Interview: Eddie Otchere
Best known for his photographs depicting hip hop culture since the 1990s, acclaimed photographer Eddie Otchere will be creating The Bright Room, a community darkroom at Brighton Festival. We caught up with Eddie to find out more
Can you tell us about your involvement in Brighton Festival this year? How did it come about?
My involvement with the Brighton Festival came about when I finally met Kate Tempest in daylight hours, in Vauxhall for a shoot. We got into this amazing conversation about raving, life and love. She spoke about the Brighton Festival because she was just excited that was she able to do it. She had a vision for the Festival, about the community, about society, and we talked about that.
We left it there, but then I got into a conversation about making work for the Festival with the Festival Producer, Beth Burgess. I thought let’s do something active with an open-door policy, then people can come in and be a part of the art. Let’s create a darkroom, make it transparent and clear, and get people to come in to create images and stick them on the wall. It would be their gallery; like some kind of great socialist utopia. That was general feeling of it but as I’ve started to get more into Brighton, I realise it’s something Brighton might embrace in terms of people and art almost being the same thing, at the same time.
How did you first meet Kate Tempest? What interests you about working with her?
I first met Kate in a rave in Peckham. Her and her squad were celebrating a birthday party, I was with a guy called Gerald and I was photographing him and these rambunctious people, enjoying every moment of it. At the end of the night Kate comes up to me and asked me to thank Gerald for a great set. It was two in the morning and I was not focussing on what was going on, but when I went back to look over my photos from that night Kate’s drummer was in them and I realised I must have met her.
What interested me about working with her is that everything she does is loaded with a sense of motive. It’s more like love than anything else and you can’t help but feel empowered by that. The first time I ever heard her speak, in the Battersea Arts Centre, she did the poem ‘The God’s are in the Betting Shops’ and it blew my mind that words from the mouth of someone so young could be so perceptive, so poetic and yet so street. It was like, finally we have a Shakespeare, a Shakespeare meets Joan of Arc in the 21st century. Finally, we’re advanced enough to actually understand this level of humanity. We can allow ourselves to listen this person and gain power from this person so that we can go about our lives not feeling challenged or afraid. That person, in the back of my mind is always Kate Tempest.
You will also be taking part in Your Place at Hangleton and Whitehawk. Can you tell us what you’ll be doing for that and what attracted you to the initiative?
I went to Whitehawk and bumped into Lorraine Snow, the centre manager of the The Crew Club, a community centre there, and was inspired to record her story. I wanted to know about her life in the heart of a community. The same thing happened when I went to Hangleton, I caught the bus up there and went to their community centre and the door wasn’t locked so I just walked in. Some kids were doing circus practice and I was struck that it was a living centre, beautifully run, and the reach of the Brighton Festival should extend here to the outlying communities.
I want to give people some sense of what photography is in the traditional sense. To say, here’s a roll of film, I want you to shoot your Brighton and I want that to be on display in The Bright Room, so press that button and let the camera tell your story. With that came the idea of the contact sheet as being a photographic motif of narrative; that you can just shoot a roll of film and all those 36 shots are like 36 chapters in your day in Brighton, your story.
You have described your work as a type of ‘mass observation’. Can you tell us what you mean by the term and what interests you about that approach?
Mass observation was an idea I came across that happened in this country in the 1940’s. I think it was a team of photographers who went to the working class communities of the north and started photographing everything. The images are of peoples’ lives in situ just as they were; a slice of life. I felt that I wanted to experience that for myself in regards to East Sussex and the South Coast, just turn up and start photographing.
Even in the last two weeks we’ve been walking around Lewes, Alfriston and the villages outside of Brighton just to circumnavigate the environment and the lives people live. That means walking past a house and seeing a man in wellies, in a river, cutting water-cress. You start talking and that’s actually his life, that’s what he does when he gets up in the morning. Just to observe and to allow the people of Brighton to become a part of this mass observation. I understood this idea to record working-class life not as art but more as a sort of social document. But I’m now trying to make more about art, it’s mass observation as art.
