The work of the Ghanaian Russian photographer Liz Johnson Artur is mainly under one title: “Black Balloon Archive”. Much larger than a conventional series, the vast project is more of a continuous recording of photos taken over a period of 30 years.
The name was inspired by the song “Black Balloons”, from the 1970 album Is It Because I’m Black by American soul singer Syl Johnson. “Black balloons fill the air. Black balloons, they’re everywhere, ”say the cheerful lyrics, which ring softly with Johnson Artur’s vast visual diary of what she calls the“ black diaspora ”in London and around the world.
His photos of blacks of all ages, genders, nationalities and backgrounds are so expansive as to defy narrow categorization. She rarely captions her photos and makes no apologies in her refusal to explain the work, even to her subjects.
“I don’t always explain what I do,” she said from her London studio, an apartment on the 13th floor of a concrete tower south of the Thames. “But to be completely honest, I don’t have to.
“When I approach people… what I tell them (is that I will) try to put them in good company. ”
That’s not to say Johnson Artur doesn’t treat his subjects sensitively. His photos are nuanced and inviting, without any kind of description; they ask the viewer to look deeply at each subject, to study the images to find clues to the lives represented. Young children, women dressed in religious outfits, men in drag, musicians, models – the photographer captured blacks from all walks of life.
This week, her work is rewarded at the Rencontres d’Arles, an annual photo festival organized in the south of France, where she will receive the Kering Women in Motion photography prize. A relatively new award, the winners to date are Susan Meiselas and Sabine Weiss, in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
Despite this distinction and a prolific career, the 57-year-old photographer was relatively unknown until just a few years ago. She only organized her first solo exhibition in May 2019, a collection of works from the “Black Balloon Archive” at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the city where her love of photography first settled. .
Born in Bulgaria to a Russian mother and a Ghanaian father, Liz Johnson Artur emigrated to West Germany as a child. On her first trip to America in the mid-1980s, she found herself at a friend of her mother’s house in the middle of a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn – a scene very different from what she was used to at home. . It was during this trip that she began to gain self-confidence with a camera.
She remembers a first photo taken while walking in Central Park. She noticed a man sleeping on one of the famous rocks in the park. Remembering the moment, she said she remembered feeling guilty about taking her photo. “It’s kind of like you’re stealing something,” she said.
Liz Johnson Artur
Liz Johnson Artur, winner of the 2021 Women in Motion Photography Award.
As she prepared her shot, the man suddenly woke up and spotted her. At that point, she didn’t know what to do, “so I kind of looked at him, he looked at me, and then he just went back to sleep,” she said. She took the photo and remembers the feeling of guilt subsiding. It changed her approach to street photography – “I didn’t feel like I was flying anymore,” she said.
From those early years, Johnson Artur has toured for magazines like iD and The Face, photographed MIA and Lady Gaga on tour, and worked with labels such as Rhianna’s Fenty brand and Italian fashion house Valentino. During this time, she also had a daughter.
She held her first UK exhibition in 2019 at the South London Gallery, focusing on black life in the British capital, where she has lived since 1991. Last year she was one of 10 artists to receive a cash grant from Tate Galleries in London, an award held in lieu of the annual Turner Prize, which was canceled due to the pandemic.
When asked how she would define her job, Johnson Artur simply said that “it’s a lot of different people”.
She stressed that there is no global mission. “This is not a program,” she said. “It’s about people and meetings.
Is the photographer cynical about the surge in interest in her work over the past few years – especially since it has coincided with the rise of movements like Black Lives Matter? Yes. (She said she had lost count of the number of emails she had received from institutions by the time the protests began last year). But does that bother her? He does not seem. According to Johnson Artur, she has been taking photos of black people through her single lens for three decades, and nothing in her work has changed. If brands and curators (and media) are more sensitive to it now, so be it – she’s more interested in seeing what happens. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m just here to do my thing,” she said.
That said, she enjoyed shooting a book for Valentino (a behind-the-scenes look at one of the brand’s recent shows) and thinks “they didn’t just hire black photographers to shoot black stuff.”
“Some people are genuine,” she said, “it didn’t strike me as exploitable.”