Representations of Black Joy with Nathaniel Télémaque

Leading up to my meeting with photographer, artist, and UCL doctoral candidate Nathaniel Télémaque, I thought I got this. Télémaque was the second artist I had ever profiled, so with the confidence of a Greek tragic figure that is about to commit hubris and get slapped on the wrist, collectively by all twelve Olympian gods, I thought I had mastered the art of interviewing. I had not considered two things. Firstly, how busy London is. And secondly, that prior to the interview, I would be a  nervous wreck. I thought is an English graduate (who knows next to nothing about photography) really the best person to talk to an artist that lives and breathes photography?

But Télémaque was eloquent, kind, and patient in talking me through his art. Even though he is due to have his Viva in May, Télémaque was composed and concentrated as he was gathering some of his printed chapters in a neat pile. I noticed scribbles, and red markings, highlighting things that Télémaque needed to change or perhaps delete altogether. There were his photographs with annotations and archival material that had been carefully collected and curated; and notes, so many notes. So, who is Nathaniel Télémaque? Nathaniel Télémaque is a born and raised North West Londoner. He is a visual artist, writer and researcher who primarily photographs and writes about “everyday things” in various urban settings with a particular focus on the experiences of young Black adults and creatives. He is currently undertaking a Geography (practice-related) Doctorate of Philosophy at University College London (UCL). At,  you can find Télémaque’s photography portfolio and read more about his project. He has produced four books and co-written a fifth one. Two of Télémaque’s books are in the SASiety common room at Senate House, so do make sure to go and check them out!

By Nathaniel Télémaque

In The Production of Space (1974), Henri Lefebvre writes: “Nothing disappears completely … In space, what came earlier continues to underpin what follows … Pre-existing space underpins not only durable spatial arrangements, but also representational spaces and their attendant imagery and mythic narratives.” For Télémaque, the London district of White City takes the form of a kaleidoscopic narrative. Different historical contexts swirl in Télémaque’s mind: co-existing alongside knowledge of White City’s colonial past, there are memories of his grandmother and his peers, who have left their mark on White City in their own distinct ways, counteracting the imperial mythos surrounding the city.

Télémaque shared with me how his grandmother moved to the United Kingdom from Dominica in the 1960s. In some ways, he said, she triggered his imagination and informed his “Everyday Things” project. “I guess my grandmother was one of my familial ties that brought me to White City,” he affirmed. When thinking of his grandmother, Télémaque would pause, “I obviously wasn’t there in the sixties,” he joked, “but from stories I have heard, in spite of the racially charged encounters and racial differences, in spite of the obstacles, there was a lot of solidarity and courage – which, I think, is what is so special about West London.”

Even three or four decades later, Télémaque discerned similar feelings of community and togetherness in his experiences of North West London. “For me, childhood was playing outside, or playing video games on the internet for a couple of hours. I remember how much I loved day trips on coaches and going to the youth club. As a young person coming up in London, I felt I had a lot more to do as a kid.” Later, Télémaque told me that his interest and passion for photography were nurtured at Granville Centre in South Kilburn, North West London. “They had started offering classes for young people, so that is probably where I first picked up photography. And that’s what I mean: as a child, I was able to go and do workshops, get training, and I had all these great opportunities. There might be opportunities like that still around, but perhaps not as many as there were back then.”

Youth clubs provided a space for Télémaque to socialise, meet with his peers and become part of the community. Other than nurturing feelings of belonging, youth clubs are crucial in building young people’s self-esteem and self-confidence. But what happens when these spaces disappear? A study from 2018 found that London had suffered a 44% cut from its youth service budget since 2011. “At least 81 youth clubs and council-funded youth projects have been closed in the city,” an article notes, “and 800 full-time youth worker positions scrapped. This equates to a state-sponsored stranglehold of young life.” In 2020, Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan even warned that “the capital’s services for young people face going ‘back to square one’ unless the Government provides immediate support for the city’s vital youth clubs and community organisations.”  

By Nathaniel Télémaque

An article from The New York Times correlates austerity with an increase of violence – “areas of England where youth budgets had been cut most tended to have bigger increases in knife crime.” Lack of youth clubs and social spaces rips the social heart out of a community, depriving people from all walks of life from coming together. This can lead to a breakdown in community cohesion, increased social isolation, and a lack of opportunities for young people to develop important social skills and relationships. Without access to these spaces, individuals also become more vulnerable to negative influences. In other words, the absence of youth clubs and social spaces has a far-reaching impact on both young people and the wider community – things which Télémaque  is acutely aware of.

