“At heart, I’m an observer”: Photographer Bernice Mulenga’s journey to capturing Black queer life
After years of capturing Black queer life with their film camera, Bernice Mulenga’s photography has become an archive for the community. Starting out in 2015, Bernice’s #friendsonfilm series documented the resurgence of Black queer nightlife, shooting club nights like Pxssy Palace and BBZ. Since then, their photography’s blend of music, movement and colour has become a symbol of Black queer joy, and made it onto the mood boards of clients including BORN N BREAD and Stillpoint Magazine. Having just wrapped up their first solo show, here Bernice talks to us about navigating the industry as a non-commercial photographer and “existing 365” outside of pride month and brand expectations.
Freelance Photographer and Multidisciplinary Artist
BORN N BREAD, Stillpoint Magazine, ASOS, Serpentine Gallery
What I do
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a photographer and multidisciplinary artist whose work is associated with music, dance, colours and movement. People often recognise my work in the Black queer nightlife scene, especially at Pxssy Palace, but I like capturing everyday moments and the everyday person too. I like documenting people who are seen as nobodies, because I think, everybody is somebody and everybody has a story.
A huge part of my work can be found in my #friendsonfilm series where I capture friends and people in my community. The first time I posted a photo on Instagram I couldn’t think of a caption, so I sat there and thought, “friends... friends... #friendsonfilm,” and it stuck. The hashtag existed before, but not with the same intention or body of work, so I feel proud.
“It’s important to keep an archive; Black artists from the past were doing this for the first time and they gave us so much material.”
It wasn’t my intention when I started, but over the years, I’ve realised I want it to be around for a long time. I wonder where the archive will be in 10 years. It’s important to keep an archive because Black artists from the past were doing this, and look at all of the material they’ve given us.
Photography speaks to a lot for me, especially when I can’t find the words or I’m feeling a particular way. So I look forward to capturing, sharing and archiving these stories.
What’s been your favourite project to work on and why?
A shoot I did in collaboration with BORN N BREAD, a Black music, lifestyle and DJ collective. They reached out to me and asked me to shoot a project where they dressed up in the school uniforms they wore when they were younger. It didn’t go viral or anything, that wasn’t the point. The comments from people saying they were brought back to memories of school were the special part, especially because I know in secondary school I didn’t document myself. And there’ll be many people who didn’t either.
When I saw the final photographs I was taken back to this uniquely Black British experience. At one point in the shoot, I got involved, and it was is so funny to me. It was an unforgettable experience because we were recreating memories from over 10 years ago and it felt so real. We were even at the back of the bus screaming like teenagers.
It was such an experience for myself, BORN N BREAD, people who saw the photographs on Instagram and even the people on the street as we were doing the shoot – probably also because we did the shoot on a Saturday (they probably thought we had Saturday detention!) A lot of people still ask me about that project and tell me they love the pictures. It was nostalgia for the collective.
Your first solo show, Between Me and You showcased photographs from your #friendsonfilm project. How has the series has impacted your career and community?
It’s impacted me because people are watching and paying attention to my work now. It’s also allowed me to travel and gain support. When I first started there was a huge resurgence of Black queer and POC nightlife, which was great. It was nice to be able to document that moment in time. And yes, nightlife does exist elsewhere but a lot of places don’t think about us.
It’s also allowed me to capture moments outside of nightlife, from a friend’s little sister’s birthday party, to intimate gatherings and even funerals. I also have a couple of photos from a pride party, which was great because you couldn’t even tell it was a party. We were all outside, existing and having fun together. I like that ambiguity because it makes people look deeper.
“When I first started there was a huge resurgence of Black queer and POC nightlife – it was nice to document this moment in time.”
Also, my friends and the people in the queer community that I document have gotten jobs from my work, which has been good and bad. Some friends have gone to sets with stylists and photographers who have no understanding of the Black queer community.
Some of my friends got booked for this project and on the day, they were asked to vogue. Those friends don’t vogue or do any type of dance, so that opportunity could’ve gone to someone in the ballroom scene. One of my masc presenting friends were also asked to dress in feminine clothes and she was like “I’m not into that,” it’s just disappointing.
As Black and queer people we aren’t one dimensional and won’t fit every vision or idea that people have of us. That brand was just lazy.
What was your journey like when starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
I've always been interested in photography and video, and throughout school I was always doing something creative.
At first I wanted to pursue fine art, and if not for racist teachers at the time I would’ve probably gone down that route. I was looking for support from teachers and parents or any figure but I didn’t get it, so I put it down to me trying too hard to force that career. But honestly, I enjoy building up narratives and creating stories, no matter the medium. So whether it’s video, photography or writing, I enjoy it.
In college, I dropped photography after the first year because it wasn’t fun. At the time what I hated the most was having to replicate other photographers’ work. At heart, I’m an observer and always have been. In my mum’s home videos when I was younger, you can see everyone up and dancing and I’m just there in the middle standing and watching. So although my journey hasn’t been easy and I still see myself as being at the beginning, I’m glad I stuck it out, made mistakes and put my heart into it.
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
My friends. I wouldn’t have posted my first #friendsonfilm post if it wasn’t for my friend Veronica who really encouraged me. They told me to go for it, not to overthink and figure the rest out later. Whenever I don’t have motivation, I remember this advice.
