A few weeks ago I sent an email to French photographer Gregory Chris (see his website) and asked him about featuring his photographs of African music performers on AIAC. He kindly obliged and also responded to questions. Chris shot African music stars Nneka, Meta (of Meta and the Cornerstones) and Just a Band in and around New York City. “I wanted to shoot the artists in the streets of the city, in the neighborhoods where they live, their favorite places, inside their homes, in a place they feel comfortable. Basically, I wanted to shoot them as they are.” The photographs were made a few months ago while he was spending time in New York City. A South African magazine, One Small Seed, had asked him to do something for them and he decided on making photographs of “African artists living in New York City.” Below we feature some of the photographs and Gregory’s descriptions of how he came to shoot the specific artists, what he tried to convey. First up is Nneka.
For Nneka, the only opportunity I had to get pictures of her, was before her concert at SOB’s. I went there with my assistant and with Ginny who work at Okayplayer.com. I did not really know what to expect, didn’t know how much time I had and when I would be able to do the pictures. It was a long wait, other photographers were there to. Then suddenly it happened. Someone came to fetch us and we went down to the artist lounge. Another photographer went first, so I realized it would be a new experience for me and that I would not have much time and not much choice where to take the photographs. My turn came. I introduced myself to Nneka who it seems was focusing on getting ready for her show. I told her that my assistant and I were from France, from Paris. I looked around while talking to her and I noticed this tiny red room with a big make-up table with a mirror and nobody inside. I asked Nneka to follow me into this room, put a high chair for her to sit on. And with the only light of the mirror and my assistant with a reflector, I started to take pictures. Trying to see how she was feeling, her mood, talking about Paris, and about her being there etcetera. We had about 10 minutes. But it has been a great moment almost out of time.
That night I went to photograph Nneka I also met Meta. I had been listening to Meta’s music for six months — a friend of mind that came to live in New York City introduced me to his music. I was coming back from South Africa and my friend posted Meta’s video “Somewhere in Africa” on Facebook. Of course it talked to me and I bought the album on iTunes. What I didn’t know was the story behind it. So when I met Meta I told him about this. Then a few days later I told my friend, ‘I met Meta and I going to do his portrait,’ and she told me how she knew his music: One day she called me on Skype because she couldn’t deal with the windows of her apartment (American windows opening by sliding up and down, we don’t use this in Europe). So I tried to help but the window was blocked. She knocked at her neighbor’s door for help and it was Meta. He was listening to his music loudly so he thought that was the reason for my friend’s visit. But she says, no I like your music! He finally solved her window problem and offered her the CD and after that she realized he was the singer. Life is a small world.
The day I was shooting Meta, I met him at his place and told him the whole story — and he remembered it (my friend’s a remarkable woman, and she speaks French as Meta does). So suddenly I was not only a photographer coming to shoot him…and we started from there. I wanted to shoot him on his apartment so we begin there and once in the corridor he told me that’s the apartment where your friend used to live. I didn’t prepare much. I didn’t know the place but I adapted to the situation, location, light, weather etc . I like natural and continuous light and most of the time my assistant fills it with a reflector. When Meta told me we could get to the roof I said let’s go for it. Shooting on a rooftop in Brooklyn with the view of Manhattan is great. But it was on his way back to his apartment, in the corridor, that I notice these neon lights and suggested to do one more. By then he was more relaxed, I did a couple of shots and they are my favorite pictures of him … right in front of the door where my friend used to live.
Just a Band I met on my second trip to New York City. The first time I had an appointment with them, early evening in Brooklyn at a place artists come to record. I met only two of the three band members and did a couple of shots but the light, the time, was not exactly right inside and it was night outside. I managed to get something that night but I also got to meet them again, the three of them, and to do a shoot in the street of Brooklyn where they were staying. They don’t live in NY, but were there for a couple of weeks. So I met them and we went for a walk in the streets trying to find interesting locations. When I found the place with the grilling (wire-netting) I liked it…I like to have some out of focus things in front of my camera. I wondered at the time whether it wasn’t too much “cliché”, but I liked the effect and the message that can be in it.
* Also see Gregory’s photographs of an orphanage in Nyanga, Cape Town on his website.