Télémaque shared with me how one of the most important friendships he formed was with a basketball player, Slim, that he had met very early on in 2007. “I was a little young teen at the time. I was the youngest boy on this basketball team. He was like a mentor figure,” Télémaque explained. “Slim had been training with me in the parks. He had introduced me to other basketball players. As the youngest player in the team, he kind of took me under his wing.”

Télémaque also emphasized how the relationships that he had formed early on in his childhood followed him all the way to his adulthood: “After the three years of funding had run out, Slim and I carried on playing basketball in my area. He introduced me to his family members, which are the other four people in this kinship collective of young Black adults that I am engaging with.” Incidentally, Slim was also from White City, like Télémaque’s grandmother.

Kinship Collective and Photography
By Nathaniel Télémaque

While kinship has been used in an anthropological framework, referring to the web of relationships that are based on biological and/or social ties, for Télémaque the word is deeply personal and individualized on a community level. Télémaque’s relationship with the word transcends the structured anthropological understanding of kinship, instead turning to the tangible threads of connection and understanding between peers. “Some people think the term is anthropological,” he said, “but it is not. I don’t mean it in the anthropological sense.”

Télémaque started forming the idea of a kinship since a young age based on the connections he had made and the relationships he had nurtured. And then, gradually, in 2016, Télémaque picked up photography independently. “I have always had an interest in photography,” Télémaque stated, “Like you know when you are a kid? I loved flicking through random family albums. I loved the disposable cameras. But for a long time, I couldn’t really pursue photography, it wasn’t on my radar as I couldn’t afford a camera.” Télémaque laughed a little bit to himself, “when I look at old family photographs, I wish that maybe my older sisters or my parents had handed me their disposable cameras. I wish I had captured the summertime periods. The family barbecues, being outside with friends in the sunshine, these familiar kinship events.”

Through his photography, Télémaque does not simply recreate the feeling distinct to photographs from the 90s, which is replicated through his 35mm lenses. He visualises the personhood, individuality, and experience of the now – he photographs the experiences of his kinship collective. When asked how he went about photography he told me that “Some of Slim’s younger siblings were into fashion and I had asked them whether I could do fashion shoots with them in the area, and then I started visiting White City more regularly to check up on Slim, so it all happened in a very organic way.” In these formative years, photography provided a platform for Télémaque and his White City peers to tell their own stories, carve out their own paths, and identify in ways that felt most natural to them. By using photography to document their experiences, Télémaque and collaborated with his peers, as a way of challenging stereotypes and assumptions about their communities and cultures while also providing more nuanced and diverse portrayal of their lives.

By Nathaniel Télémaque

When I first looked at Télémaque’s photographs, it was almost like I could feel the sunshine, the hot asphalt, and then the relief that one feels when you finally find some shade after walking through the sun-exposed streets of London. You can feel the sweat, and the little summery breeze that you can’t have enough of, and the giddiness that comes with summertime. It is a lot like jumping through a memory which is elicited from the fact that Télémaque’s photographs are painted in this familiar golden/orange light. The context, though, isn’t merely summertime, but summertime experienced alongside feelings of Black joy. The documentation of everyday Black lives is also more vital than ever: by seeing Black lives through the lens of Black photographers, the viewer gains a greater understanding of the challenges, joys, and complexities of Black experiences. Télémaque’s depiction of London helps the viewer develop a deeper appreciation for the diversity and richness of Black cultures and identities. By creating images that are authentic and truthful to Black experiences, Télémaque’s art humanizes Black lives in a world that often seeks to dehumanize, marginalize, and other them. Moreover, Télémaque’s photography empowers and encourages Black young people and communities to take control of their own narratives – to write their own stories.

Japan and the Seeds of “Everyday Things”
By Nathaniel Télémaque

While Télémaque had been incentivized to pursue photography through his encounters with his kinship collective, he recognized that it was important to venture out into uncharted territories, to explore new terrain and push himself creatively. “The idea was to get out of London and expand my horizons,” Télémaque told me. “I finished my master’s degree in Urban Studies and after that, I really wanted to work on my photography. So, I got this random job in Japan, teaching English. I lived there for 11 months and I loved it.”

Télémaque explained how he had an interest in Japanese culture for as long as he could remember: “I was interested in their food and their traditions. I was fascinated by their visual culture. At that time, my mind was set on a Nikon camera and Nikons are made in Japan. I didn’t know this until I got there, but you can buy a camera in Japan and borrow lenses and practice. For me going to Japan was a way of self-teaching myself photography. That’s where I even bought my first camera.” By leaving England and moving to Japan, Télémaque engaged in the process of deterritorialization, as he left his familiar cultural and social networks and was instead exposed to a new culture and way of life. Through his exposure to these unique cultural experiences, Télémaque was able to develop a new perspective that, as he said, would shape his work for years to come.

