Words: Kazeem Kuteyi, Photography: Nefertiti Hernandez, Sydney Allen-Ash
I would like to think that at some point we all ask ourselves three things; Why are we here in this world? What are we meant to do? and What can we change? In the era of new media, it is easy to get caught up in the noise but we can find our place amongst it by being passionate about our arts and supporting our creative brothers and sisters. To change something, our personal journeys must connect with others and their passions as well. Meet Sydney Allen-Ash, a writer, photographer, and creative consultant from Toronto doing just that. When she launched her digital platform, Portrait, I was interested in having a conversation with her to discuss what inspired her platform and what she is trying to achieve.
Kazeem: What is Portrait and what are you trying to achieve with it?
Summer of last year, I went to Europe for the first time. I went to London, Portugal, Iceland, and Copenhagen. I went to bunch of art galleries while I was out there. I do not know what prompted me to go to these places but I have always enjoyed art. I like galleries because I like environment and I like understanding how the environment affects your interaction with the art, so going to more and more galleries I realized what was good about them and what was bad about them. When it came down to what I was going to do for my thesis, I said “Ok, I’m going to do it on art, creation and exhibition”. For the first part of the semester I was thinking about curation and exhibition. Curation being what stories are being told and exhibition being how the story is being told— that kind of power structure is really interesting to me.
I had a revelation when I went to Chicago for the first time in October for the Chicago marathon to support my friends who were in it. It was also the weekend of the Chicago Architecture Biennial and I read about a few things beforehand that I wanted to check out. One of them was the Stony Island Arts Bank that is in the South Side of Chicago. It is this giant bank from the 50s or 60s set to be demolished by the city but this artist, Theaster Gates, went in with his Rebuild Foundation and they decided to renovate it completely. They gutted the whole interior and have turned into a library, a community arts space, and an archive of music, objects, books and so much stuff. It is a real treasure. It was real interesting to me because it was not quite a community arts center or a gallery either— finding that intersection was quite interesting to me.
So I went to the Southside of Chicago and everyone was telling me you do not take the subway there, it did not really faze me. I took one subway to another subway and got out at the end and I realized immediately that I was not wanted. I am mixed but it does not readily show to everybody and I understand that. I looked around— I was the only white-looking person in that neighbourhood and everyone was staring at me. It felt hostile. I was on the bus and everyone was staring at me. I’m not telling this story to be like “Oh boohoo, poor me, I experienced racism”— it is not that at all. The whole time I was on this bus I was like “Don’t look too happy. Don’t look too angry. Don’t look at the window. Don’t look at people”. I was negotiating my identity through the eyes of someone else. I was projecting what I thought they thought about me onto myself. This was a huge realization for me that some people feel this way every day of their lives, no matter where they go. I have had so many conversations about racism, systematic oppression, but it is when you are actually there and I am not saying I fully understand it at all but for two hours, I was like “Oh my fuck”. It was consuming and I could not think about anything else.
From that experience I realized that my thesis on curation and exhibition was inherently flawed. You can not just look at what happens inside of a space to understand how someone interacts with it. You have to understand what that person was going through, what that person’s experiences were before hand in their own environment and before they stepped into yours. That was where I shifted and did Portrait. I built it because there needed to be a platform to share the stories of people who are not getting highlighted enough. It was built to address not just individual experiences, but a bigger structure. My experience with the Stony Island Arts Bank taught me that it is not just what’s on the wall and how big it is— it is where the gallery is the community it is a part of. There was community before there was an art gallery there.
The Chicago trip taught me that my lens was inherently flawed— it was one sided. I needed to look at the individual and their experiences more than I needed to look at the physical space. It is essentially a platform that highlights people who challenge their environment.
“It is unacceptable in my eyes to be creating something and not have something to say. If you are just taking photos, or just writing things or doing whatever just to do it— it means nothing in my eyes.”
You are a multi-talented creative. You engage in photography, writing, and host events; what exactly are you chasing?
