1854 Fast Track seeks out the industry’s brightest unsigned talent to promote them in the commercial sphere. From celebrating queer African identity to documenting the punters of of pigeon racing, we unpack the practices of three more of this year’s winners
“Raw, compelling, authentic, gender fluid.” These are just some of the words Gabonese photographer Ussi’n Yala uses to describe his work. With a striking portfolio that puts LGTBQI+ individuals and those from the African diaspora at its centre, you just might add ‘progressive’ to Yala’s list. In the vein of a growing lineage of African photographers gaining international attention for creating space for queer, African bodies, Yala’s practice is built on “photographing diverse profiles, mainly of African descent, whose identities don’t conform to patriarchal social norms as imposed by our society.”
Although consensual same-sex relations were decriminalised in Gabon in June 2020, the country remains a conservative society, and discrimination is a harsh reality faced by those who are open about their sexual identity. By contrast, Yala’s portraits of Black men dressed in virginal, white ruffle dresses and bold gold earrings (a nod to a childhood spent watching Top Model and sewing Barbie clothes) create a world of liberation, empowerment and representation for queer African people. “I want [my work] to serve as a visual reference for young people so that they can build their identities in a healthy and safe way,” he says, determinedly.
Yala was recently named a winner of 1854’s inaugural Fast Track initiative, launched earlier this year as an open-call for fresh, unsigned artists. A total of 18 photographers, deemed to represent some of the industry’s brightest emerging talent, were selected to have their work championed amongst talent representatives, advertising agencies and brands at LE BOOK Connections Europe in a bid to help accelerate their careers.
Yet it wasn’t solely the career-enhancing potential of Fast Track that prompted Micha Serraf, another of this year’s winners, to apply for the opportunity earlier this year. Echoing Yala, Zimbabwean born, South African-based Serraf was excited by the chance for his work “to engage with a much larger audience of viewers.” “The organisations which I hope to work with have platforms that many people draw inspiration and guidance from,” he muses. “If we start celebrating marginalised identities, we can guide younger generations away from prejudice.”
Stay Soft, a project Serraf shot in 2018, delicately embodies his uplifting aesthetic. The title of the series is a reference to Serraf’s mother, from whom he learned that softness doesn’t have to negate strength. The images depict queer individuals in an exploration of African masculinity and the (de)construction of identity, belonging and Blackness: interests that Serraf traces back to a childhood spent in post-apartheid South Africa. “My identity was divided into separate intersections and targeted,” he recalls. “I would be constantly reminded who I was without feeling any of the beauty in it.”
Joining Yala and Serraf amongst this year’s hotly-tipped Fast Track winners, 29-year-old documentary and portrait photographer Theo McInnes is similarly fascinated by how people respond to and move through their social and physical environments. His practice is rooted in seeking out “other people’s worlds” and unfamiliar places in a bid to capture everyday life from a more objective angle. “Even the most seemingly ordinary person, more times than not, has something extraordinary beneath the surface,” he says.
This ethos often leads the photographer into niche and unexpected turf; the pockets of society that usually fall outside of the frame. For The Fanciers, for example – a series of portraits and landscapes shot in 2020 – McInnes plunged into the surreal and little-known world of pigeon racing, demonstrating his skill for capturing fleeting moments.
His approach to photography is influenced by the “inconspicuous” work of street and observational photographers such as Elliot Erwitt and Gary Winogrand. “I want [my photography] to be honest. I try to be that little invisible person stealing found moments with their camera,” he expresses. “The ability to be truly invisible is impossible, but there is a way of being subtle, just like the ever-watching and unnoticed fly on the wall.”
Find out more about 1854 Fast Track here.
Alice Finney is an arts and culture Editor and Writer, based in Berlin. A graduate of the Central School of Ballet and Sussex University, she specialises in writing about dance, design and popular culture. She has written for titles including SLEEK Magazine, INDIE Magazine, Mixmag, gal-dem, HuffPost UK, and Dezeen.