From Jorja Smith to Lauryn Hill, photographer Alexis Chabala has been taking portraits for The Influence Project since 2014. But in addition to meeting his idols, those who’ve reshaped the genres of soul, funk, R&B and jazz for years, he’s been on a quest for finding his own identity – which started with MTV’s visuals and series like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Born in Zambia to Congolese parents, Alexis has lived in several countries, both African and European. His passion for creativity started with comic books, more specifically, Stan Lee’s Marvel stories and characters. But when he discovered photography’s instantaneity, he “was sold”, as he puts it. From there, he’s kept taking pictures from friends, relatives and, lately, singers. Today, we speak with him about the importance of music, discovering one’s identity, finding one’s voice, and he tells us all about shooting Bill Withers – a camera broke, a phone died, and he got stuck in the freeway.
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You were born in Zambia, your parents are from Congo, and you were raised between France, Morocco, and Belgium. And now, you’re living in London. In what ways has this multicultural background influenced you as a person and as a photographer?
You absorb everything living within so many different cultures, even though you are unaware of it at the time. It’s only now that I’m older I can look back and see how this foundation has helped shape my thinking and my journey.
Leaving Congo when I was 6 years old, I was immersed in various European cultures. Unromantically, this brought with it the typical trials of a black kid growing up in a predominately white community. Connecting with different cultures at this young age forced me to continually adapt and review what I knew. But perhaps, most importantly, it taught me ‘resilience’. As one of eight children, I was pretty much left to my own devices growing up.
What did you do then?
Around the age of 10, I discovered Stan Lee and the world of Marvel Comics. In fact, without this influence, it’s unlikely I would have discovered and pursued photography. Marvel’s characters and stories had a profound impact and gave me an escape route from the world through drawing. I was soon spending all my spare time practising techniques and creating detailed characters for my own stories.
So you learnt a lot about image making.
Probably, my most formative years were when I moved to Belgium around the age of 14, where I discovered the big Congolese community living there and began to reconnect with my roots. Up until that point, there had not been many positive black role models available to me outside my direct family. But the United States TV imports my new friends were watching, like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the music and visuals of MTV were now on my radar as a teen and helped to address this imbalance. I remember this period vividly as it was the first time in my life, I had felt a real sense of identity.
This change also gave me the confidence to move to London, where I have lived for the past twenty years. Being surrounded daily by such a mix of people and cultures, having access to art, exhibitions and live music along with endless opportunities to collaborate, continues to inspire my work. So I would say aesthetically, my influences are much more European and African-American than African.
“Probably, my most formative years were when I moved to Belgium around the age of 14, where I discovered the big Congolese community living there and began to reconnect with my roots.”
How would you say these experiences have affected you as a person and an artist then?
These experiences have made me pretty independent and taught me to embrace change and make the most out of any situation. This translates into my work in that I can always adapt and find an angle to connect with whoever I am shooting. Whether an A-Lister or an upcoming artist, I understand that people are just people. And wherever you go, you find the same hopes, same stories, same prejudices and the same dreams.
You started drawing because of Stan Lee’s Marvel characters and stories. But when did you realize that you were interested in photography? And when did you know you wanted to make it your profession?
For as long as I can remember, I was always drawing and doodling. My friend and I would create comic-strips together inspired by Marvel’s characters, so it was always there. The drawing skills I developed over time eventually assured me a place at art school, where I studied fine art.
In our second year, we were given a photography assignment. I immediately loved the instantaneity of taking photographs. A comic-strip could take me days, even weeks to complete, but this was immediate, and I was sold.  I also discovered I was quite good at the technical side. I was the only student in the class to expose the entire film correctly, and my images were given good feedback too. Photography just made sense to me.
So from there, you kept taking photographs.
I borrowed my girlfriend’s dad’s Canon T70 for the next couple of the years, and moonlighting as a ‘crap waiter’, I eventually earned enough money to buy my first camera. I was mostly interested in fashion at this point and immersed myself in the works of Irvin Penn, Avedon, David Sims and Mario Sorrenti. The realisation that I could potentially make a living from this inspired me to move to London and begin working in a photo studio, with dreams of becoming a fashion photographer.
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On a previous interview, your work was defined as “a distinctive approach to portraiture, visuals that feel truly in the moment”. How do you think you’re reworking the genre of portraiture?
I don’t really think I’m reworking the genre, I’m just doing my thing. I work very quickly to create a trust between myself and whoever I am shooting, so perhaps my ability to connect gives me something different. Ultimately, I’m always attracted by the same thing: a moment, and to capture the essence of that person in that moment. The selection and editing process is such a big part of it too, you feel it when it’s right.
A portrait is usually a conversation between the photographer and its subject, especially yours, which are set and prepared (and not snapped spontaneously on the street, for example). How do you first approach a person you want to shoot, and how do you build a relationship from there until you finally take the picture?
I usually start off by emailing the artist or their representative for a project or an idea, then go from there. In most cases, I rarely speak to them in-between this and meet them for the first time on the day of our shoot. For me, it’s really about being in the moment with the subject, reacting and adapting to whatever they throw my way. That’s when the conversation happens.
You’ve been working on The Influence Project since 2014, an ongoing series of photos “celebrating the pioneers of R&B, soul, funk, afrobeat and hip-hop”, as you state in your website. But how and why did it all start? And how’s it evolved until now?
The original idea for The Influence Project came from my creative partner, Lorayne Crawford. We’ve known each other for a long time and had always talked creative ideas and projects. We met through music and have spent years listening to music together, going to festivals and live shows. We also spend a lot of time discussing and dissecting the music we listen to and trying to work out its origins, with it all invariably coming back down to a handful of jazz, R&B, soul and funk artists.
