Justin Amoafo is a Ghanaian photographer who lives in New York City. He started off his career taking photos of friends for fun and eventually turned it into a career, shooting for companies, celebrities, musicians, and other creatives alike. You can discover more of his work on Instagram @justinamoafo and at justinamoafo.com.
“I’m not just a photographer. I love all kinds of art, and I will always try to contribute as much as I can.”- Justin Amoafo ‘16
Tell us a little about your work:
I started taking photos when I was 11 years old in middle school. I went to boarding school in the middle of nowhere in Massachusetts. Being in a new place inspired me to take photos and document my journey. That was when I figured out that I wanted to travel and not really be in one place. I wanted to do something different – all the kids were into sports, but I wasn’t really good in sports, so I wanted to do something different.
I had this friend back in middle school whose parents bought him a really nice camera, but he would never use it. It was a Leica, and it was the very first camera that I used. I think that was a great first camera to use because Leica was the company that pretty much made the very first portable camera. I still have a Leica now, but I shifted to Canon. Leica’s better for personal photography and Canon is better for on the fly stuff.
What kind of photography did you first start out with, and how did your work evolve throughout the years?
When I was in school, as I said before, a lot of kids were into sports. Everyone grew up playing sports, but I didn’t. So it was really just me and my friend fiddling around with the camera doing more visual arts stuff. If we weren’t taking photos of each other, I was just taking photos of random things and go on adventures to take photos.
But that big push to keep taking photos happened when I started sharing photos. Sometimes I would put my pictures up on flickr and tumblr, and they would get popular over the Internet. So I thought to myself, it might be a cool thing to keep doing it. That was when the image-sharing really started. I wasn’t really sharing my work in school, but the Internet was an easier place to put stuff up. Kids at my school thought it was weird, and I didn’t. But I just didn’t want to share my work with people who would think it was weird.
I really wouldn’t do much else back then. I would take photos and do weird shit. I remember my school had this mountain club weekend trip. I’m really big on the outdoors and exploring, so I took my camera with me and took photos all weekend. That was when I decided I really wanted to explore much more and keep taking photos.
Photography is a form of visual story-telling. Do you usually have a set story in mind when you take your photos?
Not really. I try to be organic about it. Sometimes I can fabricate something, like when I was working with my friend on my project called “Strings Attached.” For projects like this one, I can sort of create meaning out of the images. But usually, when the story is organic, the story speaks more for itself. I really don’t have to put in my perspective; all I have to do is capture.
“Evening In” was one of my more organic project. I took these photos in my house in Toronto. It was such a small space. I was trying to tell a story with the records and the interaction, but we ended up just messing around with it.
But the story of my work in itself is such a strange, unpredictable thing. I go through really weird phases – when I first shoot something, I hate it. It takes me a long time to get comfortable with it. But I just let it happen as naturally as I can. People get mad at me a lot, especially the friends I work with because I’ll shoot something and they won’t see it for a month or two. Other times I’ll shoot something and really like it, but I’ll always go through this point where I don’t necessarily hate it but the photo just isn’t finished. I have to go through editing the photos that will help me feel the way I did when I shot them.
Who is your favorite photographer?
I find it hard to pick a favorite. I have a lot of people who inspire me. But one of the first photographers who I really liked is this photographer named Andre Wagner. He was one of the most popular black photographers in New York. It really inspired me to see people who look like me paving their own paths. He started sharing his work on the Internet before it was cool – he made it cool. If he could share his work out there, why can’t I?
There’s another guy from Ghana whose name is Joshua Kissi. He runs this creative agency named “Street Etiquette”. He’s done crazy projects, and he’s one of the first Africans who have landed huge projects. I really admire his work, too.
I feel really connected to my own culture, so these two photographers were a huge inspiration to me. When I see people who are where I am from or just share the same skin color as I do, it encourages me to get out there and do what I love.
What would you say is the most important thing your work has done for you?
For me, it really pans back to other people. I know I care a lot about myself, but at the end of the day, what I do now, I do for the people who are going to come after me. I want to inspire kids 10 or 20 years from now who might want to do what I’m doing or even just do something creative. The thing about photography and art is that they’re about storytelling. You could tell a story today, and that story could last forever.
The most important thing for me is to stay true to myself. I want to be that person who might be weird now but would resonate with a lot more people in the future.
Interview by Sevi Reyes