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Changing the World
A conversation with Clara Watt, an award-winning documentary photographer, about her work and desire to create a better world
Earlier this year, Clara Watt reached out to us to tell us a little bit about her work as a documentary photographer. We started to look at her work, and found at that not only is she amazing at what she does, but her perspective is also very interesting. She’s Senegalese-Canadian and explores culture and social justice in her works. We got very curious, realising we’ve never actually featured documentary work before. So without further ado, we decided to start an email conversation that we’re very excited to share with you today.
You can read the full conversation here.
Maria / culturala
Very nice to meet you and great to have this conversation. How did you start your practice as a documentary photographer? It’s not often that photographers end up that route, so I’d be very interested to hear how it all began.
I'm a self-taught photographer and storyteller. I've been making pictures since I was about 13 years old, as a hobby to start. I completed my studies in International and Economic Development. My parents both work for the UN so I've always been interested in humanitarianism, and making the world a better place. I always thought I would follow a similar path in life, but after leaving university my passion for documenting human stories visually really developed and I ended up on that route instead.
I truly believe that my academic career provided me with the contextual information I needed to tell the stories I was passionate about. My courses in gender, African studies and global inequalities motivated me to translate these issues through photography and portraiture, intimately connecting with people who were most affected, and providing them with a platform to tell their own stories. I've always been incredibly moved by documentary photography and storytelling in the way they can promote empathy and create change, and I strive to capture powerful narratives that can contribute to this storytelling landscape.
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Very interesting. What do you feel – or what do you hope – documentary photography can achieve in terms of humanitarianism? I’ve always seen storytelling as a way to change the world and the more disparate voices you showcase the better able we are to collectively shape a better future, so it’s nice to hear that you come from a similar perspective.
Yes, I completely agree! I myself have been so moved and captivated by photo documentaries, so I truly believe in their power to make a positive impact. My hope through my work is to freeze time, in a way, and allow people the chance to connect with parts of the world, peoples and issues they maybe wouldn't have thought of, or aren't aware of. A lot of the news content we now see online is instant, short bursts of information meant to captivate us for fleeting seconds, before moving on to the next story. Documentary photography forces the audience to take the time to connect with the subject matter, read the project descriptions and captions, and appreciate the sequence and thought process that went into crafting a photo-documentary. It's in this way that change can then happen, and I believe documentary photography has the power to do that.
Going back to your practice generally, I wanted to ask what advice you would have for someone starting out as a documentary photographer. What have you learned that you’d like to share? It can be either in terms of the artistry of it or in practical terms like how you get your work out there.
Gosh, I could write a book with everything I've learned so far in my career. I suppose my main piece of advice for budding documentary photographers would be to really reflect on stories that feel personal to you, a topic or community you feel connected to, and find a way to tell that story through your unique lens. My very first project documented the politics of black hair, and I truly believe the depth and connections I created through capturing those portraits was because I was part of that community, and I created photos that I myself would have been inspired by as a young girl.
That is not to say that photographers should only tell stories from within their own communities. I am also passionate about documenting the lives of the LGBTQ+ community, as an ally. If you are thinking of entering a space you are not a part of, make sure to create those connections first. I start all my projects by meeting with my subjects, introducing my work and hearing their experiences, and why they would like to share their story. This breaks down the barrier between photographer and subject, and allows for a more collaborative process
Clara and culturala
Clara Watt is a Senegalese-Canadian photographer, whose work explores culture and social justice stories including racial, gender and women's empowerment. She strives to bridge the gap between fine art, social documentary, and advocacy. Clara's work is motivated by the intimate relationships fostered with her subjects, often overlapping photography and text to ensure her subjects’ voice and agency over their stories remains present. You can find more of her work over on her website, claratakesphotos.com or instagram @clarawattt
Clara is a proud member of Black Women Photographers and Diversify Photo’s UpNext.
Compulsive Desires: On Lithium Extraction and Rebellious Mountains, a critical exhibition on lithium extraction in Portugal and beyond at Galeria Municipal do Porto opening on Saturday 25th of March at 10am. Entry is free and the topic is critical, world-encompassing and incredibly interesting. We’d recommend having a quick Google of ‘portugal lithium news’ before you go x
Last chance to stream Diana Lizette Rodriguez’ DONDE COCINAMOS, an artistic film about family, childhood memories and going back to where you are from. Streaming ends on the first of April.
Next up: Bruno Atkinson’s Profit Motive and the Endless Sea (2023).
The Body is an Archive exhibition at Liquid Gold Studios in London. The show is open until the 28th of March: by appointment until the 26th and 10-6pm 27th-28th. One not to miss!
Our open call for online publication is up! The first theme is: “is digital art really digital?” Email your pitch to email@example.com. No previous experience required x
Last but not least, our conversation with muti collective about all things web3, DAOs and NFTs (including how you do it sustainably!) is up on: culturala.org/digitalisation. Go have a listen if you haven’t yet!