2023, a young photographer from Africa has truly stirred the art circles of the elite art fair, Photo Basel, in Switzerland. Since his introduction to the Western audience, he has been inundated with invitations for exhibitions and collaborations. His name is Sarfo Emmanuel Annor and it’s worth mentioning that his sole tool for creating photography is a smartphone. He narrates the story of the local youth, a series of lively and captivating children, inspired by the communicative energy of his surroundings and creating a dynamic chronicle about daily life in Ghana, West Africa as well as celebrating the culture of Koforidua, his hometown. He employs colors as therapy, aiming to emotionally impact viewers. Warm colors like red, orange, and yellow evoke various feelings, and Sarfo hopes his colors positively influence those who gaze upon them.
How did you start with photography?
I’ve always had this strong passion for art, fashion, and photography since I was a kid. But it was when my sister gifted me a phone after high school graduation that my photography journey truly began. I started taking photos of my family and friends and playing around with editing them on my phone, just for fun. I was genuinely amazed by how the photos turned out – the way the composition and colors worked together was just mesmerizing. I guess I’ve always had this knack for telling stories and capturing emotions through visuals. So, when I got that phone and started snapping pictures, I thought, why not use this as a way to express African stories through fashion and beauty? It felt like the perfect fit, and that’s how I ended up using my phone as a tool to bring those stories to life.
What is your educational background?
In high school, I studied visual arts, but my understanding of photography was entirely self-taught without any formal education. Storytelling through photography deeply connects with me. The capacity to communicate a narrative, emotion, or concept within a single frame or a sequence of images is a potent tool, and it’s what I appreciate most about this art. Whether it’s a sense of joy, sorrow, surprise, or any other feeling, this emotional connection engages viewers and immerses them in the unfolding story.
Can you speak about the region you grew up in?
Ghanaian culture offers a rich tapestry of artistic inspiration, from vibrant traditional clothing to intricate beadwork, providing numerous elements to draw inspiration from. I grew up in Koforidua, which is situated in the Eastern part of Ghana. This region is known for its association with the Adinkra symbols. These symbols visually depict traditional wisdom and values, which can be seamlessly integrated into various forms of art. Additionally, the Kente cloth, renowned for its bold colors and intricate patterns, serves as an inspiring source for textile designs and has significantly influenced the application of color in my works. Ghana’s folklore, traditional festivals, and historical figures have further ignited my creativity, shaping my journey in storytelling and acting as constant sources of inspiration.
Can we discuss the role of colors in your photography?
As I was growing up, I used to love drawing and coloring, and I was always fascinated by the colors all around me, especially the amazing shades of the Kente Cloth. The colors can have a real emotional impact on us, more than we realize. They actually affect our mood through different associations. Like, our brain links warm colors such as red, orange, and yellow with feelings like passion, comfort, anger, and power. For me, using vibrant colors in my art is a bit like therapy. I believe that when people look at colors, it can really have a positive effect on them.
Why do the people in your photos seldom make eye contact with the camera?
In my view, photographing subjects without their awareness or without direct camera engagement results in more authentic and spontaneous images. This approach often conveys a sense of genuineness. Additionally, avoiding direct eye contact imparts specific moods or atmospheres—like introspection, mystery, or contemplation—to my audience. By not fixating on the face, I’m able to accentuate other aspects, such as posture, clothing, or interactions with the surroundings.
Why do your portraits often present a generalized concept of a person rather than showcasing their individuality?
These abstracted or generalized depictions function as conceptual narratives, where the emphasis shifts from the individual to the idea, message, or story I intend to communicate. These abstract forms invite viewers to become active participants in interpreting the artwork. When facial features or scenes are not explicitly delineated, observers frequently engage their imagination, experiences, and emotions to bridge the gaps. I try to challenge prevailing norms of beauty, placing African aesthetics and fashion at the forefront. By unfolding my own vision, I sought to counter Eurocentric standards, sparking a movement towards embracing and celebrating diverse forms of beauty.
Can you speak about the process of creating your work?
First, I define the shoot’s purpose and theme. I choose a location, considering light, permissions, and potential disruptions. Coordinating with assistants and models, I set a date and time, factoring in lighting and weather conditions. Secondly, during the actual shoot, I assess and prepare the location. I arrange props, adjust lighting (natural or artificial), and guide models for desired poses and expressions. When it comes to interacting with my models, I handle most of the work by myself – from directing them to handling the styling. The models avoid wearing makeup as I strive to portray their natural beauty. While shooting on my iPhone, I focus on framing, composition, and capturing multiple shots. Lastly, in post-production, I review and select the best shots for editing. Using editing apps on my iPhone, I make adjustments to exposure, contrast, and color balance. All editing is done on my iPhone. I then finalize images for print or digital use, entirely on my iPhone.
What do you see as the pros and cons of smartphone photography?
Speaking of its advantages, smartphone photography is notably user-friendly compared to professional counterparts. Its intuitive interfaces and automatic settings enable even amateurs to capture decent shots. The seamless integration with social media and cloud storage allows for immediate sharing and backup. Moreover, it proves cost-effective, negating the need for additional equipment like lenses or tripods, as seen with professional cameras. However, smartphone photography does have certain drawbacks when compared to digital cameras. However, the sensors of smartphones are generally smaller than those in DSLRs or mirrorless cameras, which can impact image quality. Additionally, smartphones lack some professional features, such as a hot shoe for external flashes, advanced manual controls, and raw shooting – all of which contribute to improved image quality.
What are the most significant challenges you’ve encountered and the greatest joys you’ve experienced as a photographer?
Photographers, whether newcomers or seasoned pros, inevitably face a spectrum of challenges. Personally, I find that some of the most daunting hurdles involve unauthorized image use, copyright violations, and issues related to photo credits. Being a young photographer adds another layer of complexity; time management is a constant concern. Striking a balance between artistic pursuits and other obligations can prove quite demanding. Establishing a consistent schedule and giving priority to your craft is key. I allocate dedicated time for creative work and steer clear of distractions or procrastination. Breaking down my artistic aspirations into manageable tasks has proven effective in maintaining momentum and motivation. As for the greatest joy, it’s undoubtedly the reaction my work receives and the impact it has on my audience.
What’s next for you?
I have several upcoming projects that delve into the concept of African beauty, and I’m also engaged in a series in order to bring attention to important challenges faced by my country.