Backgrounds: Portraits by Timi Akindele-Ajani

By Somerset House

Backgrounds was a photography project that took place as part of the
Kaleidoscope exhibition, aiming to create a portrait of 21st century multicultural
Britain. Photographer Timi Akindele-Ajani reflects on his involvement with the project, as well as his own cultural background and photographic style.

Timi (2019/2019) by Yumi CodnerSomerset House

I’m Timi Akindele-Ajani and I’m a British-Nigerian. My parents were born in London but both grew up in Nigeria before returning to the UK to start a family.

I’m a Londoner through and through, and actually identify much more with the city as my home as opposed to the UK.

Chedine (2019/2019) by Timi Akindele-AjaniSomerset House

Chedine. City: London. Background: Moroccan/French

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My photography varies quite a bit, but I can simmer it down to being mostly ‘pictures of people and places’.

I enjoy shooting portraits in a candid way, where the sitters know that I’m taking their photo but are engaging with me in some sort of conversation or dialogue. I like to place my camera further away from the subject, as I feel like you can learn so much about someone through their posture and body language.

Anson & Naomi (2019/2019) by Timi Akindele-AjaniSomerset House

Anson & Naomi. Cities: Hong Kong & Shanghai. Backgrounds: Chinese & British Chinese

Emeka (2019/2019) by Timi Akindele-AjaniSomerset House

Emeka. City: London. Background: Black British

Ekow & family (2019/2019) by Timi Akindele-AjaniSomerset House

Ekow (and family). City: London. Background: Ghanaian-British

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I’m also a filmmaker and with that comes a passion for movement and storytelling. Sometimes that means motion blur surrounding the subject in my images or simply catching them in action as they tell me a story.

I always try to hear the personal histories of the people I photograph, mostly because it makes me more comfortable taking their picture. But also because I’m hugely interested in identity, belonging, and what people had for breakfast.

Andrew, Xan & Owen (2019/2019) by Timi Akindele-AjaniSomerset House

Owen, Andrew & Xan. City: London. Backgrounds: Australian, Egyptian & British/Spanish

Diane & Myrna (2019/2019) by Timi Akindele-AjaniSomerset House

Diane & Myrna. City: London. Backgrounds: Trinidadian & South African

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I would say my session photographing Diane and Myrna really resonated with me, because their relationship perfectly illustrated how friends over time can become family. They’d known each other for ages and jumped at the opportunity to take a ‘family portrait’ together, because they considered each other as family.

We spoke about their Trinidadian and South African heritages but also how London is and will always be home. Their marriages and how they’ve known each other's respective spouses almost as long as they’ve known each other. Before finishing up with a conversation about how one always outdoes the other when they take photos.

I feel like you can see just how comfortable the two were together in the portraits, I think part of that closeness really comes down to the fact that in that moment they were recollecting decades of friendship.

Reema & Maya (2019/2019) by Timi Akindele-AjaniSomerset House

Reema & Maya. City: London. Backgrounds: British Bangladeshi & British

Ashton (2019/2019) by Timi Akindele-AjaniSomerset House

Ashton. City: London. Background: American/Indian/Mauritian

Maria (2019/2019) by Timi Akindele-AjaniSomerset House

Maria. City: London. Background: Portuguese

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I usually try to treat each portrait I take as bespoke, by either changing the setting/location or technical approach to the photo.

But after Darrell shared MasterJi’s work and explained how his work was the central point of reference for Backgrounds, I decided to go for a more studio focused set up.

I fixed my camera in the same position for both of my sessions and opted to change little between sittings.

This meant I had to engage with the sitters in a way I had never done before. It also meant that the subjects wouldn't be looking at the camera but at me!

Riya (2019/2019) by Timi Akindele-AjaniSomerset House

Riya. City: London. Background: British Indian

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These were challenges that made me reconsider the images I planned on taking but all in all I’m really happy with how they turned out and will definitely continue to work in this way.

What excites me about the photography I enjoy and hope to make is how it helps you take people on a journey, and the way that journey can be to a place, moment or even idea.

Laia Gasch (2019/2019) by Timi Akindele-AjaniSomerset House

Laia. City: London. Background: European (Catalan)

Zoe Stevens & Dez Drummond (2019/2019) by Timi Akindele-AjaniSomerset House

Zoe & Dez. City: London. Background: Irish/South African & British/Jamaican

Louise (& Maryam) (2019/2019) by Timi Akindele-AjaniSomerset House

Louise (& Maryam Isabella). City: London. Background: Egyptian/English

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I’m currently working on a photo project about Creekmouth, the industrial area that surrounds my family home. The area is the dustiest place I’ve ever been, has a huge problem with waste and a strange affinity for British flags.

I love that I can use photography as a tool to share this strange bit of Barking with anyone who's willing to have a look. And that I can package those images in a way that not only presents the reality of the strange environment but also my perspective and the way that I see it. It’s a joy and I can only hope I continue to find things worth documenting this way.


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Backgrounds was inspired by Indian photographer Masterji's portraits of newly arrived South Asian immigrants and their families in Coventry. The project aimed to create a portrait of 21st century Britain today. We worked with five young Magunum-trained photographers who photographed visitors to Somerset House over the course of one weekend in June, and uploaded the portraits live to a dedicated Instagram account.

Follow @backgroundsproject / #backgroundsofbritain

The project launched at Generation Get Up! Weekend, a two-day programme of talks, workshops, screenings and food marking the first national Windrush Day at Somerset House.

Backgrounds is a collaboration with Create Jobs, conceived by creative director Darrell Vydelingum as part of Kaleidoscope: Immigration and Modern Britain, a free photography exhibition exploring what it feels to live as an immigrant, or descendant of immigrants, today.

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