In this in-depth interview, Brooklyn-based artist Nneka Peters tells us how the vibrant and joyful culture of her neighborhood and Jamaica--where her family is from--influences her incredible work. Join us in conversation as we discuss what originally got Peters into photography, her process, and how to build strong connections with clients.
Nneka Peters utilizes photography and the editing process to explore themes of memory, nostalgia and our connections to the past. Having worked in multiple spaces in the creative industry, Peters applies her understanding of different subjects to bring them new life by incorporating color and light in inventive ways.
Highly influenced by her family and culture, her work draws inspiration from the simple beauties of life, the shared histories of Black people and her faith. Her “We See This” series is currently on view at the Oculus,Westfield World Trade Center in New York for the MVVO AD Art Show. Her "Taste of home" series is in a a virtual exhibition in collaboration with Littman + White Galleries & recently on view in SHIM/Photography exhibition at Atlantic Gallery in NYC.
Are you originally from New York? If not, what brought you there?
My family came to New York from the island of Jamaica when I was much younger and I’ve been here ever since. Brooklyn is where I reside and I love it. You get this incredible mix of people, cultures, and foods. Brooklyn is full of rich history and its FUN. I lived in Flatbush for a while and although it is changing rapidly it is still a vibrant and diverse Caribbean community. You can “taste the tropics” by simply walking down the street. Brooklyn plays a huge part in my work because so much of those nostalgic memories happens here along with finding moments of “home” inside the local Asian markets and restaurants on the strip.
What initially got you into photography? Would you say photography as a medium was your first love?
Dancing was my first love—my mom always made sure that I was involved in the arts. Whether I was singing, stepping, or dancing, it all played a huge role in those early developmental years. My journey with photography started when I received my first flip phone with a camera. I would take photos all the time and my interest grew from there. I realized that it was a medium that I can express myself creatively and share stories in a personal way. It also served as a voice for me when I didn't have the words or when I felt lost in a sea of noise sometimes.
I understand you also create digital paintings. Does this process feed into your photography practice, or vice versa?
Absolutely. My digital art began with breaking down images that I captured and then adding graphic details and layers onto them. My “We See This” series is a great example of this. I capture everyday moments via photography and then transform them digitally into works of art. I knew that I wanted to paint, so while I waited to get my physical paint kit, I used digital tools. The digital paintings are really evoked by my moods, feelings, and music. I love the ease that it brings as well to open my laptop and begin creating instantly. It’s slowly became a form of journaling for me.
I absolutely love your still-life photography, and it seems like color is an important element in this work. Can you talk about the role color plays in your practice?
Thank you so much. I love using bright, warm, and rich tones along with light reflections and shadows. I feel that it adds depth and intrigue to the images. The bright and striking colors that you see throughout my art series are representative of my youth, zest for life, and joy. Brooklyn and the Islands are full of color, celebrations, and overall good times. I want that to translate through my work.
Photographic portraiture can be so intimate. How do you build a relationship with your subjects? What experience do you wish for your subjects to have when you are creating your photos?
When capturing portraits, one of my top priorities is client experience and comfortability. I have experience working in the luxury jewelry business so I always aim to have my clients feel special, comfortable, and relaxed. I speak to the client before the shoot to help prep and plan. I walk through the mood boards and creative direction to make sure our visions are aligned and that they feel prepared. When I am on set, I give a lot of directions and I'm comfortable with wearing many hats. If there are no stylist on set and I need to jump in and adjust clothing or hair, I will do that to make sure that they look their best. Each photoshoot is important to me, it’s not just another “job” . It’s a creative investment for me and my portfolio and I want it to be and look the best.
I definitely want my subjects to feel good, valued, seen, heard, and respected. That is really important to me.
Where do you find the most inspiration? And what has been the most unexpected place you’ve found inspiration?
I find a lot of inspiration when I’m out on the road. It could be great architecture and interior design, the way lights fall off a building, patterns on a wall, or someone’s outfit. I really pull inspiration from all around, it’s really what catches my eyes in the moment.
The most unexpected place was under a scaffolding near grand central station. I liked how the sun was lighting the poles and cracks in the sidewalk.
Working with clients as an artist can be rewarding, but can oftentimes be tricky. What advice would you give those who are trying to build strong client relationships?
Building strong relationships for me starts with confidence and humility. Confidence in knowing that you are being hired for a reason, that reason being that the client knows that you are capable of doing the job well. Humility in knowing that they could have made that investment somewhere else but decided to make it with you. Always treat people well regardless of their “position or status”. Everyone matters. People will always remember how you made them feel. The industry is “small” and being kind goes a long way.
Another tip is knowing your clients favorite snacks and bringing them on set or sending them a nice holiday basket with some of their favorite things as a thank you.