Backgrounds: Portraits by Zeinab Batchelor

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 Zeinab Batchelor reflects on her involvement with the project, as well as her own cultural background and photographic style.

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

I am Black-British, born and raised in Hackney, East London. My mum was born in the Ivory Coast, however her family originate from Nigeria, while my dad is also Nigerian.

Growing up in the Ivory Coast meant that my mum is able to speak several languages, including French. My mum then moved to the UK in 1984, when she was at the age of 25. Her big brother had moved here so she came over to stay with him, in the hopes of a better life.

Barbara & Matias (2019/2019) by Zeinab BatchelorSomerset House

Barbara & Matias. City: London. Backgrounds: Argentinian with a Polish surname and a German passport & Artgentinian with eastern European roots

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When discussing my own style of photography, I often say that it merges the two aesthetics of documentary and fashion photography. I typically approach my photographic process through fashion, however by switching up the conventions - I like to use regular people as my subjects, friends, family, sometimes even street casting.

Predominantly my work documents people and their own concepts of what identity means to them; whether that is in relation to their homes as a signifier or their clothes. I find that my work leans towards photographing women more so and our forms of representation, maybe its because it is a bit more intimate and I can relate to better.

I find the process of taking an photograph like an extended conversation, there is so much to just clicking the shutter. I think that my choice of medium somewhat reflects this – by shooting on film, I am a lot more considerate about the images I’m taking and prefer to slow things down, which is somewhat an outdated mindset, especially considering the generation we live in, where everything happens so quickly.

Floella (2019/2019) by Zeinab BatchelorSomerset House

Floella. City: London. Background: Black British

Bella (2019/2019) by Zeinab BatchelorSomerset House

Bella. City: London. Background: Black British

Nakeba , Wanita, Ethan & Eva (2019/2019) by Zeinab BatchelorSomerset House

Nakeba, Wanita, Ethan & Eva. City: London. Backgrounds: Black & White British

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I found it fascinating when speaking to some of the participants how, although several stories were different, regardless of backgrounds, that there were still some common factors across a majority of the stories.

It was interesting to see how my upbringing from my African mother had resonated not only with my identity, but also several of the participants. I found that the morals that were instilled in me, like education being the key, fighting for what you believe in; I found that these traits were also instilled in several of the participants who had originated from immigrants.

At the end of the day, we are all looking for a place to belong and that allows us to be our true selves.

Alyssa (2019/2019) by Zeinab BatchelorSomerset House

Alyssa. City: San Fransisco. Background: German/English/Italian

Robert (2019/2019) by Zeinab BatchelorSomerset House

Robert. City: London. Background: Mexican & Thai

Garry, Valerie & Garry Jr. (2019/2019) by Zeinab BatchelorSomerset House

Garry, Valerie & Garry Jr. City: New York. Background: African American

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The Somerset House commission has definitely inspired me to further my practice outside of its traditional scope. I think that as Londoners we can get very used to not interacting with others, despite having so many people in this city.

Taking what I’ve learned from this project, I’d like to focus some of my work on subjects that I wouldn’t necessarily document, such as cultural demographics or ages. It has also made me consider how different formats/outputs for work can be used to tell a story further.

Janese, Elise & Sandra (2019/2019) by Zeinab BatchelorSomerset House

Janese, Elise & Sandra. City: London. Backgrounds: Black British

Dzifa & Selasi (2019/2019) by Zeinab BatchelorSomerset House

Dzifa & Selasi. City: London. Background: Ghanaian British

Norma (2019/2019) by Zeinab BatchelorSomerset House

Norma. City: London. Background: Barbadian

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I honestly do think a photograph can say a thousand words, for better or for worse. The thing with photography is that it is an always evolving skill which, in my opinion, can never truly be mastered.

I enjoy being able to develop new skills, new approaches to shooting. I enjoy the process of training my eye and understanding how my own perspective as a photographer, can somewhat influence my subject.

I think the best way for a persons’ character to be revealed in an image, is through time. The act of taking a photograph is quite intrusive, and I think in order to allow someone to feel comfortable being photographed, there needs to be a mutual exchange of vulnerability, something that is only done through conversation.

Satinder, Gurpreet, Avaani & Sahara (2019/2019) by Zeinab BatchelorSomerset House

Satinder, Gurpreet, Avaani & Sahara. City: Warwick. Background: British Asian

Melissa, Remon & Thomas (2019/2019) by Zeinab BatchelorSomerset House

Melissa, Remon & Thomas. City: London. Background: Hongkonger, White mixed Caribbean British & White British

Tallulah (2019/2019) by Zeinab BatchelorSomerset House

Tallulah. City: London. Background: British

Evelyn & Chantal (2019/2019) by Zeinab BatchelorSomerset House

Evelyn & Chantal. Cities: Surrey. Backgrounds: Black British

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I’ve recently acquired all of my mum’s old photo albums of her from the 80s in Nigeria. I love looking at a photograph and being able to tell the time/era that it was taken, even sometimes by smelling the residue of chemicals on the prints.

To me, photography Is something that can be received in many ways, such as for nostalgia and to reminisce, as a means of helping to mourn, capturing crucial moments etc. A photograph will always be timeless as it allows you to transport yourself back to a time, or into a completely new fantasy.

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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.

Visit somersethouse.org.uk

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