Introducing 1854’s Fast Track Vol. 2 winners: Ulas & Merve, Sophie Jane Stafford and Aïcha Nadaud Fall

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1854’s FastTrack open call promotes unsigned talent in the commercial sphere. Here, we meet three of this year’s winners: from celebrating Black experiences to having fun in front of the lens, they discuss what’s important to their processes

“Everything has the potential to become an idea, or a starting point, for a shoot. A colour, a material, some reflection on a surface,” says Merve Türkan. “Sometimes it starts by us saying ‘let’s do something red’ or ‘let’s play with this’. Our home is also our studio and we are the models, so if an idea pops into our minds, we can start shooting immediately.” Türkan, 35, is discussing her collaborative creative process. She is one half of the self-taught photography duo Ulas & Merve, along with her partner, 40-year-old Ulaş Kesebir. The pair first met in 2010 and grew up in Turkey, but are currently living in London.

Ulas & Merve were recently named two of 1854’s FastTrack winners. The initiative was launched earlier this year to champion the industry’s freshest, unsigned talent amongst representatives, advertising agencies and brands at LE BOOK Connections Europe and throughout 1854’s global network. It is now in its second edition. 

© Ulas & Merve
© Ulas & Merve

“It was based on our relationship; how we support each other and how entangled we’ve become. We used ourselves as models and decided on the styling and location together. We loved the results.”

Ulas & Merve

© Ulas & Merve
© Ulas & Merve

Imbued with a subtle sense of fun, Türkan says playfulness is crucial to the style the duo have developed together.I love humour, colour and especially movement,” she says. Kesebir meanwhile, looks for more “surrealist, weird and fun things” to shoot.

One of Ulas & Merve’s favourite commercial commissions was back in 2018; a campaign for the handbag brand Mlouye. “It was based on our relationship; how we support each other and how entangled we’ve become,” explains Kesebir. “We used ourselves as models and decided on the styling and location together. We loved the results.” Shot against a neutral backdrop in a joyful palette of pinks and yellows, the Mlouye photoshoot is typical of the aesthetic the duo have honed. In each of the images, their limbs are entwined – skillfully reflecting the criss-cross design of the bags themselves. 

© Sophie Stafford.

Another of this year’s FastTrack selectees is Sophie Jane Stafford. Born in Hull, she is now based between Leeds and London. With a warm-hued and intimate style of photographing, Stafford’s early interest in photojournalism has shaped her subject matter. “I am drawn to cultural events and how they are adapted, preserved, and passed on to new generations who, in turn, make them as their own, evolving them with modern cultures and technology,” she says.

One example of this approach is her project titled Paris Raves, documents young techno lovers congregating in the streets of the French capital. Meanwhile, Rose of the Desert, based around the annual International Festival of the Sahara, is another. “That project shifts its gaze to contemporary Tunisians living in rural Tunisia, exploring the clash of modern and historic desert culture at the festival,” Stafford says. 

© Sophie Stafford.
© Sophie Stafford.

Off the back of Rose of the Desert, Stafford was commissioned to cover the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan for the UK-based Riposte magazine in 2018. The project ultimately developed into a longer-term series. “The images in this project were the extra images I shot during down time,” she explains. “They explore the inner workings of the event and the people involved, shining a light not on the main show, but on what goes with it: from the racing anxiety of the build-up to the long, lazy hours spent winding down after.” Later, the project was shortlisted for the 2021 Libraryman award

One of Stafford’s most enjoyable commercial jobs has been an internal research project for Nike. “I worked with researcher and writer Bwalya Newton to interview young women in London, Paris and Berlin,” she remembers fondly. In her personal work, she’s been revisiting an old series shot in a bingo hall, and plans to publish it as a zine later this year. 

© Sophie Stafford.

For 30-year-old, Abidjan-based Aïcha Nadaud Fall – another of this FastTrack edition’s selectees – her lived experience as a Black woman, and her childhood in Côte d’Ivoire, have shaped her work. “It’s a country very rich in culture, history and ethnicities,” she says. “It’s a diverse place in terms of population – I myself am a result of a union between a Senegalese woman and an Ivorian man.” After she left for France at 13, Fall found herself living in a place where Black women were sorely underrepresented in the media and in art. It inspired her to create work that would give the women a space within that landscape. 

“Being a big fan of fantastic tales, but not often seeing people who look like me within them, I wanted to create my own version. This project is just that – a fantastical, visual tale where I narrate how Black bodies are capable of doing wonders, but also sometimes just Black bodies existing, simply and beautifully.”

Aïcha Nadaud Fall

© Nadaud Fall Aicha.
© Nadaud Fall Aicha.

This focus can be found in projects such as A Seat at the Table – a rich and sun-soaked collection of pictures, celebrating the Black experience. “Being a big fan of fantastic tales, but not often seeing people who look like me within them, I wanted to create my own version,” she says. “This project is just that – a fantastical, visual tale where I narrate how Black bodies are capable of doing wonders, but also sometimes just Black bodies existing, simply and beautifully.” She began the project in late December 2019; many of the women in her pictures are herself, her friends, her sister, aunty and mother. “These are my first inspirations,” she adds.

Fall hopes to translate her personal motivations into her commercial work. “It can be a challenge, but I always follow my intuition and put my soul into it,” she says warmly. “A powerful portrait to me is one that is able to capture a person’s true uniqueness, and one that helps you tell a tale, through your lens.”

Joanna Cresswell

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