The Momentary Icons of Wu with Eddie Otchere
Once dubbed the 10th Wu-Tang member, Eddie Otchere has become critically-acclaimed for his incredible photography, including a curator role at the National Portrait Gallery and shooting artists such as Jay Z, Nas, Snoop Dog and Aaliyah. And, his work has been celebrated in its unique quality to encapsulate subcultures and ephemeral moments in music history.
Across your career you must have had some great experiences when shooting such major figures in music culture, are there any of your subjects you grew particularly fond of, or made a connection with?
When it comes to fondness and deep intrinsic connections it's always about the homegrown talent that touches me the most, certainly talent from the ends as in my neighbourhood. When I lived in Vauxhall I loved working for Renegade Hardware creating their visual identity. I now live in Mitcham and the local talent still amazes me, chief talent number one being Omar; super soul singer extraordinaire and lately working with BBE (Barely Breaking Even) with acts on their roster which includes so much genius. In both cases Omar and Peter Adarkwah from BBE had worked extensively with Dilla and their Jay Dilla stories are gold. I think this may be my next project... Dilla stories.
You have an incredible talent for taking shots that crystallize subcultures, but do you think there are similar subcultures to shoot today like 'Metalheadz' with Drum & Bass or the 'Wu-Tang' and Hip-Hop?
Tony Wilson from Factory Records said that if young people are given the freedom to their own thing, after midnight, cool shit happens. The pressures by government to fear and loathe youth energy and criminalize at every opportunity every action they choose and then pressure them to be a careerist has finally murdered any D.I.Y. counter-narrative and has almost guaranteed that subcultures, no matter how genuine, will be usurped by commercial corporations.
I know it's out there and in my immediate community my home is more like a youth club but I don't have the luxury of time to stick out and watch a scene flourish. I have to say, as grime is starting to splinter there are some fascinating manifestations, including the UK drill music scene. In particular, the crews from Stockwell Park Estate, Angell Town Estate - all the SW postcodes are making great music.
Do you find it harder nowadays to shoot authentic subjects?
It's not that it's harder, it's just weirder. Moody Man is a case and point. He's someone I've wanted to shoot since the 90s and emails don't seem to get to Detroit. I worked with Amp Fiddler, tracked down Theo Parrish and even though I bought tickets to see Moody and whilst playing he gave me a T-Shirt to give to my girl. Having said that, I don't think my Theo or Amp shots have ever been published. So even if I find the subjects I cannot find the platforms to publish them.
There's another one, Katie Tempest, a poet who I admire deeply. I would love to shoot her but I haven't got round to chasing her down, because there are too many degrees of separation. Recently while I was out at the Bussey Building shooting A Guy Called Gerald and she taps me on my shoulder and says "thank Gerald for me, his set was great" and by time I realise it's Katie, she's gone. I was gutted. I focus on the shoot more than the hustle these days and to be honest you have keep both eyes on both balls.
It's probably fair to say you work nearly exclusively through analog methods, what's the main reasoning behind this?
Trust, ownership, material wealth and the romance of photography. Recently Samsung announced that you should not say any personal details in front of your 'Smart TV' because anyone can log in, record, view and eavesdrop on what ever your saying. I'm pretty certain the next digital camera I buy will have Wi-Fi, GPS and most likely could operate my washing machine but my portrait camera doesn't even have a battery. It's one thing right and that is trap light onto film. And the film makes a print.
One day my great grandchildren will go up into the loft and find a batch of prints that've been sitting there for 50 years. Upon closer inspection they may recognise what they see. They could also find hard drives except of course in 50 years they won't have the hundred divergent cables and plugs Apple introduces every 3 months. All you need is light to unlock the potential of film. Lastly, a photograph, a print is a gift, the space in which that gift is created is the darkroom, a powerful space where the gifts are not mass produced but crafted into being.
What's your thought process the moment before you 'push the button'?
When you're looking at the subject through the viewfinder you are composing your subject in a frame and you are balancing their physical presence with their surroundings. I am sure the ratios are right within the viewfinder and I fire not once but in bursts of three. I cannot 'chimp'. I live by the rule of 'if your image is not good enough it's because you're not close enough' so I shoot and move in, shoot again, move in. Checking exposure, frame and subject. They have to be themselves and on a good day, I have good light on a bad day I have nothing.
Being a London-born artist, did you ever feel out of your depth or somewhat detached when photographing the US hip-hop scene?
All city dwellers are the same: London, New York, Tokyo. If you can handle yourself in one city you can handle yourself anywhere. New York is my Hip Hop scene. The US as a whole is something else. I think the great majority of my shoots occurred in London. I never covered the entire scene only artists who happened to be here and whom I liked a lot.
You've said before that "photography is about time, it's about recording", why do you think it was so important to record the 'Wu-Tang Clan' in the way you have?
In the 90s, magazine publishers had said that you cannot put a black man on the cover of a magazine because it would not sell. I'm proud to say that publishers of this generation do not feel that way. I would photograph rappers, working class Americans with medium format cameras, rare Japanese film and print on expensive papers. I created iconic images of those who would otherwise have been written off by mainstream society, particularly rappers. I enjoyed blowing up my pictures to beyond life size and hanging them in rooms where people would begin to feel comfortable because it over familiarizes you with their swag.
What made you believe Brixton East 1871 was the right place to house the project?
Brixton is my hometown, the village that raised me. So when Brixton East opened I felt that finally Brixton had created a space that embodied our swag, cool and vibes, the thing to remember is that in Brixton we do our own thing so both the venue and the show is an excuse to pioneer our way of photographic seeing. So with the venue locked and my wish to create editions cemented I had to put together a succinct body of images that would chime with the space.
And, what kind of effect do you hope to achieve from making these icons impermanent?
I chose to create archival prints using digital print practices but I did not want the images harvested online so the files will ultimately be destroyed, leaving the digitals in existence only as prints on paper and not on Instagram.