Our Editor-in-Chief Safi Bugel caught up with Leeds-based photographers and friends Adam French and Cassio Dimande to discuss influences, home developing and capturing Black communities and identities.
When did you both get into photography and how?
Cassio: In 2013, I was talking to a friend and he said he did a film photography project at his university, where they developed film. The reason he said that was because I said I wanted to get a camera but they were really expensive, so he told me about film cameras. He said they were dirt cheap, you could just get one off eBay for next to nothing. When I came back to Leeds from summer break, I went on ebay and bought my first camera. And then it got out of control after that.
Adam: I don’t really know, I’m trying to think about all of them years ago. I think probably it started with my mum. She has a terrifying amount of pictures, of everything, of all things except from when she was young because they all got destroyed. So, I‘ve had some sort of weird obsession with taking pictures constantly, and then it turned into a uni degree and now I‘m still doing it. And my cameras have got exponentially bigger.
Adam, was your mum a professional photographer or just a casual photographer?
Adam: She just carried a point and shoot. She just kept taking pictures and getting other people’s pictures and kept them all in one place. She’s got two huge boxes at home of just endless pictures she goes through every so often.
Your mum must be a pretty big influence then, but for both of you: who or what inspires you when it comes
Adam: Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, Lewis Hine, Julia Margaret Cameron, Francesca Woodman.
Cassio: Right now, it’s Pieter Hugo, a South African documentary photographer. I was given his book by an ex and I just kind of became obsessed with his documentary work in Africa because there’s almost none, it’s so hard to come by. Over time, it’s been people in my circles, so first I was influenced by Tom Porton, who used to own West Yorkshire Cameras with Nick Parker, and then I started shooting more black and white because saw Nick’s work and thought ‘ok, black and white isn’t just boring and moody’. And now I’m really influenced by Adam’s work, as he’ll probably tell you from the endless stream of questions he gets from me. So it’s always been people around me. If I know you and I really like your work, it‘s gonna have some kind of influence on what I’m doing.
Adam, I’ve seen a lot about your project on Black Identity, can you tell me a bit more about that? What influenced it, what’s your approach, etc.?
Adam: There’s no big plan with it, I didn’t come up with it in a dream or anything, I just had a thought while I was on lunch with my girlfriend a few weeks before starting it. We were just sitting, having lunch, when a group of Black guys on the table next to us started saying “Brother! Brother! Brother!”. I didn’t react to that because it’s not something I naturally react to, but then they asked if I smoked weed, and I don’t, so I said no. I overheard them saying “he’s not Black enough”, so I sort of thought, what is Black? I don’t know, I’ve never known it from either side- I’m mixed race so I’m half Black, half white… I just see it from both sides in different ways. So I thought, after reading a few books on August Sanders, who documented people and life, I may as well have a go at it and just document. At the moment it’s just a work in progress of just taking pictures. There’s no massive idea at the moment, that‘s just what I‘m doing.
Is it focussed on people you know or?
Adam: It started with people I know, like Cassio, but then so far it’s been people who know people; it’s all been word of mouth. It kind of helps because it means the person who’s already had their picture taken can just be like “Yeah it was fine”. The way I photograph is probably a little different to other people; my cameras are very old and very obtrusive.
I always find that when taking portraits, people panic and shy away, but I don’t know if I‘m just friends with a really insecure bunch of people (me included). How do you develop that feeling of trust and comfort between you and the person you’re photographing?
Cassio: Safi, no way, your friends are not insecure, get used to it! Get used to hearing people flake or change their mind or whatever; it’s just part and parcel. As for sitting with people, I think just having a conversation with them. When they’re just staring at your setup, if you’re talking to them, they almost forget about it.
Adam: Conversation is key.
Cassio, you also take quite striking portraits. Is the theme of exploring Black identity also a conscious decision for you?
Cassio: No, I don‘t think so. I grew up in the US and then moved to Mozambique, where I was born- big identity crisis, right. I was like, I’m American, what am I doing in Africa? I really didn’t identify with being Mozambican, and just when I WAS starting to, I moved to England to go to university, so I kind of like finally got to a point where I accepted by Mozambican-ness, despite having grown up in the West. Like what Adam said, I get told I’m not African enough because I have an American accent, because I look the way I do, because I grew up in the West. So my work for a while was really centred in the West, street photography and portraits in the West. But now it’s moving more towards how I can represent Mozambique in the world. It sounds really ambitious but there‘s maybe like 5 or 6 Mozambican photographers in the entire country, publishing photographers who’s work is out in books or galleries.
