this photographer captures the deep, poetic beauty of the world
"I think we deserve accurate portrayals of ourselves, for our beauty to be recognised just like anyone else's." Rich in colour, evocative and visceral, Amaal Said's lens captures something truly special.
The Danish-born, UK-based Somali poet and photographer Amaal Said has always loved telling stories. At 17 years old, she discovered she could express them through poetry, after joining the Barbican Young Poets course, purely by chance. Next came the visuals. Up until this point her experience of art was like that of most millennials, through the dip-dyed, Kawaii-coated prism of Tumblr. But that's where the comparison ends. Because, unlike the majority of her generation, the reason why her experience of art was solely confined to the world wide web was because she wore a hijab and felt too uncomfortable to walk into a gallery or museum. That her own work is now exhibited within these physical spaces is, for her, something short of a miracle. "I'm still pinching myself," she exclaims. This barrier between herself and the art world, and the racial politics that exist in between, has acted as a huge motivator for Amaal, and she has since dedicated her work to bringing visibility to people of colour, particularly women. "I think we deserve accurate portrayals of ourselves," she explains, "for our beauty to be recognised just like anyone else's." Colourful, beautiful and romantic, her images do exactly that.
When did you first get into art?
I had a Tumblr account and I connected with people who introduced me to incredible art from early on. I found walking into any gallery and museum terrifying growing up. I was sure I loved being in those spaces because I had an appreciation for art, but I also wore a hijab. There was a visibility there that I never wanted. It meant I never felt welcome because I hardly saw anyone that looked like me in those spaces. I came up with a project to help with that fear. My lovely friend Annina Chirade let me photograph her in front of a painting and it made me want to take pictures of as many black women as I could. I wanted to fit them into the frame, to make them part of the picture. It's so surreal thinking I've had work shown in an actual gallery.
Why photography in particular?
I chose photography, or photography chose me, because I'm scared of forgetting. My family is scattered all over the world and I wanted to use photography to close some of that distance. There's a tradition of sending photos from overseas to family when something big happens. I remember the packages containing just photographs, especially from Denmark.
Who or what inspires you?
My parents' photo album inspires me. The places they've been and the people they've become. My 11-year-old sister Anisa walking into my room and asking for her photograph to be taken. Knowing she isn't scared of her own reflection the way I was when I was her age is so inspiring and so is how fierce she is already.
How would you describe your overall aesthetic?
I just want to be colourful. I want bright colours and greenery. I love flowers. I also love shadows and falling into them. I want someone to look at a portrait and think, 'ah, this is London?' because London is huge and there are many beautiful corners.
Why is it so important to give visibility to women of colour?
I think we deserve accurate portrayals of ourselves and for our beauty to be recognised just like anyone else's. There are so many young girls growing up looking for themselves everywhere. I just want to to create some space for ourselves to feel badass and to be unapologetic while doing so.
Should one's gender or ethnicity determine one's work?
It's essential to know where the artist has come from. After all, what is the work without the artist? Does it come out of thin air? There's a person with a history, with a position in the world, behind whatever tool is being used. I also feel that because I haven't had the privilege of just being an artist. However, there have been moment in which I've thought, 'why can't I just leave it all behind and be like the white artists in the room who don't have to bring their entire community with them?' Not to say I didn't want to talk about where I've been and where I've come from, but I just noticed that difference and it felt unfair. I was the one with the heavy story and it was expected from me before I opened my mouth just because of the way I looked.
There are things I pull from that have nothing to do with my ethnicity or gender, but that doesn't mean my ethnicity and gender do not matter. I can access certain spaces because of these factors and I can feel excluded from other spaces because of it too. That's important to remember.
Diversity has become part of the cultural conversation in a way it has never before, why do you think this is?
Spaces are opening up now that weren't there before, because noise is being made and important organising is being done. These conversations about our non-inclusion have always been there but they just haven't been heard or taken seriously. It's frustrating having that awareness and then also knowing that not a lot of people feel the same way. I think it's mainly because we're doing the hard work of organising and creating spaces for ourselves.
Do you ever worry about it just being a trend?
Of course. It can be dangerous, especially when organisations or spaces say, "we're going to put up work or create work that tries to speak to marginalised people but we're not going to hire PoC to create this work and to have a say in how these projects are coordinated". But what gives me faith is that there are many artists organising and creating their own spaces.
What's the bravest thing you can do as a young person?
Continue to create, through sadness, through insecurity and anxiety. Find a purpose and run with it. Find others who see you and your work and stay close to them. Create because you need to create and because it can save your life.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on a poetry pamphlet. I have been working on it for nearly four years now and I can finally see the end. I'm also working on bringing my portraits together in a collection too, which is a little scarier.
Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Amaal Said