David Uzochukwu (b.1998) situates mythical creatures within the Senegalese landscape in order to critique the dehumanising western gaze.
Unseen Platform: What first drew you to photography, and how has your way of working developed?
David Uzochukwu: I got into photography as a way of collecting interesting elements. It grew into a tool to figure out my thoughts, and manifest things I wanted to be able to see.
When it comes to photographing humans, I find self portraiture a very forgiving process. There’s time to explore your ideas and different facets of yourself. It’s both practical and liberating. The same applies to post production. It helps to work beyond the confines of having zero budget, and it’s an opportunity to make every inch of an image feel the way you want it to.
Tell us about Drown in my magic. What roles do mythology and surrealism play in this series?
I’ve always been a big fan of everything fantastical, from mythology and local cryptids to surreal moments embedded in daily life. The supernatural can function as a respite from the everyday, feeding from deeply human wishes and fears.
Visualising these creatures, suffering and bound, brought to mind so many references – from the Greek sirens and Poseidon to Mami Wata and variations on Scottish kelpies. It was really about having fun envisioning and consuming this mythology. What kinds of mermaids could live in Senegalese waters? Do centaurs have belly buttons?
But at the same time, it felt like dead serious work. I wanted to embrace the alien otherness projected onto black bodies in a way that could be read both as a critique, and also as pure empowerment. Something about the idea of (re)claiming this narrative of fantasy touched me – there are so many stories waiting to be told.
Drown in my magic was shot in Siné Saloum, Senegal with a local crew. How did the team and the location inform the work?
I had contacts at a production office in Dakar, and the river delta in Siné Saloum seemed like an ideal environment for the series.
The notion of blackness is something inherently tied to western societies, and I felt that, on some level, there was a violence in inadvertently bringing my western gaze there with me.
But it was also an opportunity to unlearn it, to build these magical characters together, and to work in the exciting context that the people there are creating for themselves. We had a really solid crew that made things happen. The fashion assistant and one of the main characters in the series, Papa, has his own modelling agency - Amy Management - and really pushed the casting. The process of location scouting influenced the story, and so did the presence of migration along the coast.
There’s a thin line during collaboration where suddenly everything makes sense, and becomes better and more than what might have stemmed from you alone.
How does the series fit within your wider practice?
I often work with lone characters in nature – emerging from, merging with, or being mirrored in the landscape that surrounds them. They’re caught in a moment of reflection or admiration, linking their inner workings with the environment. It’s fascinating how, in photographs, a landscape can interact with the emotion felt by the subject. Lone deserts connect to people who persevere, calm waters to those who are tranquil, bright skies to moments of awe.
I find the way some painters worked during Romanticism relatable – the power and unpredictability of nature held an important place within art, a source of inspiration and strong emotion. Returning to nature is an arc that I think was important for this series – dealing with the trauma that formed you, collectively finding a way to be free, to be more, and to be at home.
How does working with subjects differ from your self portraits?
When working with others, time is more of an issue – you need to find common ground. If self portraiture feels like trying to find something strange in the familiar, photographing others is like looking for something that you recognise within the strange.
I photograph family and friends, but also people that I come across at school or find on Instagram. Working with artists feels special if you can let your worlds merge, but there is also so much depth in the people that you cross paths with on public transport or while scrolling through your feed – particularly if you create an encounter that pushes you out of your habits. Barriers fall if you meet at 5 AM on a foggy hill, or dredge through a hot swamp together, carrying a bucket of fish.
Text by Ish Doney, Unseen Platform