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Film photographer Elijah Ndoumbé tries to both create movement and capture stillness in their work. Born and raised in France to a French Cameroonian father and an American mother, Ndoumbé left France for the suburbs of LA, where their mother is from, around the age of nine. Despite their impressive portraiture, they didn't get into photography until their later years in college, when they realized that art could give them something that the activism they'd been involved in could not.
Today, 24-year-old Ndoumbé is based in Cape Town, South Africa where, along with their portraits, they create stunning street and lifestyle photography. They spoke to Broadly about developing their style, the relevance of location and art, and making work that's creatively fulfilling whether it centers transness or not.
BROADLY: How did you find yourself drawn to photography?
ELIJAH NDOUMBÉ: It wasn't until I went to school at Stanford that I started doing photography, and that wasn't until my later years at the university. I was focused more on critical studies around race, ethnicity, gender, and queerness as those related to me as a biracial, trans, queer-identifying person. But then there were a lot of things happening at that moment in time in the states with colleges and activism and movement work, and then students kind of got exhausted. At least, I'll speak for myself, I think I misunderstood what activism was in that realm. That's how I came full circle into art making and photography at the time because of the fact that I was traveling, and I was meeting other people of color who were queer who were not in the academy and who were making work and creating spaces for people like me. That was something I was experiencing that was bringing me joy and bringing me life. So it was kind of through that that I started using visual mediums.
How would you describe your photography style?
It's hard. It depends on what you're talking about. The immediate thing that comes to mind is strength in my portraiture. Movement is a big part of my work. I feel like I'm consistently trying to find movement in the moment and also capture that moment of stillness as well. I feel like in the last year I've tried to push myself to be a bit more focused on image making with spaces and engaging with negative spaces and that kind of thing. I'm also doing filmmaking and DOP (director of photography) work. I prefer shooting on film when the resources allow. There's something about the quality of film, the texture, it lends a different kind of quality to the image and also the thing about film being a bit more expensive and a certain number of shots, you must be so intentional with the way you're taking shots. It makes it special and sacred in that way. That's the first thing in terms of looking at the physicality of my work. Mainly, I'm taking photos of people that are in my life, people I'm in relationship to, and that could be anyone from my partner, who's also a phenomenal artist across mediums, to my friends, to artists and people that I meet and there's an exchange there.
Who are some of your favorite photographers or your greatest influences, and what is it about their work that inspires you?
My immediate answer with regards to photographers who have had influence or whose work inspires me is professor Zanele Muholi. Part of what inspired me to commit to my journey in image-making was Muholi's Faces and Phases series, and the consistent and deliberate exploration of self and community through Muholi's work. Dawoud Bey is another photographer whose portraiture moves me deeply—and as an emerging artist and photographer whose lens prefers portraiture, his work is a huge inspiration to me.
Naeem Davis is one of my chosen family members and also a phenomenal cultural maker, filmmaker, and creative based in London. Our relationship was pivotal during my introduction to image-based work, and the intention one imbues in the process of making such work. I am also most grateful to have studied briefly under artists and photographers Jonathan Calm and Jamil Hellu, and to have been held in an institutional space by mentors who in some way could relate to the specificity of my experience (as a queer and trans person, as a brown person of the African diaspora).
You've lived across continents, how does location influence your work?
Location definitely influences my work. There's so much there. There's the context of who I am in relation to the space; there's the context of my relationship to the history of a place, my relationship to the people that are there. There are certain things, for example, that I would never photograph [in South Africa], not being from here. I'm very grateful for the work that I've had with some really dope activists on the ground here when I was a baby student a few years ago and then kept coming back and building with folks in different capacities. Now it's more artist-focused and just trying to get my craft strong. But I'm very lucky to be engaging in a conversation around photography that I got introduced to mainly here in South Africa around what it means to be understanding about what that medium did to an entire population of people and what it did to create systems of race and power and to perpetuate legacies of colonialism. There's so much denseness and richness there. If that doesn't make you sit and think as an image maker, as a photographer, I don't know what you're doing, regardless of who you are. For me, it's people who are the conduits, so it's relationships that allow me to connect and create. It's about respecting the relationships that I have with people.
Did you have people like yourself to look up to you in this field when you were younger?
Aside from having Jonathan Calm and Jamil Hellu as direct mentors, I have to say I'm not super informed on who is out there in the field. I'm sure there are trans photographers, whatever trans means to someone. I'm sure there are people across the spectrum who practice photography who are great at it, but I am not aware of them, so maybe that's also part of the conversation.
I was photographed by iO Tillett Wright a couple of years ago. That was one of my first engagements with photography and queerness. It was about visual activism. I thought, OK cool, now I'm looking to do this with a community of color.
Have you ever felt that people expect you to make work about trans people?
For sure. That was my expectation when I started art, and then I realized that I can't be speaking for everybody. I don't feel comfortable speaking for an entire community, especially when that community is so varied and brilliant and beautifully different. I think that's my issue with things like trans visibility. I'm out of touch a bit with mainstream media, so I really don't know. I use my cis straight parents, I guess, in terms of touching base and being like OK this is how you're receiving us. Transness is being understood as this one thing, but it's still flattening us. We're still dying, we're still not being understood. My answer to that is, I'm focused right now on making work that is creatively fulfilling and that honors the process, whatever that looks like. If that is trans work, then let it be trans work. If it's not, let it not be.
Follow Elijah Ndoumbé on Instagram here.