The way a new language might emerge to help shape and form a new reality, so Alice Hawkins frees her subjects from the chains of business as usual. With her Nairobi shoot for LOVE magazine, Hawkins arranged her sitters to achieve a new sense of reality elevated. A Nairobi groomed to Love.
LOVE Magazine S | S 2012 Editorial Nairobi | Itinerant photographer Alice Hawkins sets off on another epic adventure,
this time documenting the unique spirit of the Kenyan capital with Nairobi’s freshest models and street-cast locals.
Kyle Tregurtha | What was Katie Grand’s vision for the LOVE Nairobi editorial?
Alice Hawkins | Strictly speaking you’d have to ask Katie that question, but I know she had been on a holiday in Nairobi and was interested in the place enough to ask me if I wanted to shoot there. She told me some things she had seen there that she liked, mainly the industrial elements mixed with incredible natural environment and also things like different ways of life compared to London; smartly dressed people walking the rural roads to and from work. I spent time googling everything and found millions of pictures of Villagers in remote areas, and photographs of slum life in Nairobi. I decided to stay away from these subjects because I didn’t want my pictures to look like a tourist brochure, a safari or a charity campaign. I did find some amazing tourist safari pictures online of the national parks with Zebras and Giraffes in the landscape and then with the growing city of Nairobi in the distance. I found it visually interesting to have these different worlds coming together in one frame. I tried to find places with that kind of juxtaposition happening. Katie envisioned a set of strong, interesting, beautiful portraits of extraordinary people that carry a sense of formality and reality. I simply want to celebrate the people I photograph and find a feeling of humanity that any normal person viewing the image can relate to, regardless of if the viewer is into fashion. I love how the clothes can play a part in elevating my subject for their picture, they feel more important, like they’d dressed for a special occasion. It is quite fun to get ‘ready’ for a portrait, trying things on, feeling happier and ready to present yourself to my camera/the world. I want my subjects to feel special, I believe they are.
What challenges and potentialities arise from street casting in places like India or Nevada or Nairobi?
AH | There is pressure going somewhere new where you’ve never been before and street casting, because you only have X amount of time to find the people and pictures before you have to leave. First you need to find interesting amazing looking people and then hope that they agree to be dressed then photographed and be in the magazine. Generally people are up for it. One subject tends to lead to another, which helps and sometimes people hanging around watching the shoot also end up being in the project. They are happy to do it because they are seeing it happen and understand it. Finding people this fast adds a bit of stress to the stylist’s life as they are working out of the back of a van. Generally when casting in a place like Nevada most people are fine with it, they are happy to be asked and it seems quite normal or glamorous to them. In India it was a bit different as most of the women I approached had to first ask their mothers-in-law or husbands if they could take part or some people had to ask their employers if they could have their picture taken and the women could only show certain parts of their bodies whilst wearing the clothes we had with us. But it was fine as I don’t ever want to change the people I photograph anyway, and I want them to feel comfortable in what they are wearing. We often mix pieces with their own clothes because it looks better to us.
On the whole street casting works best for my pictures because what I love and want, is the element of truth in my work, capturing life, something that actually really happened, finding people by chance. The right person at the right time at the right place. So regardless of the challenges and the slightly stressful logistics of shooting this way on the road I have to street cast, it doesn’t make sense to do it any other way. I like how I can take a left or a right turn down a street and walk straight into the most incredible looking person. Or I end up photographing the waitress in the restaurant. Luck plays a big part but I can’t rely solely on luck when shooting these projects so I prepare as much as I can before I get there but leave loads of room for street casting. I started corresponding with a local producer in Nairobi for a few months before arriving in Kenya. I pre-cast some local Nairobi models and street cast people from the pictures she’d emailed. Each day we had a person and a location organised to start with.
What does white, the chosen palette mean in the context of Nairobi and this shoot? Did you have any influence there or was that stylist Anders Sølvsten Thomsen?
AH | The vision for that issue was that the whole magazine was going to be on white. There had been so much white and pale colours that season that it made sense. Anders mixed our white pieces with the subjects own clothes too which broke up the white slightly and injected more of themselves into the portraits. That’s basically it. No big concept really, but I liked how the white palette makes the people look more ethereal. The styling is hugely important to me and I embrace it fully. Anders understands my pictures and I trust his work. The styling can totally dictate what a viewer may think about or judge about that person in the portrait. When I was working on a project in Death Valley we were for some reason mostly finding and photographing people that happened to have blonde hair. Also our clothing palette was becoming more and more blonde sand colour in tone. Subtlety uniting the pictures. The same kind of thing happened in Nairobi, but with a white palette.
Your photo series Somewhere in Texas seem to blur reality with ideal, surpassing stereotypes. Are those photos a documentary of Texas?
AH | I loved the idea of Texas that was in my head before I went there and I looked for it. My ideals were based on the film and TV I’d watched growing up, Western films, Dynasty, etc. I did hope to find these characters and I did visit traditional Texan places. Driving to and from small towns, through big cities, stopping in dive bars, rodeos, drive ins, trailer parks and gospel services, the landscape felt like being in a film. I didn’t do any pre-casting for Texas. Cowboys, truck drivers and young trailer park beauties actually exist there. I’m attracted to character and it was like a really good dream in Texas. The people there are so friendly and open, I’ve been back there 4 times since that shoot. Sam Willoughby styled everyone with the idea of ‘Sunday Best’ in mind.
