Life is like gold, in order to get its meaning you must dig deep within yourself.
It has become something of a cliché in the West to point to the ubiquity of social media and the increasing problem of loneliness in our communities. The argument goes that, with everyone constantly viewing their mobile device, we are no longer interacting person-to-person. From this, it is claimed that social media and, more broadly, the internet, is somehow damaging our society.
It is, of course, a flawed argument. It is highly selective in choosing those applications of social media that are negative while ignoring those that are positive. The flaw is that it blames the tool for the way some people choose to use it. Most tools are morally neutral. It is what we choose to do with the tool that defines its ethical value. So it is with social media. The internet has allowed many people who might otherwise be isolated to begin a new conversation, to share ideas and the support each other.
A good example of this is the young Ghanaian artist, Nana Frimpong Oduro. With few resources and no connections into the wider art-world he has nonetheless developed an art practice with a clear aesthetic signature and subtle depth of feeling. And he is gaining international recognition for his work. Initially, he used what was available – a cell phone – to create his photographs, exhibiting them online through a picture-sharing social-media platform. In this way his images have become known far outside Ghana. His work has featured in the African online style magazine ‘Perazim’ and the first edition of ‘TSV’, a print and online magazine showcasing the work of cell-phone photographers worldwide. Later his images appeared on ‘LensCulture’, a major online photo-art publisher based in the Netherlands, and in the ‘Guardian’ newspaper in the United Kingdom. And that is how I first became aware of his work.
Nana Frimpong Oduro is inspired by the emotional and spiritual interior that lies beneath the surface. His style is tightly framed, focusing in on the face and hands, expression and gesture. His visual language is metaphorical and symbolic, suggesting psychological phenomena: love and loneliness, friendship and struggle, self-confidence and humility, joy and anxiety. Always, there is a quest for equilibrium; an understanding that each emotion, each need and each empathic moment could be used to help or to harm. He speaks of the compassion that finds its effect in a balance of emotional sensitivity and critical insight. In his words, he seeks to “touch souls”, and to do that requires images that are not just beautiful, but honest.
Alasdair: What was it that drew you to first make photographs?
Nana: Loneliness. I was feeling lost and depressed. I found that creating photographs allowed me to escape that moment of loneliness. I felt alive!
You made a self-portrait with the title of ‘A Little Courage Can Make You A Winner!’ In it you look out from behind your raised fists. Is that how you see yourself?
The idea of this image is about overcoming my own fears. At first, I was scared to show my pictures – to post them online – because I thought they weren’t good enough. But I had faith, and my faith encouraged me to post the images anyway. Once I had taken that step, I realised the only obstacle was my own fear. At that moment I felt like a winner!
For you, what does it mean to be a ‘winner’?
Being a winner is finding the strength to overcome the inner resistance that comes with fear; a fear that prevents you from doing things… but it is also about making sure that the things you do are done right. I came from a place of fear, but I beat it and for the first time I was actually able to do something: to make pictures that people tell me they love.
What is it that you seek to communicate through your photographs?
I am inspired by the nature of human beings, by our emotional side. I want to communicate my feelings and thoughts about the inner part of humanity. I want to express myself through my pictures and also express my feelings about other people; to show them I understand how they feel; that they are not alone; they need not feel fear…
Where do you think this fear comes from?
I think we become fearful when we depend on what other people say about us. I created a photograph called ‘Slave to Opinions’. It came from an honest personal place. I used to feed on other people’s words. In a way, what they said kept changing how I felt about myself – who I was – and that made me more depressed. That’s what the hands represent, all those words we feed on are like the hands blinding us to the light and holding us from moving forward. Once you give yourself to other people’s opinions, you lose your vision and your desire.
How do you resist this?
By being calm inside and thinking positively: imagining myself achieving my goals. It brings my focus back. If we open up our emotions to just anything, it’s like you are putting your head on the line of death. Because depression can kill you or make you mad.
We can end up hiding behind a mask. I wanted to show this in the picture called ‘The Struggle with Personalities’. The rubber represents the surface – the personality we decide to show to the world because we want to fit in – but deep within, we struggle because we are not being true to ourselves. We are saying we do not love ourselves enough as we really are.