That is hard, it is also what I am trying to figure out right now. At this point, I am about to graduate and evaluate what my next steps are. Trying to see into the future, like five years from now, where do I want to be? Actually, two weeks ago my favourite professor said to me “If you don’t pursue a Masters degree or pursue higher education, the world is going to be missing something”. I have never thought about doing a Masters degree. I am the person known in my program for always criticizing something. I can see the flaws in my program, in my institution, and the industry that I am going into. It always seemed counterintuitive up until now to do a Masters degree and when I was explaining that to my professor, he told me that is why I needed to do it. He said I “had perspectives that can change something”. I don’t know about the Masters thing but I am definitely going to take a year off before I do that, but on a broader scale regarding what I am chasing it’s really just— I am seeing more that it is an intersection between art and community; trying to understand how art institutions and expression in general can be used to change things. That is what I am doing with Portrait. I am doing interviews with individuals, but it is to highlight these people who are using their mediums to change things. I am interested in breaking down the barriers in institutions, so whether that is school, an art gallery, industry, or anything that is so big or intimidating that it discourages people from getting into it. That is what I am going for, I am trying to fix that.
Self Portraits by Sydney Allen-Ash
We asked Sydney to send us self portraits to include in this piece.
Do you mean intimidation in the terms of trying to enter a creative field?
It can be multiple different things. If it is a creative field, I think that barrier is becoming lower and lower because we have so much access to technology. I am sitting at this table with a bunch of young people and we have four cameras between the four of us. That is not really a barrier anymore and because of highly visual social media platforms, such as Tumblr and Instagram, visual communication is how this generation knows how to speak. I think that the barrier comes after the interest and it is like “professionalization” or being taken serious as a creative. I think that is a huge problem in the industry right now. Free work, interning, not getting paid for what you are doing; all these passion projects and there’s no money being made— that’s the problem. In terms of intimidation, things like post-secondary education and giant art institutions like the AGO or whatever— the way they will accept people is not accessible to everybody. I find that schools and art galleries work in a similar way. Democratizing the barrier to those institutions is important to me.
With what you have said so far, you are on this mission to make a change. Is it important that we as creative, create in hopes to change something?
Yeah, I think so. It is unacceptable in my eyes to be creating something and not have something to say. If you are just taking photos, or just writing things or doing whatever just to do it— it means nothing in my eyes. If you have a platform or a skill, you should use that to change something. It is definitely important to have a vision especially in a creative industry. I was just reading the latest issue of Now Magazine, there are 11 musicians in there and Lido Pimienta is on the cover and she said something along the lines that there is “no difference between entertainment and political issues”. People see entertainment as entertainment and social and political issues as something different but it is not, it is the same thing. Any creative manifestation of the culture is a reflection of what is going on. We are in such a highly visual culture; you can use your creative expression as a way to change the culture. If you are just shooting aimlessly or just writing aimlessly, what is the point?
Would you think that having a mission to change things would also allow you to grow professionally?
Yeah. It just gives you the motivation to keep going. There is only so many pretty pictures you can take, there is only so many hours you can spend on Photoshop, there is only so many Instagram handles you can check out or schmoozy events you can go to meet people. All of that stuff has a superficial value and it does not really resonate or stick. You need a deeper reason for what you are doing. It will guide your career and it will show you what it is important and what is not.
You think formal education is important these days?
No. Formal education like university or college is not necessary at all. It works for me but that does not mean it works for everybody. If you are self taught, go for it. I am self taught in photography and writing and I do not think creativity is something you can teach per se— I think learning the tools or the language to speak about or access it is something that university can offer you but it is not the only way. Especially with the Internet and looking back retrospectively, I can say what the fuck am I doing in university. I look at all my technical classes like when I learnt Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, or any of those courses. I could have taught myself using Google or YouTube and because the Internet is so huge, our professors themselves are using YouTube tutorials to teach us. I am like “Oh well, why the hell am I paying $600 for this course if I could have taught myself”. This is what I have realized— university is not for teaching you things, it is teaching you how to learn and deal with life, that is it. The curriculum is so secondary, you get what you give with that but it also teaches you dedication, you know, sticking to something for four years— but that is not to say you can not get that elsewhere, but it works for me.
What is your experience like being a woman in the creative industry?
It is hard to say because I’m not really that in it yet. My perspective and my experiences are nothing in comparison to someone who has been in it for ten years, five years, or even two years. My personal experience has been pretty sweet so far, I have gotten nothing but respect from my close coworkers but I do find it hard to find people who are like me. It is a lack of representation. There are a bunch of female photographers that I look up to but there is not enough in Toronto. It is kind of hard that way. In addition to that, the pay gap is real but I have not been in the industry long enough to have a more lived experience in that realm— but in terms of my ground level experience, I was shooting for Nomad and that was super interesting.
The Goods, right?
Yeah. Being a woman in a male dominated environment has been super interesting.
