“Photography has a lot to teach us about creativity and entrepreneurialism,” says Eddie Otchere. “It is more than art. Photographers have to make reality look cool.”
Otchere, 47, may be the patron saint of British urban photography. He captured the euphoria of London’s clubland with vivid intensity before making some of the most iconic images of the Wu-Tang Clan and other hip-hop luminaries. Inspired by photographers including Neil Kenlock and Charlie Phillips, documenters of post-Windrush black British life, and by the Ghanaian photographer James Barnor, Otchere describes himself as being in love with the “romance of film”.
He is a passionate advocate for “anti-digital” photography and its unhurried creative process and is part of a collective at the central London studio Film’s Not Dead, which buys, repairs and sells old cameras and teaches students the tricks of the analogue trade. “I love shooting on bastard cameras, the old Japanese knock-offs of German classic cameras,” he says. He is disparaging of the use of Photoshop to retouch pictures, convinced that “there is nothing unique or distinguishable with digital aesthetics”.
I’m speaking to Otchere over video call from his house in south London ahead of the reissue of Junglist, the hypnotic, immersive novel he co-authored with Andrew Green in 1994. Set in London’s nascent drum and bass scene, which he would also capture on film, Junglist was inspired in part by the cosmic imagery and Afrofuturist messages on the album sleeves of the experimental jazz musician Sun Ra. Following four young protagonists over a long weekend, the novel is a heady depiction of tower block life at a time when Zone 1 was still full of derelict and under-developed spaces that allowed its inhabitants to innovate. Much of our conversation revolves around the UK capital and whether it can be a global leader in music and art after Brexit.
Growing up on an estate in south London, with a Ghanaian mother and British father, Otchere is not entirely critical of gentrification, arguing that many areas needed overhauling because of their dysfunctional architecture and misguided rehousing policies. Or as they wrote in Junglist: “Piss-filled lifts, youths roaming like packs of wolves, shape-shifters, life on the edge. Dark, dangerous, erratic . . . My reality, grey, sombre, hard, sharp-edged. Unrelenting, unremitting. Reality is spinning away.”
In the early 1990s, at a time when he says there was “no conservatism beating down on people wanting to dance”, Londoners began to shape that reality in their own image. Otchere references the emergence of a hyperlocal style of rave music and the boom in pirate radio stations broadcasting from the brutalist tower blocks. “Working-class creativity still manages to overcome the flaws in the system’s assumptions of how people should live,” he says.
But there are risks as well as rewards in urban redevelopment, Otchere warns. And the rewards often don’t last. “There is that wonderful moment in the first two years of living in a gentrified area. It’s like an idyllic post-capitalist utopia — both communities, the rich and poor, are there, are hanging out — before the final death knell, after the joggers arrive, the Mac Store turns up and that’s it: we’re gone.”
Otchere spent several years making connections in New York, photographing the Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z and others at a time when hip-hop was becoming culturally and commercially mainstream. Like London, parts of the city have changed beyond recognition. “Now Brooklyn is the new New York, but it is a safer town with nothing to feed my camera or enrich my creativity,” he tells me, adding that “culture moves to the space which allows it to grow.”
Our conversation returns to London. “We have to be seen to be doing stuff well. Jungle gave us that edge. I want London to be back on top again,” Otchere says. “[But] our conversations are dominated by corona and Brexit. We’re not moving forward, we’re not coming up with new ideas. It’s about wanting to foster those conversations again.”
He is not sure that urban music genres could blow up again the way jungle and grime did, because in the internet age there is less opportunity for a new kind of music to develop out of the spotlight. He doubts he’d be in the thick of any breakthrough scene nowadays anyway: “My skill in the 1990s was being way ahead of the curve. It’s such a beautiful advantage. It only happens when you’re that dedicated to your thing.”
But he was impressed by the internet-driven youthful activism during the Black Lives Matter protests. “This generation has done what it is good at — used their technology, their language, their abilities to push their agenda into the hearts and minds of everyone on the planet. It was their fight.”
Nurturing young talent has been important to Otchere ever since he held his first workshops in 2002, helping Brixton graffiti artists monetise their art by printing T-shirts. He describes how his workshops in Brighton help to bring working-class kids out of their shells. When mentoring early career artists, he stresses the importance of the “creative hustle” — making a living from art. “All my teaching is about the relationship to creativity and actual cash,” he says.
His focus is not exclusively on the UK. His work with James Barnor, the subject of a retrospective at London’s Serpentine Gallery, has led him to re-evaluate his relationship with Ghana, inspiring him to foster there the cultural activity he facilitates back home. He has held workshops with young photographers, and rents out his house in Accra at affordable rates to young creatives. “Culture itself is Accra’s greatest capital and it is collectively fostered by the community,” he says.
Britain is becoming, in Otchere’s eyes, “more insecure as a nation” after Brexit and pandemic lockdowns. He believes the role of grassroots creativity in promoting the country’s progressive qualities is now more important than ever: “Culture has value, culture is value — how do we celebrate that? I’m not sure what England wants to tell itself, but what I do know is that England did a really good job when we were dancing.”
Otchere’s pictures are exhibited frequently, he continues to work with younger artists and is a judge on the Portrait of Britain photographic competition. Even in an age of infinite online imagery, he believes a picture has the power to change people’s thinking. “I’m still the sort of guy who believes that a photograph can end wars.”
“Junglist” by Two Fingas & James T Kirk (Andrew Green and Eddie Otchere) is reissued by Repeater
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