many of these documents are from the public”.
Lastly, we asked Robbie about his preferences, “I’m happy shooting with any camera, but my ‘workhorse’ is a Canon DSLR with a 24-105mm lens for flexibility. I actually prefer using a high-quality 50mm prime lens which is great for shooting in low light with the aperture wide open”.
“I have two Yashica film cameras”, he said. “One is a 35mm range finder and the other a medium format TLR. I use the range finder to diarise, shooting whatever catches my eye. The TLR is for specific shots, ones where I can really slow down and document a person or place properly”.
“People ask me how important software is in my photography and I tell them that I really love working with film”, he explained. “In software terms, I prefer Lightroom over Photoshop and I use a PC instead of a Mac”.
“Apart from the equipment, locations can be crucial – especially for fashion work”, he said. “Overall, I love London. I grew up here and I like being in busy places”.
What about after university? Where would he like to work and does anything scare him?
“I’d love to work in a gallery. Being paid to be around art is a dream for me. My only real fear is being forgotten”.
Any message for budding young African photographers?
“Read up on the history of photography and understand how it has evolved in to what it is today. You will make more informed decisions in terms of what you do and how you do it, once you understand the why and how’s of your trade”.
You can view more of Robbie’s work, as we recently commissioned him to take behind the scenes stills for a project called AfroArchives – A performers world
We thank Robbie for his time and look forward to seeing more of his work on Africa Fashion in the future.