Were you styling and documenting, i.e revealing Nairobi? Or were you creating a new Nairobi with this editorial for LOVE?
AH | Both I think. The pictures are my personal experience of Nairobi, an autobiographic document. I don’t think our experience is too common so yes it probably does reveal a new Nairobi. I created my own vision of what I personally wanted to capture there.
Where does the potential in fashion photography lie for you?
AH | I tried writing an answer to this one, but my answers just sound too naff! I just want to carry on doing this forever and keep on having more adventures!
What did your models in Nairobi think of what they were wearing and how was it explained to them?
AH | We showed them the magazine and some of my pictures so they understood what we were doing, sometimes the polaroids of the people we have photographed so far. I’d explain that because it’s a fashion magazine we have clothes with us for them to wear. They got that it was not going to be a 1 minute thing and they knew we wanted them to feel comfortable in what they are wearing. I think most people think it’s fun to try on clothes and are excited about being published in such a magazine. The models in Nairobi either liked what they were wearing or thought it was quite funny.
What happens to you when you take these kinds of photos?
AH | When it’s going really well and everything comes together beyond my hopes it feels like magic and I have to pinch myself. When I was photographing the baby in the lounge a little bird flew into the house and sat on the sofa next to him it felt like being in a dream.
What was your perspective of Nairobi before and after this shoot?
AH | I didn’t really have much of a clue what Nairobi was going to be like. I thought maybe it was going to be a bit like my experience of India in some ways. We didn’t shoot or stay in the city, we were based near Ngong Hills and our locations were mainly rural or on the outskirts of the city. I saw wealth, poverty, places inbetween and beauty everywhere.
How do you think the clothes, posing and light used in the Nairobi shoot altered the image of those people?
AH | I think it elevated them.
What I end up seeing in your photos is a heightened state of someone, a person in a distilled reality; subverted from perceived norms. Why does that happen with you? How do you explain your work to yourself?
AH | I try to stay true to what makes most sense to me and I am lucky enough to have opportunities to collaborate with magazines who appreciate what I am doing and give me free reign to go off and explore. I see beauty in all different characters, not just professional models, and I want to capture that beauty. I arrange what I am photographing my way to fully capture its beauty. I try to keep everything pretty normal and simple but just find the right angle and light that shows someone off to their best. I want to achieve a sense of reality as well as a groomed dream fantasy moment. I want my pictures to be more than just a straight fashion picture.
How do you feel about fashion / styling on poor people?
AH | I shoot all over the world and I don’t discriminate against any of the people I ask to photograph based on how much money they do or don’t have. I strip away their politics and economic situation and treat people in the same way as I’d treat the Queen. I personally can’t afford most of the clothes I photograph but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to showcase them or wear them. In my personal experience I am completely ok with it and I find that no matter what a persons finanical situation is they all enjoy the experience. I do ensure that the budget allows people to receive a modelling fee when I’m shooting in a country where people work a month for a fraction of what a person makes in a day where I’m from, even though with these type of editorials, it is the norm for models to work for no payment, as do the photographers.
The ethos behind the fancy dress party you threw for your final show at a pub in your folk’s village seems to permeate all the work of yours that I love. A similar feeling is captured in Nairobi. What happens to the viewer when your sitter is subverted with fashion and your lens?
AH | I think you mean my final project for my degree show when I had a party in my house and invited and photographed everyone I knew from all different walks of life that I’d met so far in my life at that time. I also filmed them individually alone in a video diary room (my house mates bedroom) and asked them the one question ‘are they having a good time?’ I wanted people from these different worlds to embrace each other. It was such a brilliant party. I hoped they would all appreciate and like each other and I tried to explore and capture that. I want the viewer to feel the same about who they see in my pictures, to understand/appreciate what I find intriguing/enchanting about the person I photographed.
‘Nairobi ’ | LOVE magazine S | S 2012 Editorial
Photography | Alice Hawkins
Fashion Editor | Anders Sølvsten Thomsen
Production | Caroline Mbindyo
Casting | Lyndsey Mcintyre of Surazuri
Retouching | Henhouse
Alice Hawkin’s next collaboration with LOVE Magazine hits stands July 30th, 2012 . The Feature ’Another Country‘ is shot in Cuba.
Sexy, feminine, tender, intriguing…these are all words one uses to describe Alice Hawkins’ work. But ‘character’ is paramount. She captures the true essence of an individual in her work, revealing often complex and unconventional personalities by her careful inclusion of personal minutiae and intimate locations. By giving us permission to stare, Alice invites us to be voyeurs inhabiting and exploring her subject’s lives and aspirations; she both showcases individuals she admires and elevates them to colour-saturated glory. Unknown sitters and the world-famous are treated with the same joie de vivre.
Transposing this approach to the genre of the fashion shoot has created new definitions of beauty as Alice pushes the viewer to expand our definition of good taste. She celebrates glitz with unabashed shades of burlesque; she also displays a precise mastery of colour placement.
Hawkins has contributed to: Love magazine, British Vogue, iD, Russian Vogue, Doingbird, Ponystep, Harpers Bazaar (US), Big, Exit, German Vanity Fair, Jalouse, The Times Style Magazine, The Independent Magazine, & SHOWstudio. Hawkins has collaborated on advertising campaigns with Agent Provocateur, Samsung, Diesel, Bing Microsoft, Haagen Dazs & Lynx.
All images courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.
Nairobi, Kenya | Doing our part to combat immappancy