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.
Nominated by our Ones to Watch 2021, we present the second chapter of our Ones to Watch Community featuring Rory Hamovit, Cynthia Mai Amman, Sekai Machache, Tom Roche, Jessica Gianelli, Nida Mehboob and Tonje Thilesen
“The camera enables me to use my work to challenge power structures in ways that would otherwise be dangerous or impossible,” explains Nida Mehboob. “I can use photography for a social movement by witnessing, resisting and challenging injustice.”
This method of embracing rage as a radical force of change sits at the heart of Mehboobs practice. The Pakistan-based photographer makes documentary work that shadows the lives and desires of individuals constrained by the country’s oppressive society.
In Land of Limbo, she connects with migrants who settled in a slum along the Bagmati river in Kathmandu, Nepal. At the same time, How I Like It provides a rare insight into the intimate carnal experiences of a group of women and how they negotiate sexual liberation in a society that denies them that privilege.
“The anger, hurt and helplessness that I experience from the unjust events that directly and indirectly affect me or my family and friends motivates me to tell these stories,” Mehboob says. One of her most disarming works collaborates with Julia, a young trans woman living in a small rural village. Abandoned by her family at just ten years old, she was forced into Guru Chela culture that requires trans people to engage in sex work to survive. Julie is an activist fighting social inequality, stigma and discrimination facing the LGBTQIA+ community.
In her most recent work, Shadow Lives,Mehboob describes the violent attacks facing individuals whose spiritual practice exists outside the mainstream Sunni faith. The project focuses on the minority community Apartheid of Ahmadi, whose religious practices were criminalised in 1984. Born out of religious hatred, riots and killings take place daily forcing people into a life of fear and isolation. “There is a calmness in her photographs,” Ashish Shah, who nominated Mehboob says. “At the same time, the stories she tells around societal narratives and oppression have an undertone of violence and rebellion.”
It’s impossible to think of Ho Chi Minh City as a singular identity. Like many burgeoning megacities, it finds itself in limbo as developers untether it from its past to reimagine its future. With a population of 8.1 million, set to rise to more than 10 million before 2026, the Vietnamese city is fragmented into multiple temporalities. In Floating View, Cynthia Mai Amman grapples with the rapid gentrification of her mother’s hometown through the perspective of a generation of young people. Caught in the crossfire between tradition and modernity, they express their collective vulnerability living in a constantly shifting reality.
“The project comes from a deep desire to understand my roots and relate better to a country that I don’t even speak the language of – but I wish I did.” the Lausanne-based photographer explains. “Like many second generation youths, I’m looking for a sense of belonging, and photography amplifies a feeling of togetherness.”
Floating View embodies and internalises history in real-time, illustrating the ways in which an image represents life and loss at once. Emblematic of her wider practice, she blends atmospheric portraits with sharply observed details that blur the lines between fashion, art and documentary.
Matthieu Croizier, who nominated Amman, describes the project as “truly remarkable in the way they reflect on notions of identity and change. The project is full of humanity, tenderness and poetry, and offers a very interesting perspective on life in the transitional city of Saigon.”
As a multidisciplinary artist working in photography and performance, Sekai Machache creates scenes that examine the relationship between spirituality and imagination as a modality for healing. Born in Zimbabwe but now living in Scotland, she uses the camera to “make visible the interior landscape of my mind.” The work is meditative and mysterious – suspended in fantasy and entrenched in symbolism. Tayo Adekunle, who nominated Machache, describes her work as, “a striking visual investigation of her Zimbabwean heritage, Blackness and Black womanhood. It’s urgent and important work.”
In Invocation, Machache reflects upon the ubiquitous contradictions and inherent biases in how society represents black women. She draws parallels with the dichotomy of Parvati, an icon of fertility, love and devotion and Kali, the goddess of destruction and power – two opposing personas of one Hindu goddess. The Hierophant reworks an iconic tarot card, the fifth card in the Major Arcana, but reverses its attributes. Religious beliefs are replaced with personal intentions as conformity and tradition and reimagined as freedom and challenging the status quo. These elaborately staged images are a vibrant example of contemporary conceptual photography that illustrates the power and possibilities of visual reenactment.
Tom Roche is part of a movement of photographers who consider the medium as an open field. It’s a subversion of practice that does not have a specific aesthetic or tools but instead works across the terrain of the medium and its broader visual context.
“I’m obsessed with the image and how imagery revolves around our collective lives,” he explains. “Photography helps me process the world around me and reflect on childhood, mental health, and my place in the world.”
