Many of us have gone through a troubling period of knowing we have the creative wherewithal to make something worthwhile, but never quite knowing where exactly to channel that energy. For photographer and inter-disciplinary creative Ali Arrowsmith, his journey to landing on documentary photography as a preferred creative outlet was no different. “I’ve spent the last ten years or so trying out different mediums,” he tells me. But it was in 2013, when he first picked up a cheap analogue camera from eBay, that photography began to click for him. For many creatives, the next line would often be “and the rest was history,” but Ali’s route to where he is today is a much more interesting one.
Growing up in a school environment where creativity outside of painting and drawing wasn’t a typical avenue for kids, it took Ali’s moving away to realise that there’s more to art than paintbrushes and pencils; even the creativity inherent to his mum’s career as a florist became apparent once he’d “stepped out into the world.” Given this lack of educational creative opportunity and direction, the next natural avenue for inspiration came from Ali’s friends, a similarly talented group of creatives who dabble in everything from music and events to fashion and photography. “I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by very talented and driven friends over the years,” he tells me, “to see them expressing themselves through their art was probably the biggest inspiration.”
It’s this background of self and peer-teaching that lends Ali his skill as a multi-faceted creative, as well as what’s led him to his current artistic conjuncture. Touring with friends’ collective and lifestyle movement, SLOCAL, shortly after picking up that first camera off of eBay, Ali found himself on a global creative adventure, spanning multiple continents and indulging in various media, “we travelled everywhere from Amsterdam to Zurich to Dubai. It was a crazy time and helped my confidence as a creative,” he recalls. It was here too that Ali found himself drawn to a form of story-telling in his work, “obviously it’s great to work with brands and artists but to do it over a long period and really tap into that story and align yourself with it is a sick experience.”
With a varied body of work comprised not only of different forms of photography but DJing, writing and at one brief point music production too, this inherent interest in delving into the deeper story behind his work and subjects is where Ali finds his inspiration and it’s undeniably what gels his diverse projects together and sets them apart as distinctively his own. Whether he’s illuminating darkened corners of Tokyo’s sprawling metropolis or getting UK rap legend Skinnyman to pose for him in the shadows of a housing estate closer to home, there’s always a “raw portrait” and story that he’s trying to capture and convey.
This drive to tell stories is more evident than ever in his latest venture into documentary photography. Having found a confident footing in the medium, Ali’s focus has turned to unearthing and telling the stories of communities many don’t often hear about and even more rarely see. A power that photography often wields, this intention and ability to unearth and expose is at the heart of ‘Nyamuliro’, Ali’s latest project documenting and detailing the everyday lives of a community working in a tungsten mine of the same name. Prolific in the West and found in everything from lightbulbs to iPhones, tungsten’s ubiquity as a material is ironically juxtaposed with many people’s ignorance to its existence, let alone the work and supply chain that goes into bringing it to so many of our everyday products. It was this very ignorance that Ali wanted to address and dispel with the project, “I wanted to capture as much as possible with the idea of creating a photo series that I could use to shine a light on what was going on out here and give a voice to the local people.”
This shining of light extended to Ali’s own suppositions too. In first visiting the mine, he recalls an unsureness of what to expect, being aware of the atrocities that the reputation of the mining industry in Africa has become so marred with. But in direct contradiction to the stereotypes of forced labour and violent exploitation we often see and hear about in the UK, what Ali saw was something much more positive. “I was pleasantly surprised to see how much of a sense of community and togetherness there was within and around the mine,” he tells me, “here, the local company running the mine are aiming to change the status quo and give back to its workforce by creating a sustainable community structure.”
‘Nyamuliro’ certainly serves to paint an enthralling picture of both the tireless hard work and sense of community pride that underpins the mine. In one image, dense plumes of smoke and dust rise from the muddy ground on which a group of miners graft tirelessly under a cloudless sky. In another, one miner poses for a portrait, his head held high and hands and clothes greyed from the dust of an afternoon’s hard work. Given these images, along with many more which further capture the mine, its people, and the serenity of its forested mountainside setting, it’s easy to understand why Ali’s unsure expectations had been invalidated by what he had seen first hand.
And he hopes that by seeing these images others will have the same experience; a hope, rather than just the desire to have his work on a wall, which eventually manifested in the decision to exhibit ‘Nyamuliro’ back in London. “I’ve always wanted my work to exist physically in galleries and books,” he tells me, stressing that the tangible nature of printed work is what really brings projects to life. In bringing these projects to life, Ali explains, exhibitions done right can create a longer-lasting legacy behind a creative’s work but also, and more importantly, the stories and messages behind such work too.
The exhibition, supported by Carhartt WIP, a company Ali has worked with in various capacities over the past couple of years, showed in January of this year and undoubtedly proved a success in creating this legacy. “I already believed in the project heavily before I turned it into an exhibition”, Ali says, “but to see how well it was received reinforced the idea in my head of how important it is to bring these stories to the forefront of people’s minds.” Given the international cohort of visitors to the exhibition (something Ali accredits to the global nature of contemporary youth, “I even had people from different cities like Amsterdam & New York come, that’s international youth for you, shout out my big bro Papa Ghana!”) and the conversations taking place as people meandered around the room and soaked up the captivating pictures on the wall, it seems the exhibition did just that.
Harking back to his days spent globetrotting on tour with SLOCAL, it’s clear that Ali’s ideas and ambitions for the future are inspired by this desire to create a lasting impact too. He tells me, “the archive I have of content from that time is crazy, we’re going to have to do a book one day or something.” But for now, having returned to Uganda to continue working on and expanding the reach of ‘Nyamuliro’, Ali’s creative ambitions are set on going with the flow of things and digging up more interesting stories throughout East Africa. “I’m already eyeing up a trip to Nairobi & Mombassa so we’ll see what happens there but really I just want to enjoy the journey and see where it takes me,” he explains of his upcoming intentions. “One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t force anything; the best ideas and projects come to you organically.”
See more of Ali’s work Here.