Documenting London’s Black Lives Matter Protests: Interview with Paula Abu

Marianne Stenger
2nd July 2020

At just 22-years-old, South London-based photographer Paula Abu has already racked up an impressive list of achievements, from working as creative director for The Floor Magazine to being featured by GUAP & Nike London and working with Getty Images on a series of editorials.

She was recently also selected as one of ten winning photographers for a contest with PAQ and Puma Hoops. In addition to all this, she has just completed her Masters in Pharmacy and now intends to pursue photography full time.

We spoke to Paula about her passion for photography and her work with The Floor Magazine, but also about what it’s been like for her as a young black photographer to be involved in the Black Lives Matter movement that has been gaining momentum in the UK and worldwide.

Photos © Paula Abu

Can you tell us a bit about how you first got started with photography?

I think I was about 11-years-old when I realised that photography and filmmaking were two things I wanted to do, which is quite early to have that sense of clarity. When I turned 18, my dad got me a camera for my birthday and I just started taking photos for fun.  

It was when I started going to university to study pharmacy, and when that got rather tough, that I started thinking “Well maybe I don’t actually want to do this.” That’s when I started to pick up the camera as a form of escapism.

Then a friend messaged me about a job at the Boiler Room. They were looking for a photographer to cover an event. So I thought “Yea I’ll give it a whack,” and I applied. Those photos ended up getting published because of some of the artists that performed, and the ball just kind of kept rolling from there. From that point onwards I started trying to learn the ropes in terms of pricing and trying to get better so my photos would be worth paying for in the first place.

How would you describe your style of photography?

I would say at the heart of it, it’s documentary style portraiture. Although I do enjoy taking portraits in artistic ways, I’m usually trying to tell a story and show the reality of something rather than trying to orchestrate big creative ideas. Of course, I do enjoy doing that sometimes, but it’s always been from more of a narrative perspective. So I would say my style is documentary, portraiture, and a bit of street photography, with a very casual element to it.

Could you tell us a bit about The Floor Magazine for which you’re the creative director?

A friend of mine started it. He was in university studying English, and the curriculum was very white and tailored to a certain type of storytelling. So he wanted to create a platform where people who had different stories and wanted to talk about different types of literature had the space to do so. So that’s how it originally started.

It was originally more literature-based and more about books and poetry. With time, however, it’s become a platform for artists of all mediums to have a place that supports them when they’re up and coming, because most magazines tend to focus on artists that have already been established.

We named it Floor because we wanted to start at the bottom, with people who are extremely talented but just don’t have the reach for bigger platforms. So that’s the basis of it. But we also like reviewing different forms of art, so that includes films, television, and music as well. So it’s essentially a magazine to talk about the things we’re interested in and also feature and spotlight talent as they begin to rise.

We aim to release at least four issues a year in print, although we’re kind of moving more online, because it can be a struggle to sell print magazines. But we do still have the magazine format and it’s downloadable as well.

Recently you had the opportunity to cover some of the peaceful protests that were organised in London following the death of George Floyd in the US. What was it like for you to cover these demonstrations?

Going into it, I was a little bit hesitant. Partly because we’re in the middle of a pandemic, but also because of a sense of futility I have carried a lot throughout my life when it comes to these issues. It’s always been something that’s been a discussion point within our community, so as this was coming up again, I had a sense of hesitation and was just thinking “Oh god, how much is really going to change now?”

But being in the position that I am with my photography, I also felt an urgency to document this time in the movement. Because at the end of the day I was thinking that this is something we’re going to refer back to in a few years when hopefully change has occurred. So the need to document kind of took over and it was actually a very beautiful experience.

There was a feeling of community and being together and realising that it’s not as isolated of an experience as you would imagine. This is especially true right now, because being on lockdown and just scrolling through social media means that everything is kind of hitting you alone. So I think my favourite part of it was the community aspect.

I also think it’s very important for black people to document their own experiences, so I feel that was kind of the role I was playing. But I didn’t really go there with the idea of taking photos, and although I did take my camera along, I didn’t actually use it too often.

Photos © Paula Abu

It does feel like we are on the verge of some big changes. How do you see it?

