Vanessa Peterson is a photographer based in London, England. At age 23, she was shortlisted for the 2014 30 Under 30 documentary photography award presented by Magnum Photos – one of 60 young photographers earning the designation (out of 800 judged applicants), after applying through youth arts charity IdeasTap to show their pictures at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. Peterson was born in Manchester, a first-generation British-Ghanaian, and in July of 2013 travelled to the city of Accra to take part in a photography workshop organized by Invisible Borders. The Nigeria-based organization’s annual road trips involve photographers traveling from Lagos across Africa to cities including Bamako (2009), Dakar (2010), Addis Ababa (2011), Libreville (2012), and over the Mediterranean Sea to Sarajevo (2014). “The Accra Project” workshop explored the concept of being African in the 21st Century, with the resulting photos exhibited in Accra’s W.E.B. Du Bois Centre. In May 2015, as part of the 56th Venice Biennale, photographs from Peterson’s Accra Project series “Folkland” went on display as part of an Invisible Borders exhibition titled “A Trans-African Worldspace.” The multi-room installation featured the work of 14 artists who had previously worked with Invisible Borders, and will be staying on display through November 2015. I interviewed Peterson shortly after returning from Venice about working with Invisible Borders, her approach to photography, Africa’s place in larger photographic discussions, and her relationship with Ghana.
What follows are her words, adapted from our conversation.
On 2013’s Accra Project
I got involved by just stumbling across a Tumblr post that was looking for photographers and writers and general media makers to be involved in Invisible Borders. The Accra Project was a 3-week project in Accra, Ghana where they would carry out different interventions, and then hopefully put on an exhibition at the end to create a sort of dialogue with different artists and photographers that were currently in Ghana, and outside of Ghana as well. They also hosted a public art exhibition at a roundabout in Nima, which is quite a transient migrant community in Accra, and has quite a reputation for being an area which people wouldn’t normally go to. So their method, again, was trying to communicate with people that may not ordinarily look at photographs, because they don’t see themselves, and to try to establish that dialogue. So I was a part of that in general for three weeks.
When I was doing the Accra Project, it was a group of photographers, and then a filmmaker and a few writers. I’m quite solitary. I work alone most of the time. I’m quite happy to do things alone. I like to have my own space to think and contemplate. So it was a completely different kind of atmosphere to be thrown amongst people I’ve never met. I’d arrived in Ghana maybe two days before the workshop started, and I was kind of forced to be in this contained space in the minibus driving around and exchanging ideas. But what initially seemed like something that would be difficult for me to process, was actually an asset. Because it turned out we were able to discuss different ideas about things like Pan-Africanism, politics. We had people from Nigeria as well, so it was interesting to talk about the relationships between Ghana and Nigeria. Just to have a safe space to exchange those ideas left me a lot more confident in producing my work, and being able to go out and know the area properly, and being able to have my own take on things. I think collaboration within the project is really important. The project works on everyone understanding each other’s work, and taking bits of it to produce their own.
The work that I created was a series called “Folkland,” and it ended up being quite a personal sort of introspective body of work, because I have quite personal links to Ghana. My parents and all my family were born there, but I was born in the U.K. It turned out coincidentally, not planned at all, that one of the areas that Invisible Borders wanted to look at and study in detail was a part of Accra called Jamestown, which is where all of my father’s family comes from. I hadn’t been there for quite a few years, and it was quite emotional to be back there, because it was a place that I know is part of my heritage and culture, but I didn’t know much about it. So walking around, I just tried to take in what was happening and not interrupt the general process of things that were going on during the day. I didn’t really approach people for portraits or anything. It was more an outsider looking in, or just looking for those quiet moments that tend to get lost I suppose in a general city atmosphere. So that was where my body of work came from, then turned into something that I wanted to say -- that there are these moments of introspection, and a lot of the work that can be seen of Africa or African photography, I think it sometimes only tells one story. I wanted mine to be a lot more personal and quieter, and to have moments of reflection for people to look at and question what was going on at the time, and to leave it open to interpretation.