Télémaque spoke of Japan with reverence, as this potent space of possibilities. “But I have to say,” he added with a chuckle, “the biggest shock was the work culture there. Teaching was very intensive and demanding, but when I wasn’t teaching, I was practicing photography.” Despite the demanding work culture that he inevitably encountered in Japan, Télémaque spoke about the importance of carving out time for photography. If there is a common theme that has started emerging throughout our conversations in the Art Series, this is the importance of time and space. It appears to be a fundamental and essential aspect of the creative process that is familiar to artists across all mediums. Whether it’s finding physical space to work in, creating the mental space to generate new ideas, or simply setting aside time in a busy schedule, creating space for artistic expression isn’t just crucial but absolutely essential.

With Télémaque, then, it was a case of carving out the time to practice his art and immerse himself in Japanese culture, where he would draw inspiration for one of his projects. “‘Everyday Things’ started as an independent photography project,” Télémaque remarked. “The concept came to me in Japan, while I was making photographs. I was thinking: here I am in this completely different country, completely different culture, and yet I am seeing people go to work, go to university. I wanted to know what people’s everyday life was like.”

Télémaque’s inquisitiveness about different cultures and ways of life actually goes back all the way to his undergraduate degree and even his secondary school years. “I remember always having questions. I used to ask people why are you doing what you are doing? I have had these pressing questions about council estates and the stigmatisation of people based on where they live, things that I had experienced myself and things I had seen other people experience.” Majoring in criminology and sociology helped Télémaque contextualise his varied experiences and understand them through critical and empirical lenses. “Though I have to say it was one of my secondary school teachers that introduced us to the importance of critical thinking and sociology,” he added thoughtfully. “She encouraged us to ask questions and so that’s what I did. I asked questions.”

The Different Lenses of “Everyday Things”

“When I came back to London, I knew I wanted to continue ‘Everyday Things.’ The first thing I actually did after returning from Japan was to give out disposable cameras to a group of different friends and creative peers. I wanted to see what their everyday things were and how they conceptualized them.” Through this collaborative approach, Télémaque not only invited his peers to participate in capturing Black experiences, but also created a sense of shared creative culture. By encouraging his peers to document their own everyday experiences, he expanded the scope of the project beyond his own personal vision, bringing instead a diverse range of perspectives and voices. This, he told me, was their way of talking back, a concept borrowed from bell hooks.

For bell hooks, ‘talking back’ meant speaking as an equal to an authority figure. It meant daring to disagree and sometimes it just meant having an opinion.”  It represents an “expression of our movement from object to subject.” For Télémaque, talking back is an “oppositional act, which has the capacity to challenge stereotyped representations.” By working within the tradition of talking back, Télémaque emphasizes the importance of giving voice to marginalized perspectives and challenging oppressive systems of power.

Télémaque’s emphasis on foregrounding Black joy is also reflected in his approach to the everyday. When thinking of the everyday in connection to subjectivity and to what might appear ordinary encounters (going to a grocery shop, relaxing under a tree, waiting for a traffic light to turn green), Télémaque said: “I see our notions of the everyday as lenses we pick up to engage with. You know, everyone’s going to pick up a different lens, depending on where they are coming from, from their background, or where they are situated. We all have different lenses through which we see our own notions of the everyday.” His approach to the everyday, however, encourages us to question our own lenses and consider the diversity of perspectives that shape our understanding of the world.

While ‘Everyday Things’ as a project started in 2018, Télémaque expressed that as much as anything, he wanted to make an intervention in our understanding of White City, uncover its past, and highlight the inexhaustibility and affirmation of life that is representative of Black joy in North West London. “Continuing this practice and giving cameras to my kinship collective to contribute to the narrative was originally part of my PhD. But because COVID happened, I had to lead with the photographs. Instead of co-production, I had to transition to collaboration. For instance, they collaborated with me when it came to editing the interview transcripts and making sure they were happy with their words.”

Throughout all his endeavours with photography and creativity, Télémaque shared his intention of questioning and interrogating the power dynamics that map out not only White City, but Britain more widely. “What was a real aim from the very beginning, especially being in and out of the academy and working in the creative industry, or working by myself, was to intervene in the palpable power dynamics, whether it is the power dynamics in the city, or even the power dynamics between photographer and subject. I wanted to shift the power dynamics so that there is more agency and that the subjects are more than just static.”

