william ukoh's photos capture the jubilant beauty of black hair
"With every project I do, the first thing I think is: Which black model can I cast in this role?"
i-D Hair Week is an exploration of how our hairstyles start conversations about identity, culture, and the times we live in.
Practically every person William Ukoh shoots is black. Which makes for a beautiful portfolio of black identities and their physical manifestations. There are models with chalk-white box braids, luscious afros, and even a pink buzzcut. However, Willy says his massive portfolio of black hairstyles is not intentional — just a result of capturing as many people of color as possible. His real mission? To carve out a larger space for black people in photography. "As far as I know, there's no black person who has shot the cover of Vogue," he says. "So I'm working on becoming that person." And he's working his way towards accomplishing this big ambition. He documented the artisans of Nigeria for Ventures Africa, had his work featured in this year's New African Photography II exhibition at Red Hook Labs, and has collaborated with a host of Toronto creatives.
William's photos possess a joyful buoyancy that paints blackness as nothing but fun, beautiful, and carefree (a prejudice-free utopia would probably resemble William's worlds). He masterfully stitches together soft color palettes, vulnerable models, and a tender eye. William talks to i-D about what the black creative scene in Toronto is like and why celebrating blackness comes to him so naturally.
How do you attempt to place people of color into the art world?
I think it's more intuition than anything else — seeing as I grew up in Nigeria and I've always been surrounded by black people. After coming to Toronto and seeing the lack of representation, I think it pushed me to try and portray as many people of color in my work as possible. With every project I do, the first thing I think is, "Which black model can I cast in this role?" and from there I build.
You shoot a large spectrum of black identities. How do you come across your subjects?
It's mainly from Instagram, I would say. I've met lots of people through it. I'm always on my explore page, hoping to find someone who lives in Toronto (because it's kind of difficult to).
What is the creative scene like in Toronto? Are there a lot of black creatives there?
Right now it seems like there is a hunger for expression in any creative field possible, especially with music. There's a lot of black creatives here and everyone's supportive of each other and willing to lend a hand.
Your Tumblr and Instagram are remarkably well-curated and dynamic. How does social media play a role in your work?
It plays a heavy role. Instagram opened my eyes to the whole world of creatives. When I started doing photography I was trying to incorporate every style possible. Then, from around 2014, I started to find my rhythm and style. When it comes to Instagram, I think I have a gift for editing, sequencing colors, and making things symmetrical. Those are the things that have always been interesting to me.
Is there a specific mindset you try to possess when you're shooting?
I always approach every project aiming to feel something. If I'm able to feel something, then I'm happy with what I've created. Sometimes that doesn't happen and the project doesn't come out. When I started, I tried to mold my subjects based off what I had in mind. Now I'm in a phase where I feel like the person in front of the camera is just as responsible for the picture as I am. So I try to create a space where everyone contributes equally.
You capture a wide variety of black hairstyles. Is this a conscious effort?
I always say to the models, "Come as you are." I try not to impose and just let people come with their own interpretations of their hair, and that just naturally makes for a diverse palette of hairstyles.
Text Andre-Naquian Wheeler
Photography William Ukoh