I’ve always been attracted to photography that is political, that has something to say. I believe that we live in a world where we see so many images – we see thousands upon thousands daily – but there are projects, images that do resonate with you. I think it’s important that those journalists and photographers carry on disseminating these stories to people. With respect to Invisible Borders itself, I think it’s really great in the sense that there is this kind of cultural dialogue. And that is even within countries in Africa. I mean, I didn’t go on the long haul road trips, where they went from country to country. But even just working in Ghana, and having a final event at the end where we invited maybe 100 people, young people, older people to come and look at our work and ask us questions – it was a great way to see people interact and think about things that are happening on their doorstep. I think it’s a project that’s really important going into the future, because it does often feel that we’re living in a more closed-off world. I’m here in the UK, where at the moment we’ve voted a party in that is looking to potentially leave the European Union and become potentially more insular. I think it’s important that photography, and art in general, talk to people and move beyond borders. I think Invisible Borders, as in the name, does that really, really well.
On the Venice Biennale
It was overwhelming. I’ve never been involved in anything like that before. I’ve been to different exhibition openings, but obviously Venice is on a different level of wealth and everything. So it was a matter of taking it in my stride, and trying to process everything as best as I could. I think it’s actually only since I’ve come back that I’ve had time to reflect on all the different things that have happened, the people that I’ve met. I think the most humbling thing is going into the exhibition space, which is two adjoining rooms, and seeing people interact with your work and discuss your work. I think that’s an amazing thing, to think that so many people over the next couple of months will be passing through and having their own opinions about what they’ve seen. Maybe if they take something away from the exhibition that they didn’t realize before, that is a good thing. But overall, it’s definitely a place where you have to be quite brave, and you have to be quite outspoken, because if you’re quiet, then you’ll get lost in the whole buzz of the event. It’s art on a different level.
It was selected images by Emeka Okereke, who selects images that he felt worked best. It’s a collaborative kind of body of work, in the sense that each of the participant’s works are meant to work alongside each other, so it will provide an overall experience of the road trip itself, and how different artists have different takes on their travels and what they were seeing. So for me, with Folkland, it was just single images that had been selected that just seemed to work best together in the overall scheme of the installation. It’s kind of like a 15-second slide show on three wooden plinths. It’s like a projection. So you do get to spend time with a lot of people’s works and video installations, and films as well. Overall, I think it worked really, really well at the end. There was a really clear language and dialog running through all the artists, which is quite apparent as soon as you walk in.
On Pursuing a Photography Career
I think maybe I went into things quite naively. Because this was something initially for me that I was happy to do, in the sense of there’s a new generation of photographers that are kind of establishing dialogue with each other, and the internet makes everything so much broader. So I was looking at all these people creating art on Tumblr, and Twitter, and Instagram, and I guess it filled me with this kind of enthusiasm to go out there and just produce work, and not care where exactly it ended up. I would say it was probably a naïve sense, because I would suspect someone older and more mature would maybe go about things a different way. They probably know how various systems work, and maybe what bodies of work work better in different places and outlets. But it was quite an experimental thing for me to do, and quite impulsive, and I think my age probably helped in the sense that I wasn’t really tied to these kind of burdens of it being a project that had to make money or had to be seen by so many people. It was just a way for me to start thinking “Okay, this is maybe a career that I want to take seriously.” Then getting recognition, and me being shortlisted to the final 60 of the Magnum 30 Under 30 was again kind of unexpected, because it was a thing that for me was very personal. I always wondered if people would be able to connect with it the same way, or have the same understanding of what I had been doing – whether with personal pieces of work, or work that is quite simple, and still people may not understand or may be looking for different things. But it was a huge honor to be selected for that, and things like that do give you a boost, and obviously Venice as well. At the age of 23 you start to think, “Okay, well maybe this is something that career-wise has always felt kind of out of bounds for me. But now, in the future, who knows where it could go.”
