1854’s FastTrack open call promotes unsigned talent in the commercial sphere. Here, we meet three winners from Fast Track Vol. 2: from the power of portraiture to the allure of collage, they discuss the techniques that make them tick
“I see a powerful portrait as a collaboration between the photographer and the subject, where you can feel both the energy of the photographer and the model present,” says 26-year old Hajar Benjida.
Benjida is speaking about a project that she has been working on since 2018, titled Atlanta Made Us Famous. The ongoing work focuses on illuminating the important role that women play in the Atlanta hip-hop scene. It started during an internship at a photo studio opposite the city’s legendary Magic City strip club. After weeks of curiosity, she eventually asked if she could take some pictures inside. “Over the course of several weeks, I spent days and nights with my camera documenting the club’s dancers,” she recalls.
Born in the Netherlands to Moroccan immigrant parents, Benjida was recently named one of 18 winners of 1854’s second FastTrack. FastTrack is a platform launched this year to champion the industry’s fresh, unsigned talent, now . The successful photographers are introduced to industry representatives, advertising agencies and brands at LE BOOK Connections Europe and their work is shared throughout 1854’s global network. She describes her visual style as “intimate, direct and straight to the point,” and recalls the spirit and determination it took to get started.
“It was really challenging, being basically a ‘nobody’ in the game, young, a woman…but I didn’t let any of those things stop me from doing what I love. I went from being someone no one knew in the hip-hop and rap game to being some of these artists’ go-to photographer.”
– Hajar Benjida
“I would turn up at music shows asking, on the spot, if I could take the artist’s portrait afterwards,” she says. “It was really challenging, being basically a ‘nobody’ in the game, young, a woman…but I didn’t let any of those things stop me from doing what I love. I went from being someone no one knew in the hip-hop and rap game to being some of these artists’ go-to photographer.” After travelling back and forth for the past few years, Benjida is moving to the USA officially later this year.
Portraiture is also at the heart of 29-year-old, Amsterdam-based Jaimy Gail’s work – another photographer to watch from this year’s FastTrack roster. “A strong portrait has to seem simple,” she says. “As a viewer you have to believe or have recognition with the portrayed. But there has to be something that you haven’t seen before too, so it offers familiarity and newness in one.”
Gail’s vision is rooted in the tradition of painting, since that is what she first studied. “I had no reference or technical skills when it came to photography, so I just applied the same approach I used in my paintings,” she says. “Starting from the background, and layering with colours and shapes like on a canvas.” This attention to formal concerns and complimentary colours is notable in projects like Normaal Doen – which comprises portraits celebrating women – and On Being A Woman, which explores the roles imposed upon women.
Some of Gail’s favourite commissions and features so far have been for magazines she calls, “innovative and open-minded”, including i-D and It’s Nice That. “In editorials you get a lot of freedom as a photographer. Plus, getting a fresh theme or subject thrown at you is really inspiring. You have to make new connections in your head, which can result in ideas you didn’t think of before,” she says. And though it might be challenging to work within someone else’s framework, that’s also part of the fun, she adds, pointing out that, “if there is mutual trust, the outcome can be amazing.”
Our next hotly-tipped FastTrack winner this year is 27-year-old Jooeun Bae. Born and raised in South Korea, she moved to America at 16. She stayed for a decade before returning home, and as a result, she sees herself as something of a patchwork – made up of different cultures and experiences. It is one reason why she was drawn towards photo-collage, she says.
“Even though I didn’t know what collage was really about, I knew I enjoyed cutting and pasting and reorganising fragments [of images],” she remembers. Her relationship with photography started intuitively too, by learning how to shoot manually so she could photograph material for her collages, and then re-photograph them once made. “The more I worked on collage and photography, the more I realised I could make magic moments out of reality through them,” she says.
After finishing her studies at the International Center of Photography in New York, Bae found herself in a Covid-19 lockdown and missing the people she loved. She realised how she’d taken them for granted, which inspired her to create the project Mono—, a multi-coloured collection of beautiful, 3D collages adding new depths and dimensions to photographs of ordinary objects. “I used 30 everyday objects as a metaphor for the 30 people I most often undervalue,” she explains, relating the familiarity of those closest to us with the things we see everyday.
Away from her personal work, Bae’s most standout commission so far is the artwork she made to accompany a TIME Magazine feature. The process was exhilarating, she says, because the editor gave her the space to respond with her unique creativity – a dream for any artist as they enter the commercial world.
Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London