The Distressing Beauty of Racism Captured Through Paint And Portraits

Spellbinding, poignant and thought-provoking: the self-portraits of photographer, David Uzochukwu, in his series A Familiar Ruin are a chilling comment on racism. “I came to realise how big of an effect racism has had on me and how it has shaped me. It was a terrifying insight”, the self-taught photographer, who began taking photographs at the age of 10, explained.

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Contemplative, and covered in thick paint that resembles tar – perhaps a comment on how the loneliness and burden that comes with racism clings to every inch of us – David looks yearningly into the camera. Photos where his deep brown eyes connect with ours, in a meekly pleading way, are just as powerful as those where the subject of the lens cannot seem to lift his head to face us: his audience, his critics.

Outside of the unmemorable bedroom settings, the cityscapes and sunsets depicted in other images, all seem tainted by the paint-stained figure. Yet, with this sadness comes an intense beauty – a stillness, a humanity and the natural innocence of paint, just dripping downward, coating everything it comes into contact with.

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We spoke to the 2014 EyeEm Photographer of the Year about his process, his past and point-of-view.

TP: What was the creative process?
After sketching out the whole series, I started looking for locations and thought about when I could shoot – I needed to create at least part of the series in public. I’d been working with paint in my pictures before, and still had enough left for the first photo. All of the images are self portraits, and I either dumped color over myself or forced my family to participate. Sometimes I set up a light too, so there’d be some reflections in the paint. Everything would be planned out, once the color was on me I had to get the image done pretty quickly – it always got into my eyes.

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TP: On your website, the series is accompanied by the quote: “…who knows if emotions could stream in and out of me, flood me the tide like way they do these days, had no one broken my skin and opened the gates.” – what does this quote mean to you?
I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t been hurt. Maybe I wouldn’t be an artist, who knows.

TP: How do you want people to feel when looking at the images?
I want other kids of colour to feel comforted if they’re struggling, and it would be amazing if I’d made something that others could relate to or be touched by. It’s not like most people (want to) realise that racism is real and still has a strong hold on people of color – I’ve stopped expecting them to. Eventually, people can take away whatever they want from this. I made it for myself.

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TP: Out of all the feedback on the series, what has been your favourite?
I’ve had a lot of people reach out and say that they were honestly touched, that always feels like winning a really intimate lottery. Some people immediately understood what I was going through – that was really special too. It’s a strange feeling to have my experiences acknowledged and valued.

TP: How did you first get into photography?
I started taking pictures about seven years ago, just because something about being able to document and collect little details really drew me in.

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