Documenting Life with Abdul Hamid Kanu
Photographer Abdul Hamid Kanu Jr. was born in the north of Sierra Leone in the Bombali District. Growing up between Makeni and Freetown, Abdul recalls his memories of his first digital camera gifted to him by his mum who worked at the first ever digital photo printing studio in Sierra Leone as a cashier. In secondary school, Abdul spent many afternoons at his mum’s workplace where he had the opportunity to meet local photographers and experiment with the cameras in the store. Seeing his own visions captured in photos printed by his mum solidified Abdul’s love of photography which was only further cultivated by his role as designated school photographer, “when I was around my friends in secondary school, I would always be the one to take the photos. People would say things like, ‘oh he takes better photos”, he told us. As a result, Abdul recognised that he would rather be behind the camera over being in the photos himself.
“I enjoy archiving what’s going on and telling stories about people and the time that we are living in right now.”
What would you say are the most significant landmarks that have occurred in your life so far that have pushed you to become who you are now as an artist?
I grew up in Makeni away from my Mum and Dad; my dad used to work in the villages in the province and my Mum worked in Freetown. Being away from them so much, I developed the urge for exploration. I used to go out with my friends and spend all day by the stream and when we would come back in the evening, our bodies would be ashy. One way or another, I believe all of that influenced me in terms of how I perceive time and every moment that I get to pass through. Whilst I was in secondary school I played in the high school brass brand which meant that I got to travel a lot. At first, I had wanted to learn the drums, but I was terrible at that, so I then moved onto the symbols, the trumpet and then eventually the French horn. We visited all the districts in my region, I would be at school and then they would tell us after school that we would be travelling so you would have to quickly run home and get your things. All of this developed my understanding of what life is really about. It pushed me to travel and to meet people. It encouraged me to be around others and to feel comfortable and be bold.
After high school, I gained a scholarship to study Information Systems Engineering in Turkey, but somehow, I found this boring compared to the lifestyle I was used to. Even though I was quite good at developing programmes, I liked the artistic aspect of my life growing up. At this time, I had started using a professional camera that my friend and I had bought- it was 2017. We started taking fashion photographs of ourselves, but unfortunately, we didn’t get to do too much of this because we were each living in different cities. So, I started documenting. I started going out and learning how to use to the camera properly. I would take pictures of flowers and when I would meet strangers, I would ask them if I could take their photo. I learned about street photography and how to edit my photos in the black and white style that I’m using now. I also started vlogging and documenting my life as a student and photographer in Turkey. During the pandemic lockdowns I started to take the time to learn even more about the craft by practicing at home and documenting that process with my friend.
I then went back to Sierra Leone when things started going back to “normal”, and I decided to throw myself fully down the path of becoming a visual storyteller and I got a job in Freetown before transitioning to freelancing which gave me more time to document the street which I’m quite passionate about. I enjoy archiving what’s going on and telling stories about people and the time that we are living in right now. Right now I’m slowly returning to fashion photography as I’m currently working as a Creative Director at a modelling agency in Freetown, so it’s coming back full circle.
What’s the one thing you wish you knew when you first started taking photographs, and what have you done to improve/ develop your practice over time?
First thing- Archiving my work. All the photographs that I took between 2016 to 2020 were saved to one hard drive, and when I moved from Turkey back to Freetown, I don’t know what happened, but I lost them. My style of work involves a whole lot of documenting and archiving and so unfortunately, I’ve lost almost 5 years of documentation. I now use several hard drives and I’m trying to archive my work so that I don’t have to go through this again.
Another thing, whilst I was working and learning how to take photographs there were certain times where I would use most of my time trying to create content rather than documenting. I feel like documenting is an art form, whilst creating content as an artist puts you in a position where you always have to be selling something. With content creation you have to follow trends and algorithms and be constantly putting out work in order to get noticed, it’s about quality over quantity.
How would you describe your photographic style, and what is it that inspires or influences you the most?
I tend to take my photos in black and white because I feel that less is more. Colours as beautiful as they are can be distracting sometimes, especially with street photography where you have no control over what colours come into play. For example, you could have 50 different colours and sometimes this can take away from how natural it is, whilst black and white preserves the moment, preserves the story that is presented to you, and also maintains the visual hierarchy. If the colours are there, maybe some colours might not be as vibrant as others, and it takes away from what I as the photographer want you to see. My style is based on documenting the ordinary and seeing the beauty in everyday life and how we develop as humans. People inspire me. Humans inspire me. Being around people and seeing how they interact and how they go about leading their lives inspires me.
“It is quite essential to know where we’ve come from, and as much as the world is changing it would great if we can all accept our cultures and learn from the past.”
What’s the story behind your favourite photograph that you’ve taken?
It’s really hard to say that I have a favourite photograph, there are many that are close to my heart, they mean a lot to me as a storyteller and have changed how I think about things in general but to actually choose one, it’s close to impossible! I’m always striving to be in the position where I’m creating things that are from my heart and that people can really connect to. I’ve not taken my favourite photograph yet.
If you could travel anywhere in the world to complete a documentary project, what subject or themes would you explore and why?
I’ve heard of a place in the Caribbean called Carriacou in Grenada, where there are Temne people living there and I believe they speak Temne also, I’m Temne by tribe. Temne is one of the largest tribes in Sierra Leone. Coming back from Turkey, I spoke Turkish fluently but at some point in time I forgot how to speak my language. I could hear it, I could understand it, but I couldn’t speak it. When I wanted to speak, all I could think of was Turkish. The Temne people settled in the Caribbean in areas where people were previously enslaved. These people live there and have maintained Temne practices and culture: they have the drums, the music, and the dance. I think it’s quite interesting, I would love to see this place, meet the people and see how their culture and language has evolved over time and contrast it with Temne people who have lived in Sierra Leone all their lives or have been settled here for some time.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
How do you see yourself developing professionally over the next 2 years?
I would really want to be in the position where I can sustain myself through my art. I would also love to make a couple of coffee table books and host some exhibitions and for people to learn more about the places and people that I document. The ability to just be outside documenting freely is success enough though.
Follow Abdul Hamid Kanu on Instagram @kanuvisuals