What are you hoping people will take away from The Bright Room?
I’m hoping people will come into The Bright Room to walk away with a skill; to have learnt how to develop a roll of film and print an image. To have learnt how to just go out there, take pictures and have conversations with people. To have learnt how to see themselves and their work amongst other people’s work and see that we are all one. Did I really just say that? I’m just giving you my whole world outlook, sorry!
You are committed to traditional photography and the art of darkroom printing. Why do you prefer this method and what are the benefits of this photographic approach?
I love film photography because it’s a skill and it’s using your eyes in a way we don’t do anymore. With back-projected screens and photons coming out of telephones, things are being thrown at us; we’re not looking at reflected light we’re looking at emitted light. I think we still have to remember to look at things in reality. I want people to experience film photography so they can experience what’s actually there. You can only manipulate so much in film, you have to be honest.
I’m using 8 x 10 paper so each image is small enough to stick on your fridge and you don’t have stand back and look at it. And what a gift. It’s difficult in the world we live in but I still want people to put things on their wall. For when they open their eyes in the morning they see that image and it takes them forward. We are losing that engagement. As soon as you wake up in the morning you go straight to your phone.
How did you first get into photography?
My mum had a camera and I had a chance to play with that once or twice and my generation inherited records and cameras from their grandparents. You take a camera and you put a roll of film in to to see if it still works, you go out shooting and you capture things around you. I think the first photographs I took were of a pair of trainers, the most important thing I had ever bought! After that I went to college and that was it. The minute I got to the darkroom I knew I would love photography. It was not just taking pictures, it was the whole process of developing the picture, printing it and then showing it to someone you photographed and seeing them react.
It was only in 1993 when someone offered to buy a picture of mine that I realised that you can make money from photography and it built up from there. It allowed me to make prints, making prints meant I could do shows, doing shows meant I could understand what curating is and then I could reassign my understanding of art history and add these social spaces where people, art, music and food all interact and people’s minds could be changed. You walk into a show with one mindset and by the time you walk out from that experience you have a different mindset.
For me, the minute I look through the lens at someone you see how the light frames them and you start to look so deeply that you fall in love. It is a bit oversimplified but the image ends up capturing what I see when I am in love with someone. This happened with Kate, you can see it in the contact sheets. That emotive quality, you can’t beat the rush. There aren’t many jobs that give you that level of satisfaction.
You have photographed many of the icons of the Hip Hop scene. What interested you about the capturing the scene?
At the time I started it was an underground scene, very small but very influential and there were so many characters within it who had their own voice, their own manner, their own language; they were like super-beings to me. Whether it was Method Man, Coolio or any one you can think of in that scene, they were such characters. When you turn a camera on them, you feel like you fall in love with them but also you feel like you just captured a God of some kind in the height of their prowess. Hip hop is one of those things that is very empowering.
In England it was slightly different, we didn’t really have MC personalities – our MC’s were our DJ’s in a way. Someone like Fatboy Slim who has the same energy as a rapper except he isn’t lyrical, but when he gets behind the decks and he mixes tunes together he is genuinely having a moment and your in that moment with him. When I photographed Fatboy Slim his record was number one and he was on top of the world and I love it when artists are in that moment. You can’t help wanting to photograph that as you see it happen. I still get that buzz now.
What are you most looking forward to in this year’s Brighton Festival programme?
I’m look forward to everything this Brighton Festival, it is so strong across the board. I am looking forward to being there and recording the performers, recording the people that come to see it, recording the parts of Brighton that the performances are happening in. Celebrating the fact that Brighton has a festival! Brighton is not England’s first, second or even third city, it is way down the league but its celebrations are bigger than anything else, maybe only second to Notting Hill Carnival in my head anyway! And unlike Notting Hill Carnival which was never supported by the council, it is beautiful because it is a combination of community and the organisers’ vision for Brighton, and Brighton’s vision for itself. It is such a powerful thing to see a city celebrate itself like that. I am looking forward to being able to record it on camera and let the world know that this is how a city gets down!