An Interview with Bernice Mulenga
by Taylor Seamans / Photography 5 months ago
Two guys talking

Q: Could you introduce yourself briefly? 

Bernice: My name is Bernice Mulenga. I’m a 21-year old queer woman from London, England. I’m a photographer, artist, and designer. I’m kind of like a multi-disciplinary artist, and I like to be able to create through different mediums. I currently focus on my photography which is through film. 

Q: I didn’t realize that you create work in so many mediums since you primarily post photo stuff. 

Bernice: Yeah, well I don’t really share the other stuff, to be honest.  

Q: When did your exposure to all these mediums start? Did you always know you wanted to pursue art? 

Bernice: When I was in primary school, I always interested in art. So, I was always making stuff, making little objects for my toys, or drawing. Then, when I went into secondary school, we had to do art and design up until when you start picking which things you want to focus on for you GCCs. I picked Fine Art, Media Studies, and Fashion Design. I continued that on through school, but at a certain point I didn’t want to do Fine Art anymore. I was kind of discouraged because of teachers. They would be like, “This needs to be neat, and this needs to be like this,” but I didn’t want it like that. I wanted to use “this” color because it means “this” to me. So, it was a lot of back and forth. But, I had one teacher from a fashion course who was really supportive of me fixing all my mediums, and that encouraged me to continue it. When I got to college, the fashion course was filled up, so I had to pick art. I hated it, I felt like I couldn’t fully create. 

It’s interesting you mention your teachers were so rigid on how you could express yourself through your work. I’ve heard that before from other artists as well a few times— that they’re professors were the most restricting on their style. 

Bernice: Yeah, it’s interesting you know. I’ve had teachers who’ve reached out to me more recently saying, “Wow, you know, I didn’t know you had this in you.” And I’m like, “What? You really discouraged me when I was there.” You know, I think it’s when you start doing things that seem “worthy”, that’s when they appreciate it. It’s quite strange, but that’s life I guess. I feel like we need more teachers that will encourage different artists’ different styles. I know they have to teach a curriculum but still. It was always like, “There’s no rules, do what you want” but then they’d put rules on it. It was always very confusing and contradicting. 

Q: So, when did photography come into the picture? 

Bernice: I think I did photography for a year in college, but I didn’t like the teacher. We had to shoot digital, and the prompts were boring to me. We had to respond to a lot of other artists’ work. It wasn’t really fueling me. Then, I did an art foundation with a focus in fashion. It allowed me to do everything that I wanted to [creatively]. When I was doing my foundation, I met a friend who was shooting on film. I started to get into it. My mom was always into film so we have loads of pictures, but sadly she doesn’t have any of her cameras. I used to look on Ebay for cameras, and I was like, “Okay, I’m broke now, but when I start working I’ll buy myself something.” So, I started working and a friend said, “Just buy one, and play around with it.” That’s the best part of shooting with film. I started playing around with it— just documenting everything around me really. When I started to share it on Instagram, I started using the tag “#friendsonfilm” because it was literally just me shooting a lot of my friends or moments where I was with friends. In a lot of my old pictures, there weren’t people in my photo— it might just be a space or moment. But on that roll, I was with friends. It was about candids, the behind-the-scenes of life. That was 2015, and it has just kind of grown since then. 

Q: Your work still carries that candid theme of documentation, but it also simultaneously addresses larger themes of race, sexuality, and coming of age. Have you always felt a desire to use your art as a platform to speak on these topics? 

Bernice: During media studies, we had theories where we’d look at why set things in society exist. I really liked that because I could think and talk about a lot of things. It was nice to be in a space where the teacher really encouraged discussion like this. Outside of school, I started to become more into different communities and started shooting queer club nights but in the same style that I’d do when I was doing my everyday pictures. It became something I really needed. Even when I started getting pictures developed, I was like, “How come I don’t see pictures like this?” People have really supported it, and it’s grown from there. I say I do documentary-style photography. 

Q: How do you decide on the subjects within your photos? 