What unites Roche’s expansive and multivalent approach is an obsessive curiosity and a willingness to confront vulnerability. In Space Pictures, Roche uses the official NASA picture library to curate a body of work that animates photographs’ ability to teach us about the world. It conjures ideas of nostalgia and discovery while reflecting on how we use imagery to confirm our existence.
In his latest work, Cigarettes for Poems, the process becomes entangled with form in weird and wonderful ways. The project, initially a book of poems written while drunk on his iPhone but tragically lost due to the iCloud, is transformed into a series of images reflecting on the feeling of losing the poems and the recklessness of adolescence.
“Tom’s approach just feels purely led by instinct,” shares Billy Barraclough, who nominated Roche. “It’s his joyful, almost child-like use of a camera that reminds me of photographers like Stephen Gill. His images and ideas stay with me long after seeing them.”
Jessica Gianelli’s work explores the nuanced truths and realities of women’s stories. She embraces photography as a tool for liberation and reclamation. “I seek to explore the inner lives of these women and how they might connect to the physical world around them,” Gianelli says. “These subjectivities draw me towards the unspoken, the imagined, and the surreal.” Her practice is grounded in extensive research where she examines psychological, spiritual, and philosophical notions of womanhood and the ‘feminine.’ Informed by the natural world, myth, painting and cinema; she charts the individual narratives of her sitters using image-making as a therapeutic force. “I’m always looking for that junction between the presented reality and those unspoken, perhaps even unknown feelings or past happenings, where connection and release may become possible through the act of photographing.”
Through a series of projects that deal with the interiority of identity, Gianelli examines the intersection of place, history, memory and experience. “I’ve grown up in awe of the women and the earth that surrounds me, and I graciously continue to become more enraptured by them every day,” she tells me. “Being raised by a Caribbean mother, grandmother, and aunties, and throughout the crescendo of my adult years, I’m constantly enamoured by the strength, beauty, and presence that emanates from these women. The desire to be surrounded by and reverberate energies with them continues to inform both my work and life simultaneously.”
For Gianelli, the camera extends her senses, allowing her to transcend boundaries and the limitations of language. Silvana Trevale who nominated Gianelli adds. “Her work is so poignant. Her feminine images explore the Black female body embedded in the context of unveiling personal narratives and reclamation of identity.”
Scrolling through the work of Tonje Thilesen draws you into a trance-like state. Their photographs have a stop and stare effect born out of their uncanny nature and a heightened sense of reality. Thilesen, based in Brooklyn, is a master of creating collisions between the absurd and the mundane. Through a practice that spans fashion, portraiture and observations, they entangle us in work with a child-like optimism laced with dark humour. Things never feel quite as they seem, as they shift between the macro and the micro, each frame leaving you desperate to know what happens next.
Thilesen grew up in Norway, where a strong relationship with nature is part of the fabric of society. Animals, insects and plants recur throughout his portfolio, imbuing a sense of genuine wonder free from cynicism. “It comes from our family’s background and interest in farming, fishing, and foraging,” they explain. “Most Norwegians have a deep respect for nature and a sustainably minded philosophy on how we take from, but also give back to nature.”
Together Thilesen’s work holds space for quiet moments that illuminate the beauty in everyday life. Kyle Jeffers, who nominated Thilesen, adds: “Their strong storytelling and impeccable lighting inspire me. The mix of natural and artificial light together creates very punchy, bold imagery.”
At first glance, it’s hard to discern if Rory Hamovit’s work is humorous or about humour itself. The Los Angeles-based artist subverts the social construct of masculinity while reinstating queerness into the body politic. “For me, humour is a way to descept and disarm.” Hamovit explains. “Absurdity is a great way to change the chemistry in the brain.”
Hamovit centres his practice on the theatre of gender – interrogating the gruelling and intoxicating characteristics of masculinity that have been coded throughout our history, and maintained. Casting from Craigslist, Hamovit engages in a series of explorative collaborations with strangers, turning these tropes inside out with sharp wit and a playful dose of irony.
He likens the process to “shaping clay,” carefully constructing scenes with his actors, then interrupting them physically and emotionally to uncover moments of vulnerability where the internalised systems are revealed. The frame becomes a stage for Hamovit to play out his own form of protest, animating the cognitive dissonance inherent in gender binaries while simultaneously seducing us with his bid for possibility and freedom.
“I think humour is extremely hard to successfully convey in photography, particularly in a fine-art context”, explains Sophie Gladstone, who nominated Hamovit. “But he has this dark, deadpan perspective, and it just works.”
Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.