Art as Storytelling: Chioma Ejimofo Interviewed by Millie Norman

Chioma Ejimofo is a photographer, filmmaker and designer from South East London. Exploring coming of age, femininity and intimacy through a dusky, wistful lens, her work is a testament to the power of the female gaze.

Chioma Ejimofo

MN: In a de-gendered sense of the word, what constitutes a muse for you? How do you decide what and who to capture?

CE: I feel that I always tend to gravitate towards people and places that make me feel comfortable and motivated. A lot of my photos have been taken with friends or in spaces that generate a sense of raw honesty, safety or inspiration. There definitely isn't a 'one size fits all' in terms of my muses - as long as I can communicate my feelings with the person, or feel connected somehow to the setting, then I know it's the right place for me to photograph. I’m inspired by people who can be themselves and are open to being vulnerable with me when we shoot. I enjoy capturing things that have an emotional presence behind them, or just something unusual and a kind of uniqueness. I don't really like things to be perfect and I like to make mistakes, so I like to work with people who aren't afraid to do that too.

MN: The work on your site is divided into ‘Faces’, ‘Spaces’ and ‘Colours’-why are these three themes central to your work? 

CE: I enjoy exploring these themes the most, so I wanted to bring them to the forefront. I love the uniqueness of people and strangers, so I started with portraiture first. I especially love shooting with people who aren’t models; there’s more freedom to capture their personality and identity. I remember doing a spontaneous shoot with my younger sister. Looking back at the close-up shots was the first time I realised how similar we were, so ‘Faces’ has become one of my favourite themes, and definitely the most rewarding.

'Spaces' is another favourite. During university, there was a period that I spent exploring new places by myself, just to get away. I’d just listen to music and capture things that weren’t ‘beautiful’ in the traditional sense. I think it goes back to my emotional need to remember the little moments. There’s something bittersweet about empty spaces, parking lots at sunset or houses at night with glowing windows. Capturing those places on camera is a way for me to physically hold onto the memory of being in that space if I never get to go back.

'Colours' something that I love to experiment with - it makes an appearance in every aspect of my work. It's always exciting trying to find new ways to translate my colour sketches, plans and dreams into a final image. I love to play around with contrasting colours and actively search for them when I’m somewhere new with my camera.

Chioma Ejimofo

MN: There is a hazy, dreamlike aspect to your photos, and you mention that your film work is

often done with an old Sony camcorder. What role does nostalgia play in your work? 

CE: Nostalgia plays a huge role in my work, but also everything I do. When I was younger, we had several camcorders and I was obsessed with them. I'd make films, music videos and stop motions with my siblings on tapes, and I still look back on them now. It evolved into a huge love stylistically for old footage and tape recordings, and I'm really glad it's made a comeback in mainstream media. I love evoking feelings of the past in my work; it feels comfortable for me and it's something I'm used to being around. Even now that I shoot mostly on digital cameras and edit, I still prefer blurry, imperfect images. I think it matches the way I view nostalgia as a whole: changeable, spontaneous and hard to verbally articulate. In my work, I tend to avoid creating art that's overly planned out - I like uneven shots and strange colour matches, moments when the model does an accidental pose or the light hits an object in a really strange way. I want my art to kind of personify my ideas of nostalgia and feel like a series of non-specific memories.

Chioma Ejimofo

MN: Girlhood is also a recurring theme in your work. Why do you think the female gaze is important in contemporary art today? 

CE: It’s gone through so many changes in media, and right now there's something really special about how women can be depicted in art. Some of my biggest inspirations are artists like Nan Goldin and Petra Collins who reclaim the female gaze. It's not something that I necessarily grew up seeing in mainstream media, so it's really exciting to see it so accessible and on the rise. I love capturing aspects of girlhood that feel normal and personal, and it’s even better when the subject and I have mutual respect and understanding when shooting together. I think that’s what makes the new female gaze so important; there’s a level of consent and trust between the subject and the artist. When I shoot with someone, I want them to have an equal say in how they’re presented: we discuss and experiment, and it means I can capture off-guard moments too. With the rise in self-curated art, for example on Instagram photography pages, women especially get to choose how they portray themselves and it’s really powerful and intimate in a way that doesn’t feel manipulated.

MN: Along with photography and film, you also run an online clothing business. How do the different creative disciplines you work within interact? 

CE: I started Chicho Apparel a few years ago, and it was the first time I experimented with photography in a way I hadn't before. It opened me up to a new way of capturing subjects and controlling my creative voice. When I look back on my clothing photography and promotional film, I can kind of pinpoint the moment where I started to move away from mainstream streetwear imagery and more into my style. I found that once I stopped trying to follow that, I leant into the artsy, retro and, at times, dreamy aesthetics that I love. The influence of nostalgia is present in my clothing designs too; I incorporated my photography into my designs more, and I think I took a lot of what I learnt from my clothing brand and developed it when photography and film became a higher priority. I think that running an online clothing brand was more demanding creatively, but even now, I still look back at clothing shoots I did as a source for inspiration and as a reminder to take risks and not overthink.

Chioma Ejimofo

MN: The bio on your photography account says “a diary, a story”. There’s certainly a gorgeous, soft intimacy to your work. What stories do you want to share with your art? Whose stories do you want to tell? 

CE: When I started the account, one of my biggest goals was to share some of my feelings with a new audience and step out of my comfort zone. I kept having vivid dreams about art I wanted to make and discovering new places that I found really beautiful, so I was desperate for a creative outlet. I want to tell my friends’, my family’s’ and strangers’ stories and reveal the beauty in the moments we tend to forget quite easily. Even though I love studio shoots, the ones that really stick with me are unplanned ones. I look back at some pictures and immediately remember the moment or the feelings I felt. Even if someone else viewing doesn’t know the context behind it, I think the image can speak for itself, like going through a photo album and imagining the life behind the snapshot. I like to imagine that another version of my story is created whenever my art is viewed by someone new. Especially now with lockdown and the world changing so much, I hope some of my art can be representative of togetherness, stories of people just existing. I want to tell the stories of people just living their lives, it doesn’t have to be big or extraordinary. As my work grows and my style develops, the stories I want to tell will hopefully expand and I'll challenge myself more and explore art with clearer narratives. But just like a diary, it’s ongoing and unpredictable, so whatever story comes next in my life I’ll be happy to share.

Chioma Ejimofo