When I asked Télémaque about his process and how he chooses his subjects or what stories to share, he said: “A lot of my photography will be made with people I know, or people I’ve built a rapport with.” Focusing on someone’s personal experiences and getting to know them on an intimate level is an important aspect of Télémaque’s art that informs his practice. He mentioned Humans of New York as an example and talked me through its compelling aspects: “Brandon Stanton does a whole story, right? He sits down with his subjects. He spends maybe an hour with them and then transcribes it.” 

Pursuing “Everyday Things” in an Academic Context
By Nathaniel Télémaque

Earlier on in our conversation, Télémaque had shared how sociology introduced him “to a lot of the theories and ethics” that inform his work to this day. “And not just photographic,” he explained, “but any type of arts practice, and/or research practice of collaborating with people.” Thematically, Télémaque’s work is underpinned by what he calls Black joy. For Télémaque, it isn’t about simulating or recapturing Black joy, but about framing it: “the photographs are trying to frame a feeling that already exists. It exists for me and for my peers and so through my photography, I was trying to attend to those specific spring/summertime periods, particularly if you take into consideration the wider context of BlackLivesMatter and COVID-19. I wanted to make an intervention using representation.”

“When I think of Black joy and what I am trying to photograph, there is a specific sonic influence that I keep returning to time and time again,” Télémaque said as he started singing the melody of “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” by Roy Ayers. He then took his phone out and played some of the song, particularly a high-pitched sample. At that point, his face lit up: “See!” He said excitedly, “it really sounds like sunshine, doesn’t it? It’s like Vitamin D. That’s what I am trying to visualise.”

However, Télémaque’s intervention does not stop at representations of Black joy – it extends to the topographical and historical specificity of places. Pursuing his doctoral research encouraged him to go to archives, for instance, to find out about the history of White City, which is where most of his kinship collective peers resided. “I didn’t know about the history of White City until I went to the archives which was after I started my research,” Télémaque noted. “Prior to being a council estate, it was a world fair exhibition site. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that every housing block and street in the area is named after colonial and imperial figures. I was aware of these peculiar names and themes that are often forgotten because there was also the 1908 Olympics on the site.”

In an article by Télémaque, he writes: “‘The Great White City’ contentiously hosted Senegalese, Irish and Dahomey Human Villages, among many other exploitative forms of public ‘entertainment’ … The site was later cleared for the construction of the eponymously named estate in 1937, subsuming its geographies with its past imperialist and colonial epistemologies.” When I asked whether people in the area were aware of the history of White City, Télémaque said that they weren’t, “and that is where I intervene. I dedicate a lot of time going through archives as well as making photographs and writing. I am dedicated to recovering these records and showing them to my kinship collective peers, or interlocutors and then go back – the Everyday Things photobook is co-produced because the annotations are drawn from photo elicitation interviews that I had with my kinship collective peers.”

By Nathaniel Télémaque

Télémaque, then, talked me through the process: “I gave them the photographs that we made together, portraits of themselves, photographs of the area, along with archival records that I have recovered. The annotations of the photographs in Everyday Things are drawn from these interviews.” A pause. “It was a learning experience for all of us. Doing the research and then doing the project was a way to learn about the history and share it. My peers were actually familiar with the past of White City as an Olympic site, because when you go to the area, there are several commemorative plaques, but what they don’t tell you about is the exhibitions of the world fair.” Télémaque elaborated how the World Fair and the Olympics of 1908 are closely related and that they cannot and should not be seen in isolation: “The Franco-British Exhibition took place in 1908 when the 1908 Summer Olympics occurred, and there was a stadium there, which is now the site of the BBC. My peers had a partial awareness of the histories of the area, but they didn’t know about the more colonial aspects. When they found out they were shocked, but at the same time, they weren’t surprised.”

Through spreading awareness of White City’s colonial past, Télémaque highlights the importance of demystifying the past: “It is important that we tackled the British nation’s collective amnesia. We remember the great Olympics, but we have forgotten that there was an exhibition site here. The kinship’s photographs are placed over those imperial representations of White City. I see it as a kind of recovery. Through photography, we can provide new depictions of people living in this area that challenge the white supremacist notions of the imperial site. The new photographs I make are in dialogue with the past photographs, thus making a contribution, offering a context that goes beyond the ideas of Empire and heritage as well as notions of commemoration. And these notions of commemoration are everywhere. I mean even Grenfell, a lot of people don’t know that it was named after General Grenfell. So, there is a whole imperial mapping to North Kensington that needs to be unearthed and interrogated.”

You can read more about Nathaniel Télémaque work on his website

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