It feels like the reversal of the male gaze. Are you familiar with that term?
It is essentially every piece media in the world is created for the male gaze. We live in a patriarchal society, so everything is created that way. Women in day-to-day lives are taught to perform (subconsciously or consciously) in ways that will please a male gaze, so being a female photographer, shooting men for a male audience was like the reversal of that because on some sub-conscious level the guys were kind of “performing” for me. I am in control of the way they looked. Photography is a way of studying people— I could look at their posture, their body language, how nervous they get in front of the camera and in combination of asking them about their background, I learned so much about them. On a broader level, I do not think I can comment on what it is like to be a woman in this industry but I know from reading enough— it is going to be challenging.
Did you always know you were going to pursue this when you were younger?
No. Not at all.
What were you going to do?
I got my own camera which is the same camera that I have now in grade 10. I just wanted to take pictures of my friends. The fact that it was a DSLR is how I learned to shoot. I kind of dropped it when I went to university, but in my second year of university I had a photography class and I kind of felt illegitimate cause I am self taught. I was thinking like “Oh, I’m not really a photographer, these people know more than me”, but they were teaching us things and I was like, “Oh, I know that”. During my third year we had to produce a mock editorial for a brand and I did not want to do Prada, Chanel, or Jill Sander. I do not really care about fashion in that way and you have put down $1000 to borrow those clothes— if you wreck them, you have to pay for it so I did not want risk that so I decided to pick this brand, called Ciele Athletics which is based out of Quebec.
Oh, the brand you work with?
Yeah I shoot for them. I am a runner; I have a community full of runners that I can pull from and they are all good looking which is nice. They all brought the hats that they already owned and I did not have to spend any money. It ended up turning out really well and I was really happy with the results. I posted it on Instagram and that brand contacted me— they loved it so much that they wanted to work with me. From that point out, I was hired as their photographer and I have produced all their lookbooks. Bless the Internet. That was the point where I was like “Maybe I’m kind of good at this”, but it was not really until I started shooting for Nomad. I was being introduced as the photographer for The Goods and I said “Ok, I’m real now. I need to put this in a bio somewhere, I need to put together a website”, but even now I do not want to be a photographer exclusively— I do not want to be a photographer “period”.
I do not even think you are. I think the whole idea of having a title is old.
Yeah I agree with you, we are in the slash age now. I have no desire to specialize in that. I kind of shy away from certain aspects of photography like lighting and studio work. I only really do shoot outside but right now I recognize photography right now as a way to express my perspective, to communicate my voice— to get work. People are giving me access to their platforms through photography.
You have this spirit of doing and I feel that has lead to so many other opportunities. What would you say to someone trying to get into a creative field?
Just start. I am sure a million other people who you have asked that question to have said the same thing. In addition to that, if you really want to do it you should have a reason. Yeah, it is fine in the beginning to be shooting around taking pictures of your feet or your cat, but if you really want to do this; why do you want to do it? what stories do you want to tell? why do you want to tell them? how do you want to tell them? It is also important to learn the history a little bit— learn your references. I was talking to my friend Marco about this and he wrote this essay about how we have lost the depth of understanding in referencing because we have so many images thrown at us. Being able to understand the history of your references and understanding where you got your inspiration from is really important. To anyone who is coming right now— “screenshotting” and making a “moodboard” and a nice colour coordinated Instagram, that shit means nothing. You need to understand the deeper story and the ideas you are trying to get across.
Some people look at creative careers as a dream. “Oh, you’re a photographer, you must be living the dream. You’re not doing a 9-5”, but the thing is that we need people to work those 9-5s in our society; the way functionalism works, we still need the nurses, the doctors. Being creative is a career.
I was reading the book Curationism by David Balzer and there was this line in it something along the lines of “The easiest way to exploit someone is to convince them they are doing something that they love”, so when someone is asking me “You’re a photographer, you must love doing it, can you just shoot these headshots for free?”— if you are doing something that is meaningful and you are putting thought into it, that is work.
One last question, would you say you’re living the dream?
I don’t know. I feel like having a dream is the same thing as having a motivation for doing whatever you are doing. I have something vague that I am striving towards, something that I want to change in a loose way. That is what I am working for and that is what I am living. To say I am living the dream is so not right. I am happy that my life is good. I am not sure that whoever is passionate for what they do would ever say that they are “living the dream” because there’s always room for improvement. I cannot even afford to buy juice every week— I am not living the fucking dream.