Ones to Watch 2021: Asafe Ghalib

View Gallery 6 Photos
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of 20 emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 450 nominations. Collectively, they provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Throughout the next few weeks, we will be sharing profiles of the 20 photographers, originally published in the latest issue of BJP, delivered direct with an 1854 Subscription

A melting pot of people embracing their historically misrepresented identities compose Ghalib’s portfolio

Born and raised in Nilópolis, Rio de Janeiro, Asafe Ghalib had what he refers to as a “stormy” childhood. “I have a very religious background – my father is a pastor, and both my parents are gospel singers. Brazil is a retrograde place to live, and the death rate in the LGBTQIA+ community is really high,” he says. The self-proclaimed “queer image-maker” left Rio for London aged 22, tired of feeling “misunderstood” in his hometown and searching for a more tolerant way of life.

It was in the UK capital that Ghalib found “a world that was everything [he] wanted”. During a stint photographing for the live music organiser Sofar Sounds, Ghalib encountered two men who changed the course of his photographic career. “I met Tom and William, who were living like fairies in a boat. I’d never heard about this queer environment where guys wear make-up and colourful clothes,” he explains. “I wanted to look like them and find more characters like them so that I could learn. Since then, I’ve never stopped.”

© Asafe Ghalib.
© Asafe Ghalib.
© Asafe Ghalib.

Photography allowed him to realise this ambition. Images of drag queens, trans individuals, people of colour, pregnant women and those engaging in BDSM compose his portfolio – a melting pot of people embracing their historically misrepresented identities. His interest in such “characters” has seen brands like Dior and Burberry approach him, turning to Ghalib for his “point of view” and engagement with the community. He routinely covers queer or youth-led protests for Dazed.

Ghalib adopts the roles of art director, mentor and friend to put his subjects at ease. “My style is related to my subject; I want them to feel elevated somehow, to show that they can be part of the system,” he says. Ghalib always allows whoever he is photographing to determine their own styling and make-up, ensuring his photographs capture their most “natural” self.

© Asafe Ghalib.

The photographer’s ability to instil confidence in his sitters was immediately evident to Izabela Radwanska Zhang, editorial director of British Journal of Photography, who nominated Ghalib for Ones to Watch. “The power and intensity of Asafe’s work are recognisable from the first instance of setting eyes on his images,” she says. “The activism that underpins it makes for an even more impactful aesthetic. Although he is self-taught, Asafe handles his lens with confidence – a stance that he also teases out of his incredible subjects.”

Ghalib’s liberation is what incites him to help others feel recognised too. “Imagine, hundreds of years ahead, the next generation will see my work and feel represented,” he muses. “When I see queer work from the past, I feel so empowered and capable. These people fought for me, and it’s my turn to make it happen.” This altruistic mentality is why the photographer often decides to work voluntarily.

“I want to make this grow even bigger so these people will be able to see themselves,” he explains. Although Ghalib has moved on from his past, he hopes to return to Brazil for his next project. “I want to go back with the experience and the luggage that I have now,” he says. When Covid-19 restrictions permit, he plans to venture into the favelas of his birthplace to photograph daily life with his newfound perspective. “This country [the UK] has given me so much; I want to give back all this privilege and history to my country and share it with them.”

Alice Finney

Alice Finney is an arts and culture Editor and Writer, based in Berlin. A graduate of the Central School of Ballet and Sussex University, she specialises in writing about dance, design and popular culture. She has written for titles including SLEEK Magazine, INDIE Magazine, Mixmag, gal-dem, HuffPost UK, and Dezeen.