In your photograph called ‘Imaginary Love’, you explore this idea from the other side: that in focusing on self-belief, we must take care not to project onto another person the way we wish they were rather than accept who they are in reality?
‘Imaginary Love’ represents the part of us that fantasises about ‘the love of our dreams’. If we love that imaginary person too much, then when someone actually comes into our life and doesn’t live up to the impossible ideal of our imaginary lover, we turn away. But if you can be gentle with yourself then you can be gentle with others, because what you are shapes what you see in others.
The theme of this series of articles is about compassion. In making these photographs, what have you learned about compassion?
Compassion is forgiving yourself, embracing yourself. It is best experienced when you’re not looking around to see what other people think. It teaches me to accept me for what I am and not what anyone else thinks I should be.
Compassion is being ‘soft’ – being gentle with yourself. Soft things don’t break when they fall, but hard things shatter.
It takes serenity and humility. Serenity helps me find myself; when water is calm, we see all that is under the surface. Humility is like a dove. I imagine the dove is on my shoulder so that I can listen to it and be modest and gentle on myself.
In your Instagram feed you caption each image with a ‘Muse’…
The Muse is the person who inspires me through our conversations. Mostly they are friends, though some are people I meet and feel they will be interesting to photograph. People are complex – they have many different characters – so they always stimulate ideas. Once I get an idea, I call them and tell them I am inspired. After that we work on making the image.
For example, ‘Behind the Smile’. I have known Jocabhed Bedu for ten years and noticed how she always hides her sadness behind a smile.
Who is the ‘Shy Guy’?
That is my brother. He is camera-shy, so covering half of his face actually helped him feel comfortable about being photographed. Shy people like it best when they are invisible.
When do you decide on the title – before or after you have made the image?
Before. The idea leads me to make the image.
It was that way with ‘Friendship’. One evening, I was with three friends when I realised that I had left the keys for my room back at the barber’s shop. The journey there and back was over an hour. It was dark and not safe for one person to walk alone. I asked my friends to come with me, but only one agreed. I realised then what it means to have a true friend and how rare that can be.
I have noticed that one of the visual metaphors you use is water. What does water represent?
Water represents hope. When the rains come after a year of drought, we feel so hopeful. Even the trees rejoice and become fruitful. Water represents the end of pain. But you must surrender to it and allow yourself to be helped … this is especially true when facing any form of mental health issue.
What kind of equipment do you use to make these images?
For a long time I used a cell phone and most of the images here were made that way. In the beginning it was a Tecno W3; later I switched to an LG G5 smartphone. I was using a phone because, at that time, it was the only thing I could afford. But then I was given a Sony α6000 digital camera. It was an anonymous gift from someone I met online who admired my pictures and decided to get me pro camera because they believed in my work. I was so happy! I always wanted to use a Sony, although I hadn’t told the person this.
Where do you show your images?
I have no agent or gallery, so for now I mostly show my pictures through online image-sharing platforms. My work was featured in LensCulture [online magazine] and last year I organised my first exhibition at the Beach Club in Accra.
How would you describe your personal philosophy of life?
Life is like gold, in order to get its meaning you must dig deep within yourself. I believe everything is within us. You find yourself by digging deep within yourself. You cannot find it in anyone else. Even though we may relate to the same thing, it doesn’t mean we handle it in the same way.
Nana Frimpong Oduro was born in Tema, Ghana, in 1996. In 2013 he completed high school and enrolled at university, but had to drop out in his second year due to financial hardship. What followed was a crisis of self-doubt and emotional stress. He began making pictures with his mobile phone and posting them on social media as a way to work through his sense of isolation. His images were well received, and his reputation grew. In 2019, an anonymous donor sent him his first camera. Today, his primary platform for exhibition remains social media, but his work has received increasing attention overseas from online magazines, from the international photography website LensCulture (based in the Netherlands) and the Guardian newspaper (UK). He lives and works in Accra, Ghana.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the July 2020 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was Compassion.