Following likeminded people who are keen and have been making work for a while has helped a lot. I recommend Kimberley Drew who I’ve followed on Instagram for some time now, as well as their book with Jenna Wortham called Black Futures. I’m also inspired by a number of other books such as Hard Ears by Ronan Mckenzie and Liz Johnson Artur’s monograph.
I also look up to people who change directions or do many things in their careers. They make me think about the fact that you don’t always have to go down one route. My friend Chibs calls himself a ‘freelance badman’ and I love that. When I question whether I should just focus on photography, work like his reminds me that I can do so many things. It affirms me.
Most of all, my art peers, friends and surroundings are my greatest inspirations.
How I got here
Would you say you need specific training for what you do?
The best thing to do is to keep learning and asking questions. I feel like I’m still learning with photography, because people forget that there are different kinds of cameras, especially when working with film. Yes, you have ISO shutters and all of those technicalities, but you also have large format which is completely different. There are certain steps and things you have to learn when working your way around a camera.
Also, go to workshops. They’re fun and you learn so much from other people and give them the opportunity to learn from you. Art really connects me with a lot of my friends and other artists – something I’m especially grateful for after the pandemic.
“People don’t see photography as an art form to invest in. And when they do, it’s the same photographers and others don’t get a chance.”
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
I feel like I’ve used social media to my benefit. When I used to post my #friendsonfilm photos, it was at a time when Instagram was really honest, and people would just post their thoughts. I’ve found a lot of my art peers on there, but now, social media has become overwhelming – so I use it as a quick way to promote things such as my exhibition.
If you want to use it to promote your work, you’ve just got to start. The beauty of the internet is that, by using a hashtag you can find people who might be searching for something similar to you. Many people also assume that photographers are men, so showing myself more helped to dispel that.
But I still believe that you can find other ways if social media is too much for you – like Patreon, newsletters and websites. During the pandemic, I felt fed up and took my website down and somebody emailed me saying “I usually check your website when I need inspiration, can I have the password to enter?” After that, I put it back up.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
Finding a way to navigate the industry as a photographer who doesn’t necessarily make commercial work. I feel like there is a place for me in the industry because I’ve had people hire me for things like doing the behind the scenes for music videos; it’s awesome, but challenging.
People have said to me during this time “Oh, it’s great that you finally have an exhibition” and that’s partly because people don’t see photography as an art form to invest in. And when they do, I see through it. There was a point in time where people were always booking the same photographers for the same kind of projects, and other photographers couldn’t get a chance.
I feel like a lot of amazing photographers have been forgotten. And I wonder if I’m remembered because I’m Black and queer, and people just reach out to me as a way to enter this ‘private mystic universe’ during times like pride month – and I don’t want that. I exist 365, you know.
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative? Do you take on any supplementary work?
I do set design. I assist photographers – which I like because it’s nice to sometimes help to create work outside of your own concepts. You’ve got to figure out what’s for you. Between rent and the cost of living, it can be tough, but I’ve learned that I have to prioritise.
I also recently started selling prints during the pandemic, which was really hard. But prints are special because they allow people to contribute to your practice in different ways. Not everyone can book you so it gives them a less expensive way to have your work. And it also gives me a way to make money that I can put back into my practice.
Another learning is that I used to buy the cheapest film, before I realised that I had to upgrade the quality. This came with upgrading my fee for clients, which some photographers are scared of, because it can come with rejection. But there will also be some people who will accept it – as you grow, so should your money. I’m also applying for funding so I can spend more time in the studio; and kickstart my goalsto open a photography lab, host workshops and run a darkroom.
“Upgrade your client fee, some may reject it but others will accept – as you grow, so should your money.”
How did you go about landing your first clients?
I wouldn’t say I have stereotypical clients, like big brands and companies. Most of the people who hire me are everyday people, the queer and or Black community. And it’s often for different things. My work was – and still is – very adaptable and candid; and when I’m asked to do mood boards to prepare, I like to use my own work for inspiration. As much as other work can be influential, I don’t really want it to have a direct influence.
Clients used to come to me and say “I made a mood board,” of my work specifically. I like that because despite a lot of people referring to my nightlife work, I also have a lot outside of that. And I like when people do their research and try to connect things together. It makes me feel good when they say things like “I’m really liking the colours you’ve used here” or “I like the composition.”
What’s the best career related advice you’ve ever received?
My friend told me that “no problem can’t be solved if we talk about it together.” When I heard this, I remembered how so many creatives struggle because they’re scared to ask a question, or for help. Every time I struggle with something, it’s been solved using this approach. Plus, people always prefer it when you ask.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
I’d say get a mentor and learn from them. I never liked the traditional way of learning through school, and I know it isn’t for everybody because it isn’t always accessible. And if it isn’t for you, find a way to be hands-on, try a crash course, watch videos on camera basics, experiment and research. Use spaces such as Photofusion to develop your photos. Also, books such as Analog Photography: Reference Manual for Shooting Film by Andrew Bellamy and Photography for Dummies are great; I hate the name because it doesn’t make you dumb, it’s just simplified and gives you the tools to learn by yourself.
You can see Bernice's work in the ‘We Are Family’ group show at SEAS in Brighton until 29th April. You can view their debut solo show ‘Between Me And You’ (now closed) here.
Mention Bernice Mulenga
Interview by N'Tanya Clarke