Kenechi Unachukwu Interview - The Hopper Prize

Kenechi Unachukwu

Kenechi Unachukwu discusses multiple ongoing projects, a need to document this important time in history, photographing the essence of a culture, & early experiences with photography.

How did you get into making art?

I have been doing art in some form or another as long as I can remember. When I was little, I was always drawing original characters and comics. When I got to high school, I stumbled into graphic design as my elective freshman year and continued with it all four years. During one year of graphics, we had a module that required us to use a DSLR. That was my first exposure to a “real” camera. Later in life, I got into breaking (breakdance), which has its own photography scene, which further cemented the interest. It wasn’t until after all this when I graduated college and started working that I was able to actually afford my own camera and started taking photos of my own.

What are you currently working on?

Currently I am working on two main projects. Hard Times in a Mad City, which I submitted to the Hopper Prize – is the first. It’s essentially photos of protests in the city of Madison, Wisconsin throughout 2020. The photography portion of the project was completed at the end of 2020; now I’m working on publishing these photos in a book, either via self publishing or through a publisher.

The second is called Film Cypher, which is an ongoing project documenting the people and events in the breakdance scene through film photography.

I felt the need to document this important time in history.

Kenechi Unachukwu

What inspired you to get started on this body of work?

For Hard Times in a Mad City, I was around these protests constantly since I lived not too far from the capitol building, where people would always gather to demonstrate. I felt the need to document this important time in history. 2020 gave people a lot of reasons to protest, from COVID-19 restrictions, to Black Lives Matter, to the presidential election. Wisconsin is a swing state, so there are people with many differing views, and I wanted to accurately document what was going on in a way that no one else would, or could.

For Film Cypher, it goes back to documenting. As a participant of that scene, I want to give something back. I feel as I am photographing the essence of the culture from the inside, as opposed to an outsider trying to look in. I’m looking to show that breaking is not all about the cool flashy moves, but the people and culture.

Do you work on distinct projects or do you take a broader approach to your practice?

Honestly it varies. I can definitely say that working on or towards a project makes work much more fulfilling to me. Both projects I mentioned previously just started as a one-off taking pictures at a singular event, with the idea to make a project coming after the fact. Nowadays, I do tend to think in a project-oriented mindset. However, I won’t let something not being a part of a project stop me from making a good image.

What’s a typical day like in your studio?

My day job is as a pharmacist in a hospital, so every day is not really focused on art or making images. Usually on my way to work or other errands I have, I drive and try to make notes on interesting things I see that would make for good photos and come back to them when I have time. When I’m actually home and working on art, or out making photos I try to be super-focused since I don’t really have as much time as I would like.

Who are your favorite artists?

My favorite artists are the friends around me. I try to surround myself with inspiring people who aim to always improve themselves and their craft whether it is photography, cance, illustration, or music. I can really say that I know people that are doing a little bit of everything.

My more “traditional” answer to this question would be: Jamel Shabazz, Martha Cooper, Abbas, the Kamoinge collective, Mike Mignola, and Alex Ross.

Where do you go to discover new artists?

I’m big on checking out random publishers and seeing interesting photobooks they have. I have discovered a lot of artists through that. Apart from that it’s the usual Instagram, Reddit, and also going through winners/submissions of various competitions/awards, like this one!

Kenechi Unachukwu is an artist based in Central New Jersey who was recently shortlisted for The Hopper Prize. To learn more about the artist:

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