After an extensive career as a professional dancer, an unexpected injury caused Djeneba Aduayom to stop and reevaluate her focus in life. As fate would have it, photography seemed to have found her just as she was looking for it. But like a true artist, Aduayom doesn’t allow herself to be limited by one art form. Incorporating her knowledge of dance, architecture, and interior design into her photography, she pushes the limits of what it means to be a photographer with her images often blending portraiture with the abstract nature of our reality. 
The first thing I want to know is who is Djeneba Aduayom? How did she become the photographer that she is today?
I am a complex yet simple human being. I tend to follow my dreams regardless of what seems reasonable or logic. Dancing has been my passion since I was a little girl, and I dedicated all my time after school and all my holidays as a kid to take dance workshops and classes without ever doubting this was my purpose. I had an amazing career performing on some of the biggest stages worldwide alongside pretty amazing artists, and the stories and experiences that fill my heart are forever precious.
A few years back, I sustained an injury on a tour. I ended up having a hip and knee surgery, and then, I was told this was the end of my career as a dancer. After a traumatic year, I was left feeling like I had lost everything. But of course, my inner self knew that you can reinvent yourself any number of times; you just have to find the one thing you are passionate about and work hard at it.
That’s when you discovered photography, then?
I can’t remember exactly if photography found me or if I found photography. One thing I remember is that it gave me wings and true happiness! It allowed me to focus intensely through the viewfinder and see things in my own way, like discovering poetry through images. Then, I learned the editing part and it equally fascinated me. I was able to get into a mode where the world would literally stop and I could create one of my own to share. I had so much joy experimenting.
How were these early days as a photographer?
I spent all my savings to buy good lenses and a camera, and I started to photograph anything that caught my eye: landscapes, the street, objects, etc. After a few years, I took a masterclass with Nick Knight through a program called Mastered, and this changed me as a photographer forever. First of all, Nick is not only amazing as a photographer but also as a person. I remember he gave us a fashion video brief for our assignment and I had never shot video before. I found an idea but could not make it happen and had mentioned I was going to pass. Nick jumped in and told me giving up was not an option, and I had to just find another angle instead of staying stuck to my original idea.
He mentored me all the way through this assignment and taught me that when something doesn’t work, don’t get too rigid and attached to that feeling but instead flow and use what you have to make it work.
This was a decisive moment for the new me as a photographer. Another decisive moment was meeting Alessia Glaviano in Iceland for a portfolio review; her very insightful advice and her direct approach struck a chord with me and gave me a lot of food for thought.
Armed with all these new tools, my photography started to evolve visually, and I could define more and more my voice and what I wanted to say. The meaning of my images though comes from personal experiences and challenges, and observing people with one thing in mind: to create a sort of visual poetry and feeling.
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Your cultural background is incredibly fascinating being a mixture of French, Italian, and African all in one. How do all these cultures intersect when it comes to your identity and the art that you create? Do you ever feel sometimes that they clash because each one is so distinct?
Yes, and I am proud to be a mix in fact. And also super grateful to have been raised not to choose only one culture but to embrace all of them and more. I take a little of each and mix them within my photography in my own way. I don’t want to separate. I want to unify so they never clash in my eyes. I am comfortable with every part of my identity and I never feel conflicted with who I am.
I love that I am a mix of various races and cultures. Sometimes, people really try to make me choose one over the other because that is all they might know. But my experience is my own and different; I will remain all of whom my parents and various cultural backgrounds made me. Yes, every culture is distinct. But here is the thing: we are all human and we all have common things we do, even as simple as breathing, eating, loving; we have certain common values like family and so on. That goes for every race.
So why not base ourselves on finding the common values rather than the differences? Let’s use that and learn from our differences instead. I have so many stories of people that met and hated each other at first because they were from opposite ethnicities, countries, etc. only to realize a while later that they had certain things in common that brought them together. And they ended up becoming the best of friends.
Before you were a photographer, you were a dancer and also studied interior design for four years while living in London. How does this rich artistic background influence your photography in terms of the motion and aesthetic that define your work?
I feel like I was born an artist and a creative person, and that if I could learn new things all the time, this would be my ideal situation. I have always loved architecture. My father was an architect and civil engineer, and watching him when I was a child, probably triggered something. Studying interior design educated my eye even more as far as how I see lines and curves, light and shadow, shapes and textures. It influences my artistic work in many ways.
Dancing will always influence my work with the movement of expression but also with stillness, if that makes sense. The paradox of being still yet engaged in a breath, more like an inner movement that is subtle but makes a difference. My dancing background gives me the ability to direct movement very well. I can show the person the moves and direct them accordingly. It also allows me to anticipate a move and define the exact moment when I want to click.
Because you’re self-taught, you must have taken a lot of inspiration from others in order to develop your style. Who are your biggest inspirations creatively and otherwise? In what way have they inspired you and your style?
Some of my influences are on the obvious side. Some of the masters like Peter Lindberg and Paolo Roversi, to name only a couple, but also some of my peers. Photographers like Viviane Sassen, whose work resonates with me a lot, is outstanding. I have so many other types of inspiration like music and poetry. Certain people inspire me out of the blue when I meet them. I call them muses. When I meet such a person, he or she becomes my inspiration.
I get inspired by people’s stories as well. I will hear one and it will trigger something creative inside me straight away. All in all, my photography is inspired by a mix of many things, not just the work of so and so. It is a combination of location, human factors and other intangible things. Just like the layers of a painting or a poem or a sky full of clouds.
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In portraiture photography, it’s important to develop some sort of a relationship with the subject before shooting. How do you develop that relationship with your subjects? Is the process similar when shooting an editorial as opposed to a personal photographic project?
