We talked selfies and racial stereotyping with photographer Florence Ngala
DtL: What inspired your selfie series?
Florence: When I started taking pictures, I didn’t know it would turn into a series— I took them out of boredom and curiosity about what else my camera could do. The more I learned about its capabilities, how to find good lighting and control it, as well as the other technical aspects of taking and editing an image, I then became more creative because I had more control. This evolved into me just shooting more and freely producing content. So I was initially inspired by the learning process, then after a while ideas kind of came to me based on what I saw, what I did, and I just tried my best to bring those ideas to life.
DtL: Why do you think this generation turns to the ‘selfie’ to express themselves? And what effects do you think that is having on self-esteem and body image?
Florence: Well for starters, there was a time just two hundred years ago when the photograph was this very valuable possession because it was not accessible to everyone. It’s still important now, but not in the same way. People paid photographers just to have portraits taken of their family or themselves to preserve something, to record history. Now you don’t need to pay someone to take a picture of you, you can do it yourself, you don’t even need a camera, people take pictures on their phones, laptops, etc.
“I think selfie culture has empowered many more people, especially women”
So to answer your question, I think that this generation turns to selfies for the same reason humans have always created images. Back then the technology wasn’t there yet, but people have always been interested in being able to represent themselves. Cavemen did it, the Egyptians did it, the Greeks did it, and now people have literally created careers solely based off of creating pictures of themselves. We’ve gone from Neil Armstrong taking pictures on the moon, to Kim Kardashian being able to publish and sell a book of images of her face. The common denominator is the fact that we all want to control our own narrative. In terms of self-esteem and body image, I think selfie culture has empowered many more people, especially women. Sharing a picture opens this window for comments, likes, and lots of positive reactions. When talking about the effects, it has definitely encouraged this generation to be more self-confident, and in some unfortunate cases kind of vain.
DtL: What do you think of ‘selfie’ culture?
Florence: I mean, it’s here to stay for sure. It’s fascinating to see how it has evolved. We have the Go-Pro, the selfie stick, I just recently saw a video about engagement ring boxes with cameras in them. What started off as front camera on a phone has without a doubt completely revolutionised the way people document their lives and share them.
DtL: Have you personally ever experienced prejudice because of attitudes towards your ethnicity? If so can you tell us what happened and how you overcame the experience?
Florence: Growing up, as the child of immigrants, I noticed the divide that existed between Black students and African students. I noticed that there was an impression of inferiority that some kids in my class tried to project onto me which seemed to be based on stereotypes which existed about African people. At that age (like 9/10), I never really thought to identify more with one than the other until classmates made it seem as though there was a difference between me and them. I retaliated by hitting them back with any mean comment I could think of.
“I noticed the divide that existed between Black students and African students”
I also used to figure skate for years and was blessed enough to really excel in that sport. I surpassed in skill girls who had been part of my program longer than I had, or who were older than me. I worked really hard to make sure I didn’t come off as being better than these girls and was almost scared sometimes to showcase my skill because I thought people would dislike me. At a point I experienced passive bullying and fake friendships from individuals who were in my group. I could tell these people were my teammates but not my friends. What made matters worse was that since I became a strong figure skater, I was moved up to a harder group where everyone was also older than me for a while, my real friends and I were separated. I dealt with this by ignoring that gut feeling I had that these girls didn’t like me, and overcompensated by trying to be really nice. I kind of wish I wasn’t though, but I was young and just didn’t want to not have friends, especially people I saw multiple times a week.
DtL: Our research revealed that 35% of teenage girls believe that their gender will have a negative effect on their career. What are your thoughts on this, based on your experiences in the industry?
Florence: This is a great question, I honestly have never felt that my gender would hinder my success. I feel as though this question will spark a different answer for women depending on the career path they’re in. I can understand how individuals in one field may feel that gender inequality is more so the case than those in other fields. Going into a creative industry, I’ve always just felt that no matter what, creativity trumps everything, it doesn’t matter who you are. A good idea is a good idea.
DtL: What advice would you give to someone who may be experiencing bullying right now?
Florence: Well, I believe that in life, it is such a comforting feeling to realise what you’re good at, and to be undeniably passionate about it. To be consumed and invested in your talent and to just develop this work ethic where you’re motivated by you loving what you do and not being distracted by anything else. During my 2016 spring semester at school we had to create anti-bullying posters in my design class and the approach I took for one of my designs was promoting this idea of working hard at what you want to do, and being the best at it. So I created posters with the ages of people who’ve broken world records and reached amazing feats at very young ages. The point of this was to showcase that once someone harnesses their talent, there’s truly no stopping them, and that there is no age where this starts or ends. Kids as young as 10 and 11 have broken world records, and so have people as old as 80 and 90.
So, if you’re being bullied now, cliché as it sounds, distract yourself, that means try every sport, hobby, extracurricular, anything, and in time you’ll latch on to what you love, become good and just kick a**. Who will stop you if you are focused on your craft? In retrospect, this is what I did as a young figure skater when it came to dealing with the girls who I felt uncomfortable around. I loved figure skating so much that no matter what, getting on that ice was always when I felt strongest and safest. Over time, the more I did that, the easier it was to not pay attention to the shade I thought was being thrown my way, or comments I thought were being made about me. Find what you love to do, and keep doing it.
“It’s heartbreaking and overwhelming to think about how messed up some parts of the world are for people”
DtL: What is it like to be a woman in 2016 and what needs to change?
Florence: Well this response could go on for a while, but for now I’ll just point out the things that really break my heart and resonate with me. For starters, honour killings—I was reading about this on CNN recently and find it so disgusting and repulsive that a brother, uncle, or father can execute his female family member, in some cases publicly, because she has “disgraced” their family— and then not have to deal with serious repercussions for it. The reasons for these killings are usually also very subjective and foolish, just further emphasising that some parts of the world are still so patriarchal.
Female genital mutilation also needs to change, kidnapping of young women and girls, human trafficking, rape culture, I mean there’s so much. So, so much and sometimes I just think about the fact that some people live harder lives simply because they were born a certain gender, in a certain place. It’s heartbreaking and overwhelming to think about how messed up some parts of the world are for people. Even here in America things still suck. That’s why I respect activists and humanitarians so much, I hope to one day feel moved and passionate enough to devote my life to changing the lives of others. I also am sure that one day soon I can create art that addresses these issues and not only brings awareness but also change.
DtL: Is there anything you would like to add?
Florence: Art can change someone’s life, someone’s mood, someone’s beliefs. Think about when a movie made you cry, or a song made you happy. I, myself, will never forget the first time I was moved to tears by a photograph and how amazing of an experience that was for me. I believe everyone is capable of making art, and there are so many mediums. I hope that people do not feel limited by school, careers, or what they think they should do in life to make money or be successful, but remember to always try to tap into that creativity, you never know how it may affect someone.