Bernice: I have a few different parts of my photography. There are certain parts where I very much shoot my communities, so the queer club nights are some of those. It’s about capturing events or moments we have together but from the queer eye, if that makes sense. People have become more into it, and I feel like there’s a need to document that community. In terms of our history, if you look for LGBTQ photography, there’s not much. If there is, it’s sometimes just a lot a white people. There’s not a lot of black or brown people in photographs from past times. I was looking at this book that was supposed to be about same-sex couples, and it was all just white, gay men and then one black couple of two women. It didn’t have other black or brown people. So, in years to come, I want people to see what queer people were doing in 2018, what was going on in London or wherever I travel to. I feel like I’m definitely shooting more people because it’s becoming more personal.  

With “#friendsonfilm” I might not always shoot their face but I’m still shooting parts of them. I like taking photos of details of a person—what makes them who they are. When it comes to my night photography, some of them are friends and some aren’t. It’s not always obvious that I don’t know some of the people well, but I think that comes down to you as the photographer and how you make people feel comfortable in a space—especially when that place is private. At queer nights, it’s a space just for queer people, and you want to make people feel comfortable.  

Q: How does the concept of comfortability play into the final image? 

Bernice: I think by making people comfortable, you break down that boundary. You can tell when someone is comfortable in an image and when the subject and photographer don’t have a connection. Sometimes, I’ll just be talking to somebody—not even about photography or anything—and we’ll have a little bonding moment. Then, people let their guard down, and I’ll ask if I can take their portrait. I always ask because I think it’s important to get consent. Even before I post it, I always ask. I think it’s important, especially in a time where some people don’t accept queerness or LGBT folk. You don’t want to out anybody. You don’t want to make anybody’s life any harder. Communication is really important, and having that communication between you and your subject allows them to be more comfortable and more vulnerable with you. I think that’s why I’m able to shoot not just my friends. That being said, I like to believe that people who might’ve began as strangers become a friend whether it’s just for that moment when I took the picture, friends just for the night, or friends every time I see them. 

Q: Is there anything conscious that you think about when you’re talking to or interacting with people to make them feel comfortable, or do you just have a natural read? 

Bernice: When it comes to shooting the candid stuff, before I look in my camera lens, I look through my own pair of eyes. Sometimes, I’ll be out on the dance floor dancing, too. I don’t have to be playing the scary photographer role where I just walk up to people and ask to take their photo. I dance around, and I ask people if they’re having a good time. I’m typically shooting at BBZ [pronounced babes] or PXSSY Palace, and they encourage both safe places and brave places. By working and representing them, it’s important for me to enforce that policy of consent, or just making sure people are okay and aware. Sometimes, I’ll just see somebody by themselves. I’ll go up to them and introduce myself and say I shoot for BBZ. That can make them feel more relaxed to feel like they’re talking to someone who comes there a lot. You just talk to them, like you would with anyone else, and make them feel welcome. In terms of making people comfortable, it depends on the scene. For example, if it’s a club night, some people are shy. I find that I’m pretty good at talking to shy people because my sister and some of my friends are quite shy, so I feel like I know their language and how to read their body language. When I do studio sessions, that’s very personal ad intimate. It’s you, the subject, and the lens. It’s good to always affirm what the outcome of the shoot is. It’s also important to take into consideration what the subject might be feeling. 

Q: You mentioned that you see your work as a documentation of the LGBTQ+ community. Do you see your work as a documentation to be looked back on in the future or as a documentation to engage with in the present? 

Bernice: At first, I thought only about the now. As it has grown and more people are seeing my work, I’m getting people telling me that this is going to go down in history, that people will look back at this in the future. I like that it can be a documentation of both [the present and something to be looked back on]. It means my photography is still going to be looked back at in years to come. But, I feel like it’s so important to acknowledge it now. It’s good because when I was younger—when we were all younger— we didn’t see images like this. We didn’t know people like us existed. Now, I’m documenting people who are older than me, people who are younger than me, people who are my age. The thing I like about my work is that it’s not limited to an age. Someone has told me, “I can relate to your work,” regardless of if it’s someone who is older or younger. I do believe that in years to come it will be great for people to look back on my work but that it’s just as important now. Social media has been really helpful in spreading my work digitally, to allow it to be a “now” documentation. 