Understanding more about how much these artists have contributed to music and how little known that contribution is in many cases inspired us to do something about it. Cultural appropriation in music is a theme threaded throughout our project, and we wanted to raise awareness of this and, ultimately, honour the artists we love. We started small, shooting some friends who are artists, and then grew from there. We shot George Clinton’s portrait early on in the project and this gave us a bit of a springboard… and the confidence to dream big! The project is ongoing and will continue to evolve with every new venue we take it to, and with every new artist we include.
“Cultural appropriation in music is a theme threaded throughout our project, and we wanted to raise awareness of this and, ultimately, honour the artists we love.”
You’ve been working on it for four years now. Can you tell us a remarkable anecdote from a shooting, or someone who stood out when portraying him/her and why?
I have so many great stories as you would expect from hanging out with such creative characters, but my shoot with the legendary and reclusive Bill Withers is the first one that springs to mind. We had been trying to include Bill in our project for over two years and had almost given up asking when we finally got confirmation from his wife that he would like to be involved. We were over the moon!
I flew to Los Angeles to shoot him on my own and on a very tight budget. I hired a stage on the 5th floor of a studio downtown and everything was set, Bill arrived on time with his wife and daughter. It was a very hot day, so I opened the windows in the studio to let some air in. I was just about to begin shooting when a freak gust of wind blew over the large polyboard I was using. This fell onto my light, which sent my tripod and camera flying across the floor to land in a heap, narrowly missing Bill Withers!
What happened next?
After a moment, a stunned silence and with panic creeping into my soul, I checked everyone was ok, then checked my light, and the one camera I had brought with me – which now lay in pieces on the floor. Unfortunately, the studio did not have a suitable camera on site which I could use, so I called Lorayne in London and we finally managed to track down a camera ten miles away, on the other side of town.
In the meantime, Bill and his family were amazing about it and agreed to meet back at the studio in two hours’ time, while I drove across Los Angeles to pick up the camera. Using my phone as a satnav, I set off with hope in my heart that we could still make this happen. Thirty minutes into the journey, my phone overheated by the sun and died. I was now stuck on the freeway with no sense of direction and no phone to tell anyone about it. I eventually pulled over where I could and waited for another thirty minutes for my phone to cool down.
The drama was real…
By the time I got to the camera shop, two hours had gone by and I felt that I had really missed my opportunity. It had taken two years trying to organise this shoot only to be foiled by a gust of wind! I eventually managed to get through to speak to Bill who, at this point, I think felt very sorry for me. He agreed to try and fit something in within the time I was in Los Angeles. I spent the next couple of days waiting anxiously by the phone. Then, three days later, they confirmed and I was finally able to shoot Bill’s portrait… in a different studio, with no windows this time!
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Most of the musical genres you explore and the artists who pioneered them are black. In what ways has your own identity played a role when working on this theme? And what have you learnt, on a personal level, after working on it all these years?
Many of the artists we have included in the project have had a big influence on me as a black man. Whether as a teenager trying to find my own identity or through artistic influence. I think the project is my expression of that. The impact that Public Enemy had on me at the age of 13 was immense. I was living in white communities, growing up with a white stepfather, so I didn’t really know what it meant to be black. The song Fight The Power awakened something in me. I’d never seen or heard anything like this before, it was a revelation which not only helped my sense of identity but also led me to discover artists like James Brown and George Clinton.
Lyrically, everything I listened to from this point onwards was an expression of black culture, black power, all saying the same thing, I’m black and I’m proud. This motivated me and made me feel less isolated within my white community. It also helped me to understand that to be able to achieve anything, you need courage. You need to be able to say what you mean and mean what you say and of course, don’t believe the hype!
In this project, you talk about characters that are changing the shape of music. How important do you think is music in photography and the other way around?
Art has always inspired art. For me as a photographer, it’s about connecting emotionally to an artist’s song or creation, I need to be able to relate to it on some level. This then inspires me to create a piece of work that will hopefully touch people. And if that piece, in turn, inspires another artist to create, then great! Music also now relies heavily on image, so I suppose ultimately, we all feed one another.
Self-taught in moving image, you have been fascinated by it. How important is that in your projects?
Sometimes, a still image is not enough, you need more. I specifically wanted to use moving image for The Influence Project because we wanted to get intimate with these artists, to hear their stories and experiences, and help bring some of the characters on the walls to life. There are also important messages and themes threaded through the project that a still image could not portray. So it’s important to me to use whichever tool it takes to help an understanding of the message, but it’s not something I will need to do for every project.
“To achieve anything, you need courage. You need to be able to say what you mean and mean what you say.”
Something that you would really love to do but haven't?
Direct a feature film.
And something you would never do?
I never say never!
What do you think about the future of photography?
Over the last ten years or so, technology has advanced so much that everyone is now a photographer and it’s become harder and harder to stand out from the crowd. Personally, I think you need a bigger reason than just taking pretty pictures, a point of view or message, as what you do and say with the image is what makes you stand out.
Technology is going to continue to throw us new gimmicks and new ways to manipulate imagery. At the same time, many photographers are now going back to shooting on film again, so who knows where this will lead. But I am excited about all possibilities.
Last year, 1.2 trillion digital photos were taken. In a world full of pictures, how do you recognize a good one?
I think that it’s really all down to your own personal taste in the end.
Any upcoming projects, exhibitions or ideas?
I’ve always got lots of ideas and usually have several projects ongoing at any one time. My most recently completed project is a study of black male sexuality and the myths and stereotypes surrounding it. The Influence Project is off to a major gallery in Birmingham for 2020, and we are in talks with several other galleries who are interested in holding the exhibition.
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