Well, it’s kind of a dare to hope situation for me. I will say that this reaction is without a doubt the biggest I’ve ever experienced in my life, although I haven’t lived very long. There is something to say about the magnitude of support that we’ve received this time.

A lot of us are a bit apprehensive or hesitant to believe that it will just be more than a week or a two-week social media thing. I mean we are starting to see little things changing in the US and even here in the UK, like taking down the statues. So it’s a dare to hope thing, but I am starting to feel hopeful. Because a lot of people are rallying and the numbers we are seeing are much bigger than we have ever seen in every single city that has decided to join these protests.

I think the timing of it was also pretty intense, because everyone was sufficiently frustrated already due to the coronavirus pandemic. So with this on top of it, it was just way too much, and I think that’s why it got the reaction that it did. In a way it was almost more the timing of everything than the event itself, which is sad to say, but it is very true.

How was documenting these protests different from your previous work and the type of photography projects that you normally work on?

What I have always liked about my photography is that I have a degree of control going in, especially when it comes to the lighting. When I can’t control the light I’m already upset, because that takes such a huge toll on the photos themselves.

I had to approach this with the mindset that I wasn’t even going there to document, because if I did go in thinking “Well I’m going here to try to get some great photos,” I would have spent my time feeling frustrated. So I think relinquishing the element of control that I’m used to was very important. But also, I’m not seeing this as a project per se. It was more just that I was seeing something and feeling it enough to take the photo. So my mindset was different going in and it was just a different approach entirely.

Photos © Paula Abu

What do you think photographers and all of us in general can do to keep the momentum going and try to make sure this isn’t just a passing trend?

I think it’s really difficult because I know a lot of people, and black people especially, are pretty exhausted. Because it can be pretty dramatic to talk about certain things.

During the first week of protests, there was an account on social media that was trying to expose racist incidents in secondary schools in the UK. My secondary school came up, and my friends and I were suddenly flooded with all these memories of things we had experienced but just didn’t have the language to articulate at the time. So I think this whole wave has been exhausting to say the least, and it’s hard to now say that we can’t let this momentum die out.

So although we may need to take some reprieve, I think it will be important to come back to the conversation with the same intensity that we started with and keep consistently circulating information and instances of police brutality. Because it hasn’t stopped, and now with these protests, we are essentially seeing more brutality to stop the brutality, and it makes no sense. So we need to consistently call them out on it and consistently make the demands that we are trying to make to the government for change.

I also think the government is very good at performative change. Taking all these statues down almost feels like a case of “let’s do this and hope they leave us alone.” But real legislation and real conversation needs to start being had. I don’t think the momentum can stop, because if it does, it’s a bit of a waste of energy.

I think it’s important that everyone is having those honest conversations about how they might knowingly or unknowingly be contributing to systems of racism, and specifically people of non-black origin. Of course it can be quite an uncomfortable topic, but you also have to imagine how uncomfortable it is and has been for people who have suffered at the other end of it.

What about future projects? Is there anything you’re working on at the moment?

At the moment I’m just waiting for the outside to open up again. Once it does, though, I have a bunch of personal things that I want to shoot. I’ve been itching to just get out and take photos in general, and of course make some money as well.

So I don’t have any specific projects in mind so far. I think it’s just going to be a lot of trying to get back into the groove that I have lost over the last few months. I just finished my degree as well, so I will have a lot more time on my hands.  

I mean I’ve been taking a lot of photos of my family, but they’re sick of me now. I got a new camera literally just as we locked down. It’s a massive medium format camera, and that’s really what I’m excited about, because it’s completely different to digital. So I’m definitely excited to give that a try.

Photos © Paula Abu

Photos © Paula Abu. You can see more of her work by visiting her website or following her on Instagram @narcography. If you’d like more photography-related interviews, tips and inspiration be sure to browse the Bob Books blog.

Biography:

At just 22-years-old, South London-based photographer Paula Abu has already racked up an impressive list of achievements, from working as creative director for The Floor Magazine to being featured by GUAP & Nike London and working with Getty Images on a series of editorials. She was recently also selected as one of ten winning photographers for a contest with PAQ and Puma Hoops. In addition to all this, she has just completed her Masters in Pharmacy and now intends to pursue photography full time.

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