David Uzochukwu answers my Skype call from his almost all-packed-up room at the house he has been living in for the past years with the rest of his family. He finds himself in one of those inflicting points, a few days away from moving out, packing all his belongings in a car and going to another country to start his first year at university. Because despite the impressive portfolio that he has already built up and the clients he has been working with, he is only eighteen.
In 2014 his name and face started to circulate the Internet after his work was displayed by two big photography sites, and after that, it all escalated quickly. He has everything going for him: talent, vision, will, and confidence in his own capacities. Even with all the attention his work is getting, he has a great approach to it all, striking with a mature attitude beyond his years. His dreamy imagery is in constant evolution, part of David’s journey to figuring himself out and finding his voice as an artist along the way. Very aware he’ll make mistakes, he is also more than willing to take them, for they are an essential part of learning and growth.
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Where do you find yourself now?
Right now I’m at the end of my gap year and about to move out of my parents’ house and go attend university in another country. I took a gap year to explore photography as a way of living, but I still want to study, not just keep working. I’ll start a philosophy course and see how I can balance that with work life. I feel I’m in a very cool place to be because I know that if I throw myself into it, I can do it, I can work and make a living. I was very lucky to find what I like so early. I started shooting – mostly self-portraits – in my early teens, kept at it and then it just snowballed. When picking up the camera I never really thought I was going to be a photographer. It was just for fun.
And when did you realize you could do it?
Well, I’m sort of at this point now! I always knew I wanted a break after finishing high school, to go travel and see my friends. Throughout high school, I always had a lot of friends in other countries, and it was very tough to stay in touch, so I was really looking forward to having free time to travel. I liked school and I love studying and learning, but it can be a very harsh environment sometimes. I had already worked a bit in photography during high school, so in this gap year and I decided to go full in. It’s a career where you can’t really expect things or plan much, so I had some personal projects planned and then I was just lucky when something else came in.
You were saying that you started taking pictures when you were thirteen, but why self –portraits?
I started making self-portraits mostly because I was and mostly still am kind of afraid of making bad work, and I didn’t want to have to involve other people. I knew it would be stressful for me, and also would put me under time pressure to make something good. It just implied this whole other thing about interacting with people, social awkwardness, etc. I just didn’t want to get into that; there were so many ways it could go wrong and self-portraiture became my best option. You have a lot of time in your hands, you can try whatever you want, even if it’s bad because nobody has to see it, and after a while, I really grew attached to the process. It’s really practical: you can shoot wherever, whenever, you don’t have to convince anyone, you don’t have to communicate your vision to anyone. But it can also be hard sometimes because you have to motivate yourself and it’s a lot of running back and forth. By now, I also really enjoy what other people can bring to a picture.
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How do you go on about your shoots, do you plan them a lot?
I always know exactly what I want beforehand. I do all these sketches so I can visualize the picture. And when I’m shooting with models I usually push them there and control the situation, but over time I’ve also learned that there is a whole new magic to letting them run away with it and really bring themselves into the picture as well.
You appear to be very confident now, both in your work and what in you do. I’m not sure to which extent it’s correct but that’s the impression you give, at least. Are you more confident now than when you started out in photography? Does validation from others make it better or worse?
As you were saying, validation from others doesn’t necessarily mean that much. I think it’s crazy cool when people tell me they can relate to one of my pictures, or that they find them beautiful, but for the most part you have to realize that a lot of people don’t really have taste, so you know they might like you but they might also like a lot of other stuff. I always look at my stuff and I’m able to tell what’s cool and what’s not; I have a pretty good feeling for how good my work is.
Sometimes, I make work and I really like it, almost surprise myself. And after a while, you have this honeymoon phase that goes on for a day, a week, or even a month if it’s really extreme. But then you start seeing all the things that could be better and start questioning everything about it. It’s especially bad when I look at stuff I made – like an editorial, for example – and I’m thinking that I messed it up, that it just didn’t work out, and that it’s not where it should be – and then other people tell me they love it and think it’s great. That’s the moment when you realize you can’t trust anyone. I know I have potential to make cool things because I have made a handful of them in the past, but there is always room for improvement.
Talking about people’s taste and validation, how do you feel about social media?
In my personal case, my life would not have played out anywhere close to the way it has without social media. It’s just absolutely amazing how you as an artist can curate your own work, put it out there; you don’t necessarily have to depend on galleries or knowing the right people because there is the possibility that they end up seeing your work, so it gives a lot of power to artists and that’s really cool.
That being said, there are obviously also bad things about it and I myself have a complicated relationship with social media – as most people do. There is a lot of stuff on there, a lot of voices, and not all of them are necessarily saying anything. Actually, most of the times they are just noise. I think it’s difficult to navigate it, I’m still learning. I have these periods where I just delete all my social media apps for a while because I can get too caught up in them. I think it’s a natural reaction though because we get addicted to this instant rush of seeing ‘likes’.