Connection is always a very important aspect of humanity for me. I can feel a great dissociation induced by social media these days. Engaging on a personal level is something I would do regardless if it is an editorial or a personal project because I want to learn who the person in front of me is and what their story is, even if for a brief moment. This is how you get to discover what you have in common.
From the get-go, I ask questions and I also share some of my story. Again, it is amazing how as humans we can understand each other when we all speak from the heart. I am always genuine and I care; people can feel that and open up. On occasion, if a person is guarded and can’t let go, I become very attentive to what they do to try to connect with their energy on another level, and I try to capture stolen moments of something genuine despite their blockage.
If the assignment is a campaign or a big editorial or a photo shoot for a celebrity, it can be tricky because of the number of people that have to be present on the shoot. The more people, the less easy it is to establish a real connection because everyone wants in and that can be distracting. For me, to be able to capture the essence of a person, I have to be ‘tethered’ to the talent that I am photographing. That said, if everyone on the team is working together, then the results are amazing! Shooting with smaller teams, I feel allows magic and happenstance because a deeper connection can be established, and that makes a difference.
Not only are you a photographer but you’re also an artist and videographer too. Because each art form can be so different, do you find that your creative process differs when it comes to each one?
Yes. For me, some of the preparation can be similar but only if the video part is minimal and an integral part of the photo shoot. For example, if it is a video of a few seconds on Instagram taken during the photo shoot, then I have a similar process – like defining what the story/vibe is, mood boarding, location, crew, cast, gear, etc. If it is a full-on music video or a very elaborated fashion film, the execution would involve a lot more. And of course, the approach would be more detailed: storyboards, shot lists, etc. Some photo shoots do have that level of detailing too. For the social content, I shoot both in one breath and it requires my brain to swap modes swiftly.
You like to incorporate many shapes and objects into your photographs such as circles, bubbles, and wings. I’ve also noticed that you like to juxtapose the faces of different subjects on to each other. Why do you incorporate these abstract concepts into your photography? Do they elevate your photographs beyond that of simple images?
I am going to use an analogy! Some people speak multiple languages and some do not, right? I am a mix of multiple cultures and I speak more than one language. During my dancing career, I could learn various styles too, so photography is no different for me. Here again, I use a combination of the mix that I am to express myself through images. I use the whole of my creative capacity across all mediums if I have to. Each facet expresses a different side of me.
We as humans are complex beings made of multiple facets, layers, and personalities, and we also go through various moods. I always see and feel a myriad of things when I look around me. Life itself is made of multiple points of views and angles that are in constant evolution; nothing in life is still, so why would I have to be in the stillness of only using one language? I like simple, yet seeing other sides or angles makes me want to translate it visually and create analogies and more graphic art. Just like speaking multiple languages.
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That makes sense. But it’s unusual to find someone who is able to express herself in so many ways.
As children, we have many ways of expression. Then, as we grow, we lose them because we are taught how to fit in one box. I do not want to be trapped by conventions and that is even a paradox for me because I am also a conventional person on one side.
I am an introvert, which kind of puts me in a virtual box of certain limitations. It is overwhelming for me to express myself with words, though as you can see, I am learning and conquering that fear and pushing myself through my original limitations. Words can be challenging. I feel expressing myself through various mediums within my photography is about conveying more than one message or feeling. To try to express it with words would intellectualize it to a certain extent and to me, it would lose its value.
The bubble series, for example, started because inside my head, I am in that bubble or introversion. I realized that there are many people who have that invisible bubble for other reasons, so I merged a part of my own inner world with theirs to create a series that is more of a feel – feeling alienated, alone, rejected or introverted. These are real feelings people have that I have translated within this imaginary world I created. I did write a poem with the series but if you look at the images, I am pretty sure you can feel them. So every graphic incorporation not only has a visual value that comes from my design background but also a very valid emotional and conceptual choice.
As stated on your website, looking through the viewfinder and taking images is like looking inside your own self and your inner world. So I’m wondering, what have you found? How are you different now compared to when you first started your photographic journey?
I started my photographic journey having lost my beloved movement of expression career, my main language. At first, that took away a little piece of me. I had to start something else from scratch and in another country, without any help. I had to reinvent myself but still be an artist. It was a process with ups and downs, of course. I applied the same resilient passion and complete dedication that I had for practising dance to learning photography.
This whole discovery process pushed me to find another kind of strength in myself and a new form of creativity; forging my way towards new understandings of human nature and beauty in more ways than I could before. It taught me new ways to connect with people, not from a stage this time but through an object, which is hard too. And to look at things totally differently and to go way beyond my comfort zone, as I actually had to share my story talking to more people versus expressing movement without talking at all. I learned that I enjoy the creative process so much that I can never stop! I have also found that I do not fit in one box and that I am a living paradox.
I’m curious to what you have planned next for your career. Are there any upcoming editorials, exhibitions or projects that you’re excited about?
In January, I was signed with Galerie Number 8 and I am proud to be alongside amazing artists like David Uzochukwu. Since then, I have been preparing exhibitions in a few places with the help of Marie, the founder of the gallery. To date, we were exhibited in Dakar during the Biennale, and at the Arles festival for a special presentation. We’re now exhibiting at AKAA fair in Paris. And I have been invited to Ethiopia for the ADDIS photo fair, where some of my images will be displayed. In the meantime, I have upcoming shoots all the time for various things, from editorials to some social media campaigns – some really exciting things that I can’t talk about just yet. And, of course, my ongoing personal work. I am so very grateful every day to be able to do what I love!
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