I’ve had the same camera for about 10 years. It’s like an entry level SLR – just a Nikon D40 that my mother bought me when I was about 15 or 16. As I said, I wasn’t expecting things to be as they were; otherwise I would have done things differently. But it was the best camera I had at the time, and it did everything I needed it to do. It was probably more testament to the fact that it’s not what you have equipment-wise, but it’s what you’re looking at or what you’re seeing. That’s probably the one piece of advice I would offer to people – that a lot of people want to clamor for the best and the most expensive, and I was using something that was probably about 5 or 6 years old at the time, and wasn’t probably the best I could’ve had, but it did the job.
On Highlighting Ghana in Her Work
Here in the U.K., I’ve managed to make friends and networks that are kind of entrenched in what I would call European photography or Western photography, in the sense that the conversations and discussions and critical thought that I’m seeing in contemporary photography does seem to exclude continents like Africa and South America. So I struggle with the fact that people often want to pigeonhole me straight away into this kind of African photography niche box, which I don’t think exists, and is also quite difficult for me to navigate as someone who doesn’t actually spend much time on the continent, being in the diaspora. I maybe go back [to Ghana] once a year, if that. So I would say it’s been harder than I thought to start talking about these things. Start talking about Invisible Borders to people that I know here in London and Manchester and different cities, because the knowledge just isn’t there. How that can change, I don’t know. I think it is on the part of educators and critics to be more aware of what’s going on outside of the main, or supposed centers of production, and to pay more attention to these artists, and not marginalize work that comes out of these countries. I’ve found much more interest in my work coming from people that are either based on the continent, based in African countries, or already have some kind of interest or knowledge of maybe African politics, history, culture. But outside of those spheres… It was surprising for me to get the recognition of being shortlisted for Magnum, because I wasn’t expecting that. So I think things do need to change. I’m starting to see it slowly. But at the same time, things like Venice, where so many artists came from countries that aren’t normally in these kinds of spheres is great. I think more needs to be done in that sense, definitely.
On Language Barriers
English is the only language that I’m fluent in. I do understand my parents come from Accra, and they speak Ga there. I understand Ga, I understand Twi, but I can’t speak them very well. Which I would say is actually an issue that I found quite difficult when I was out making work, because sometimes you’re in areas where people will instantly speak to you in local languages. I could maybe understand what they were saying, but I would respond in English, and things would get lost in translation. So that was an issue, but I hope to learn more eventually. My family aren’t very happy with the fact that I can’t really speak any Ghanaian languages as of yet.
On Where She Promotes Her Work
At the moment, it’s very digital – places like Instagram, and Tumblr as well, where I often write or post different images that I would call research-based. But I also post my own images from time to time. I also have a website I do try and update. But again, it’s one of those things where sometimes you can be so overwhelmed by the digital sphere, of everything has to be posted straight away, I probably don’t use it as much as I should. But Instagram has been great for me. It’s interesting to see people interact with different works. Even just looking at what people like, you realize what people comment on. You start to get an inkling as to what people appreciate, and what they don’t appreciate, and it’s quite instant gratification in a sense. Whether that’s always the best thing to use when you make slow bodies of work, or large bodies of work that take a long time, I don’t know. But it’s interesting to see what people do connect with straight away.
On England’s Ghanaian Diaspora
I’m in London now. But I’m originally from Manchester in the north of England, and I would say that these are contrasting places. In Manchester, I grew up in a place where it was not very diverse at all. You struggle to find certain kinds of hair places or food shops or whatever. I’m now living in Dalston, which is a town in East London, and it has really high concentrations of Ghanaians, Nigerians. You walk to the local market, which is 5 minutes away from my flat, and you hear an array of Ghanaian languages, see so many different African food stalls. There’s definitely an African presence in that little area that I live in, which is comforting in a way for me. It’s been a nice way for me to connect with that side of things, and be able to go to local markets and buy food. I did a project actually on this area of Dalston, and how different communities and cultures are interacting with each other. It’s a really great thing to see, especially in light of the anti-immigration rhetoric that is kind of flying around in this country at the moment. It’s really comforting to be in a place like this, and realize that it isn’t all negative. Different cultures can live side by side respectively and respect each other. It’s a great place to be. I think London is one of a kind, in the sense that I don’t think I could find anywhere else like this in the U.K., for sure.
Diaspora, Ghana, Invisible Borders