I don’t want to be creating for social media at any point, I just want it to be an outlet. But I’ve had those moments of stress because I have nothing to post and feel the need to go out and take some pictures. But that’s not why I want to create, and that’s definitely not what makes me happy.
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There certainly are a lot of inputs…
Yes, and because there is so much stuff that I see and consume I’m also scared that it clogs up my creative pores. I know I see all these pictures and my brain absorbs them, and I notice it when I’m creating sometimes. I think that with social media comes this constant need to be present and to show your fantastic life. What this does is that you want to keep pushing your work, even if it’s not necessarily refined. You are just creating a lot and putting it all out there. At the same time, you should never be afraid of making bad work because you need to keep on creating loads so you have the opportunity to make some good work. I’m always trying to find a balance between not being too extra and putting out only fantastically curated pictures. I know that’s a stress level for myself, but at the same time, I have to put out things that are true to myself.
And have you found that voice and what you want to say with your pictures?
Well, right now I’m in a process of refining; I’m really trying to narrow down my voice, my tone, and myself. But I guess it’s always about finding even finer emotions to kind of express a particular one. I want to tell stories but the cool thing about photography is that you can do it in such a vague way that other people can relate to it, you don’t need to spell out everything from A to Z. You give them the mood, you try to create a feeling, and then other people can wonder what came before and what comes after. But also you don’t really think about that when you create, you just have a need to express a mood. I have a need to get these pictures out of my mind that correlate to my state of being.
And in the end, the public or people that see your images will always interpret and understand them from their own point of view, almost projecting a bit of themselves onto them. How important is the figure of the audience when you create now?
Yes, exactly, it’s really funny when other people describe my pictures to me; I never know which image they mean. Because as you said, it depends on yourself as a creative but also on what people project onto your image. It’s really cool but also crazy because when I started creating I didn’t think anyone would go see it, I was doing it for myself, and even now I don’t think about it too much.
I do notice the importance of the audience when I’ve made a lot of work but I can’t share it – like now, when I’m sitting on a lot of unpublished photographs. And that’s the most frustrating thing, so even though I know I create for myself there is a point where the audience has to come in for me to feel the satisfaction that I want to have.
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How crazy is it that you started when you were thirteen and now here we are, and it’s going so well? How did it happen?
When I was fifteen, EyeEm picked me as their photographer of the year and I got a lot of press because I was very young at that point and so many people entered. Then, just after that, Flickr picked me for one of their ‘twenty under twenty’, and that combination had my name and my face in a bunch of blogs and press. After that, I signed to an agency in Paris and I started working with them. I had already been working before, but I just did a bunch of small stuff.
Things went slowly for a year or so and then I made a bunch of editorials for Wonderland Magazine with this really cool guy from London, Matthew Josephs. He was styling them and it was really cool because he pulled together a group of very exciting people and basically just gave me creative freedom to do whatever I wanted. After that, we did this Nike job together with FKA Twigs. We shot that last November and it came out in January this year and then I just kept working. 
I’ve done a whole bunch of projects that are yet to come out. I directed for the first time earlier this year. Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of different things. I thought I wanted to loosen things up a bit before it all starts getting too serious. Usually, everything is very planned with me so I did some live photography and some documentary trying to reach out into every direction and grow as much as I could and find what I like and what I don’t for real.
Tell us a bit about your gap year that is just coming to an end now. 
Technically, I was based in Brussels but I was all over. It was fantastic and I got to see all these places I never thought I’d see, but the sad thing when you are travelling for work is that you don’t have much free time to explore or to extend your stay in those countries because usually there is a postproduction phase and a tight deadline. But you do get a taste and an insider’s view I guess because you don’t really do all the touristy stuff and you get to work and interact with locals. Also at times, it was insanely lonely. Imagine you are alone sitting somewhere, all your friends are literally on another continent and you miss your family.
There were some amazing work opportunities but sometimes things just don’t go how you want them to go, and that always affects me personally. I am very attached to what I create even when it is work because I want it to be good, and I want it to feel personal. So if a job goes wrong I’m such a drag, I honestly wouldn’t want to be around myself. Sometimes the combination of things just makes everything seem horrible. But overall, it’s been a great experience and I’ve grown a lot.
These are such pivotal years and you are going to be changing and learning so much. You are now growing and discovering yourself as a person and as an artist. Excited for what the road ahead has to bring?
Definitely! I know there is still a lot of growth to do and it’s honestly very exciting, that’s part of the reason why I want to still study for a few years, or at least give it a shot. I know that at least having an input is always good, and will make me have to re-identify myself constantly, really push and develop my vision of myself. And already now, when I look at the stuff I made when I was fourteen, fifteen or sixteen, and the stuff that I make and that I want to be making now, I see such a difference.
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