Category: General, Photography, Photography Series, Social Media, Storytelling, Visual Storytelling, Visual Storytelling Tips
Niikai Wells is a self-taught documentary and portrait photographer – a “visual alchemist” – born in Kew Gardens, New York, and a veteran of the armed forces. Like many of us reading this blog, he approaches the craft of photography as a storyteller, with images reflecting the insights of a new-era creative, displaying the depths of humanity.
He’s also the driving force behind the Visual Storytelling club on Clubhouse, a new group attracting the attention of industry insiders and beginners alike. I caught up with him this week for a chat, and I started by asking Nikkai about his background.
Niikai Wells: I’ve been shooting for about four years, two years as a hobbyist, as a way to cope with PTSD. And then, as I began to be mentored by seasoned veterans in documentary and street-style photography, I grew to love it more and more and realized that it could be lucrative as well as internally fulfilling – by being a documentarian of real life.
I understood that, as far as storytelling goes, other creators in the industry, like musicians, have a song to be able to tell their story. Directors and writers have hours and pages. As a photographer, you only have to quickly hit the shutter and give whoever is viewing your creative vision a beginning, middle and end. If you don’t have a series of photos… you have one photo to basically tell the story, right?
Tara Todras-Whitehill: So you’ve been shooting for four years, two years as a hobby. What were the last two years? What have you been mainly focusing on?
NW: The third-year was basically finding what avenues of photography would I be interested in on a professional level. So I ventured into wedding photography, portraits I did behind the scenes on television shows. I’ve done fashion runways. Basically, I got to explore all avenues of photography – still life, food photography, product photography – and the ones that really compelled me to know my passions were street and documentary.
TTW: So why did you decide to start a club on Clubhouse?
NW: I started a club because when Clubhouse was first introduced, everybody was just using it to build social groups and didn’t really understand the vehicle that it could become. A lot of times you don’t have access to industry insiders, you don’t have access to people that have made it, people that won’t normally offer you information without you paying for it.
So Clubhouse kind of puts the senior creatives along with the middle creatives, along with the beginners, and allows everybody to come forward and share ideas and concepts, because really and truly in this industry, everybody has something to offer everybody.
Clubhouse has been really useful, and I don’t mind that we get to only speak about our visuals… In general, it has helped me reconnect my love for photography across the globe with everyone else that is on thereKlodet Torosain, a member of the Visual Storytelling Group founded by Niikai
Now Clubhouse is also segmented by subject. And a lot of times there are rooms that don’t really address specifics. So I took it upon myself to create a specific room just for storytelling, because people have several rooms for steet photography, fashion, the business of photography – but storytelling seems lost.
People talk about it, but it’s not their focal point. And it’s imperative that everybody incorporates storytelling into their visual directions – because the greats have a story in their photos, the ones that transcend time all have a story – to be able to see a picture and say, wow, you could actually put yourself in that scenario.
So I created a group with some of the storytellers that I look up to, and some people that might be interested in what they’re trying to accomplish, and to have a collective conversation.
TTW: And have you found it helpful so far?
NW: It has been very helpful, it’s been very helpful when we do the room, it is an open forum. I usually try to get seasoned storytellers to tell their stories. So I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to get some tidbits of information from seasoned storytellers that are extremely accomplished. And, you know, I’m still, “new”. I really soak in everything I’ve learned and apply it in real-time. So when people ask me questions, I’m able, essentially, to pass on a message I just got.
TTW: Do you have a regular time that you meet, or are you just doing it when you’re able to?
NW: Well, what we’re trying to do with some of the seasoned storytellers – I reach out to them, you know, via Facebook as to when they have time to speak. And that’s what drives it – the group is not open all the time. But I confirm a date and time. And then I send the message out to the group when we meet. And then usually, you know, the group gets pretty large because everybody is extremely excited and pinging their friends to let them know it’s happening.
And essentially it’s like a quick Q&A – 30, 45 minutes, and maybe more – so that people can ask the person their questions.
TTW: What’s your favorite interview that you’ve done so far?
NW: Well, it was impromptu, but Jamel Shabazz. That’s essentially who was my social mentor. He’s been giving me lots of gems via social media. You know, the situation here regarding the pandemic is still a little bit oppressive. So I haven’t really been pushing issues where I was trying to actually.. well, I like to walk the streets every day if I possibly can.
I have quite a few people, members of the group, that are phenomenal storytellers, especially with all the social injustices that are going on. I have a lot of people that are embedded heavily in the protests and I call them like “emotion chasers” – they just chase something happening that day. They’re really invested in the fight, and can really see what’s going to happen ahead of its happening. And what they capture is real, and you can tell it’s real. Everything about what they do is real.
That’s some advice I would give to anyone, to engage with your subject.Niikai Wells
TTW: I definitely know Jamal’s work; he received the Gordon Parks Award. So that’s pretty impressive that you have him as your mentor. That’s great because a big problem that I found when I started out in photography was not having the access to people who could be mentors.
NW: I think the reason why he allowed me the opportunity to speak with him, even though it’s only via social media, is because our paths are similar, even though he’s been shooting a lot longer than I have. He started off in the military. I did the military. Then he was a civil servant. He shot every day, even during his civil service career. I do the same thing. I’m a civil servant. I always bring my camera with me, and we document our lives.
And the most important thing that he helped me with was telling me about building communication with your subject before shooting. And that just changed every situation, because interacting with the subject and having a conversation and affording them the opportunity to really tell their story changes the narrative of how I shoot. And that’s pretty awesome. That’s some advice I would give to anyone, to engage with your subject. You know, it doesn’t have to be for a long time, but like, you’ll be surprised at the type of story that you could get.
TTW: Yeah, I agree with that completely. It’s something that is hard to do, and especially when you’re first starting out, to just walk up to people you don’t know and have that conversation. Now, it comes as second nature.
I remember when I first started out, I took a class at the International Center for Photography in New York and there was this great teacher there – Andre Lambertson. He had us do this assignment, to really throw us outside of our comfort zone, to go to some random person and ask them to take a picture of them inside their house. And that was just like the scariest thing I’ve ever done.
And I just sat in a Barnes and Noble for, like, three days – looking at people, being really creepy, trying to figure out who I should approach that morning. Thinking about how I could do it. It was really intense because it’s not something I was used to at that point – and it turned out fine, the woman that I actually ended up talking to was really very nice. And I went home with her and photographed her and her husband.
And now, I’ve been a professional photographer for over 15 years, and I don’t blink at doing something like that – I’ll go up and I’ll start talking to someone and I’ll be like, “yeah, it’d be really great to see your workspace” and I don’t think about it at all.
But because I had that experience starting out in that class, I always think about that and how it made me feel. And when I recall my timidness it makes me remember that the skill of talking to people shouldn’t be taken for granted.
They say fear pushes resilience… I want my pictures to be marked in the annals of history – that’s my goal… A little bit of fear makes you aliveNiikai Wells
NM: I still get butterflies a little bit. You know, they say fear pushes resilience.
T: That’s photography, anyway, it’s like you always have to be on your toes. There’s always something different with this job. Part of what I love about photography is that it’s never the same thing twice. You can’t let your guard down. You’re always doing something that’s going to keep you moving and doing stuff. So I love that you started the club. And I love that you, like, created a community. I think that’s really awesome. I’m definitely going to try to tune in the next time you have another speaker. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today.
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