Adam, you’ve been shooting in black and white a lot, Cassio you’ve also shot in black and white before- what is it that draws you to black and white film?
Adam: for me, I think it’s a practical thing. I cut all my film down from a big box of film; I can’t get colour film like this, it would be stupidly expensive. The film I use doesn’t exist anymore so I have to make it myself and I can only do that in black and white. But also, most the cameras and lenses I use wouldn‘t work with colour anyway, because of their age.
Cassio: I’m the same as Adam. My visa expires on the 1st November so I’m going back to Mozambique indefinitely; I can’t shoot colour there, it’s so impractical. You have to have the film, which you can’t just get in a big box like Adam, and then you need a lab to process it, and then you pay per roll to have it processed which costs even more money. So I am transitioning to colour in digital and black and white in film, thanks to Adam’s help.
Do you both process your photos yourself then?
Adam: Yep, my room is my lab. I do everything at home, I can’t afford not to do it at home. Through the whole of uni, I was just collecting random stuff so I could be self-sufficient after uni. I can’t even sleep in here, there’s too many chemicals.
So tell me about your experimental approach to cameras and film?
Adam: Since I work at West Yorkshire Cameras, I end up getting a lot of the semi-broken or unsellable cameras, and from them I build other cameras. That started back before uni when I couldn’t afford anything. I built a camera out of the staging at my college; because I couldn’t afford the chemistry, I made the chemistry from coffee, washing powder, vitamin C tablets, caffenol. And the fixer was made from an ammonium-based aquarium cleaner. I couldn’t afford it so everything’s always been made, and everything is botched together with tape!
Cassio: Yeah, use it until it breaks and then replace it, that’s usually the approach. Like with Adam’s point, if I’m going home, I’m doing exactly what he said he did coming out of uni: trying to collect to cover all your bases, get an enlarger, get tanks to develop. And then try to figure out how I can still take photos in this slow, inconvenient and outdated way with these really old cameras for as long as possible without running into problems.
Will you carry on doing this in Mozambique then, Cassio?
Cassio: I will regardless, but the non-negotiable is doing it on film. I don‘t wanna do it on digital, as a matter of principle.
What’s in the pipeline for both of you?
Cassio: Right now I’m going through a period of not shooting so much, but looking back through everything i’ve shot. It’s been a lot of go, go, go, shoot, develop, shoot, develop. I took three years off from posting on social media and I’ve just started posting again, so I wanna create a few things. One is a book on rural life. Mozambique gained independence in 1974, so my parents were born before the independence movement. It’s a really young country. People were alive before the country was liberated; they‘re still alive today, so there’s been a big change in lifestyle. Money came into the country, which meant quality of life improved, electrification happened, we got internet, 3G, people started moving to the city because the city was growing, and rural life became left behind in a lot of ways. So right now, I’m working on a book that‘s gonna draw comparison between rural life in Mozambique and what life is like with technology and cellphones. The other book I’m working on is very personal. My father passed away in January 2019, and leading up to him passing away, I went home for a year and a half and I was with him the whole time. I took photos the whole time, from when he had a stroke and was paralaysed until he passed away. I have pictures from when I first went to see him in the hospital until his funeral, so I wanna make some kind of thing to remember him by; to remember that whole process we spent together because I was with him every single day. So right now, I’m not really focused on shooting, I‘m just kind of like a squirrel trying to get my nuts for winter. I’m looking back on a lot of the things I have shot. I wanna close off some chapters before looking forward.
Adam: For me, just keeping on shooting- its a bit shorter of an answer. I don’t have anything in the works at the moment because most of my personal, non-project work I would do outside, but now it’s getting cold and I’d need some light for it but there‘s no sunlight left. So I can’t really do much until summer next year.
Cassio: Check out Adam’s Instagram, big up adam because he’s not just a really good photographer, he’s a really good guy, such a good friend. I can’t emphasise that enough
Adam: Haha, I’ll say the same to Cassio.
Adam French: @kamick1212
Cassio Dimande: @mr.cassio
Photo Credit: Adam French