Q: Aside form digital, have you considered doing prints? 

Bernice: Yes, I think it’s really important to print [photos] out and have them be physical rather than just digital. It’s different to see it when it’s in your hand versus on the screen. It makes it that much more real. 

Q: I agree that having a photograph as a print is such a different experience. Just the tangibility of it makes you engage differently with the subject. Have you done any gallery exhibitions? Or do you have plans to do any? 

Bernice: That’s actually the one thing I said to myself last year— that I want to have more prints in the real world. It took me a while to even start sharing my work online. I used to have a little Tumblr and would just share it there, and then I started sharing on Instagram. Since deciding I wanted to be more physical, I’ve been in a few magazines but it hasn’t been about “#friendsonfilm”. It was commissioned work which was still great, but I decided I wanted to do more interviews to talk about my work. I think it’s important to be able to talk about yourself as an artists and your work. Shooting for BBZ has been a start to being more physical. Essentially, BBZ is an art exhibition and turn-up. So, there’s a DJ but there’s also art displayed. I exhibited some of my shots from there during one of their events. It was great to see because a lot of people in my pictures were at the party. I got to talk to people about my work, and I like how people interpret it differently. I like how there’s no right or wrong way. It’s whatever you see, and that’s what it is. I like that. 

I’m trying to work on a solo exhibition, but I’m not trying to rush it. I just want to keep documenting for a while, to be honest. I could be interested in some group shows. I don’t want to be in a show just for the sake of being in a show though. I’ve just exhibited my work in this community space which was neat because the space is supposed to be for LGBTQ+ people, so I felt like it would be great to have that represented in a space as well. There’s one collaborative show that I have kind of coming up. I’m working with a friend who does fine art painting, and she’s basically using my photography as an inspiration for her paintings. 

Q: Do you have specific artists who inspire you? 

Bernice: Liz Johnson Artur is one of my favorite favorite favorites. She basically documents black people, people from Africa or Caribbean descendent. She’s half Russian and half Ghanian. She documents them in Russia and other places, but the way she does it is so effortless. It’s important because she’s a female photographer, and I feel like people don’t talk enough about female film photographers. I feel the conversation is male-dominated, and people act like there weren’t female photographers in that time. Also, sometimes male photographers can just sexualize the subject— especially if there’s a woman in the picture. So, Liz is one of my favorite favorites. I’d love to assist her on a project or even just pick her brain. Another photographer I love is Jamel Shabazz. He documented a lot of the 80’s and 90’s era. To see how life was then versus how life was now is really neat. His photos are about ordinary people in their life. With him, it’s funny because when he shot a lot of the people in his photos, they were just ordinary. But then, they ended up being really big musicians or whatever. It’s nice to see pictures of them when they were younger in their family homes. I like how he has that mixture. 

Outside of photographers, I also like Cecile Emeke. She does short films. She did a very tongue-and-cheek, witty film about best friends in London. The fact that it was based in London and had two black girls made it more relatable for me. She also does a series called “Strolling” where she talks with people from across Gainsborough. They basically walk and just have a conversation. That reminds me a lot of my own work. Because the moments [in the photos] are connecting before or after conversations around many different things: politics, race, sexuality. I think it’s important and that it’s what connects a lot of us as people. 

Q: Where do you see your work progressing? 

Bernice: I feel like my work is branching. Even with #friendsonfilm, I want to get into making it into a short documentary. I want it to be the same style as the photos but for it to include the conversations. It’s more about my subjects now, and I’m trying to find a way to document that. That’s something I’m trying to get into with basically no videography skills. 

© inbtwn. 2020designed & developed by Taylor Seamans