Born in Latvia, Natalija Gormalova moved to London at only eighteen years old. She completed a degree in photography at the London College of Communication, and later landed a scholarship for a master’s at the prestigious Royal College of Art.
In her feature, Gormalova speaks about her practice and about her project Sea Shanties. With her words, she inspires a thirst to know more and see more — a feeling that many photographers are familiar with.
Read Gormalova’s full feature below:
It’s been nearly four years since I first travelled to West Africa; first as a volunteer and later as a commissioned photographer. I consider Ghana my second home; it is such a colourful and diverse place and I draw so much inspiration from the people, the places, the energy, the flavour… It is electric.
I have also collaborated with various youth organisations in Johannesburg that provide healing and art therapy for young people affected by poverty and violence. Recently I have co- directed and filmed my first feature documentary about the youth in the small fishing villages of Ghana where I used to teach art and English.
What’s your story?
I was always a visual person, creating and making things in my bedroom as a child. I was born in a small village in Latvia where there were not many opportunities around. I lived in my head, creating narratives and different realities, immersing myself in books — many of which where art publications — and found escape and happiness this way.
For me, photography and film was the best way to express my creativity; suddenly I could tell stories and record everything I was experiencing and share it with the world.
What kind of photography are you interested in?
I moved from conceptual/art photography to sound recordings and later filmmaking. Gradually, I started making documentary works. I am interested in people’s stories, in finding unique perspectives when telling these stories through my eyes and experiences.
In my work I focus on social issues and shifting cultures and identities in contemporary Africa and beyond. I explore living conditions, economic, physical and emotional aspects of daily life — especially in rural areas and minority groups of society. I see importance and value in visual storytelling and unveiling the common truths, using photography as a vessel.
Let’s talk about your work ‘Sea Shanties’
It’s started in 2015 when I left my comfortable life in south London to volunteer as a teacher in the remote fishing village of Cape Three Points on the west coast of Ghana. There I embarked on my photographic research around the disappearing fishing communities. Everyday I used to see fishermen coming home from two or three days on the ocean with empty nets.
Many of my students came either from fishing families or were working in fishing themselves. They told me stories of how there is less and less fish in the ocean. My community was affected, so it was a natural response for me to start working on this project.
The lack of fish is due to several things: the recent discovery of oil on the west coast of Ghana, environmental issues (illegal gold-mining and abundant plastic waste for eample) and continued incursions by Chinese fishing fleets. As the result the communities that rely on fishing are facing an ever-increasing challenge to feed their families.
In my work Sea Shanties I am exploring and questioning what place fishing has in the future of these villages — whether young people still value fishing as a profession, what other work people have to do now to make the ends meet and the impact that reduced fishing stock is having on the fishing communities.
Are there any moments you had while making the work, which stick out?
Every day living in the remote village in Ghana is an experience on it own. Most of the time I had no electricity or phone reception. I would have to run to the top of the hill to call my friends and family. In the rainy season there was no sun for weeks; all my clothes rotted and my camera equipment became mouldy. I have seen animal sacrifices, juju and voodoo performances, eaten lizards and had snakes and scorpions in my hut. The list goes on, but this is why it never gets boring.
What are you recommending?
There is so much interesting art, literature and music coming from Africa. Some recent favourite books are Freshwater by young Nigerian-born author Akwaeke Emezi and Homegoing by Ghanaian-born Yaa Gyasi.
One of my favourite authors and speakers is Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, her novels Americanah and Half of the Yellow Sun are an incredible read.
Music plays massive role in my life, I am always listening to music and checking record stores for old and new releases. All time favourites are giants like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Gill Scott- Heron, J Dilla, Kendrick Lamar. Afrobeat — Fela Kuti, Ghana highlife — Ebo Taylor, Pat Thomas, Ata Kak.
There are a lot of young musicians from West Africa recording awesome stuff — M.anifest, Yinka Bernie, Amaarae, Akan. NTS music radio is the perfect platform to discover new talent and a must listen are the Saturday sessions with Throwing Shade who plays the best records around the world.
Ai WeiWei’s Human Flow about the global refugee crisis is an extremely powerful film, raising questions of whether humans have forgotten about empathy in this day and age.
Can you pinpoint one photograph or piece of art that has affected you?
It’s a song by Gil Scott-Heron — Home is where the hatred is. It brings me to life every time I listen to it. It reminds me of the times when I was eighteen and came to live in London, being with my friends, going to art school… living in the big city.
Missing people and places is a big part of my life now because I am constantly on the move. When I am away and I listen to this song I miss my life in London and my friends, and vice versa — when I am in London and I listen to this song it usually means its time to go, time to keep moving. It keeps me alert and never too comfortable.