Behind the lens: Elijah Mogoli

“Working for something you know you want is far more satisfactory”

Wolverhampton to Brooklyn. There’s a fair bit of distance between myself and Elijah Mogoli, a 22-year-old photographer, and yet through Instagram, we were able to strike a virtual friendship. We’d have the odd conversation here and there, but we were finally able to break the ice last week with a three-hour WhatsApp call. Luckily for both of us, the five-hour time difference worked in our favour and I felt super at ease despite us never having met.  

Elijah is the first to say that he hadn’t intentionally decided to go into photography and with less than a year’s experience his portfolio is pretty impressive, boasting work that has been featured on the official Kodak Instagram; though he is quick to light-heartedly add that they are still yet to give him unlimited film. Something Elijah speaks a lot about are these chance encounters and ‘what if’ moments that seem to determine so much of what unfolds in our lives. I guess the most important encounter was with an abandoned Polaroid SX70 discovered in Brooklyn Heights that sparked the first stage of his interest in photography. To use his own words “at the time my mind wasn’t into 35 mm photography and all that” and yet his new discovery did prompt him to experiment. Film photography has seen a meteoric rise in popularity and there’s a certain aesthetic to it that leaves even the laziest of digital photographers keen to reconnect with the past. 

If you scroll through the well-organised grids that form Elijah’s photographic narrative, you’ll quickly see he has a soft spot for black and white photography.  Chance or maybe coincidence steered Elijah towards this niche after the camera store ran out of colour. Photography is an outlet I am constantly forcing myself to commit to, but two things stop me: laziness and cost. When he told me it’s “$20 for a pack of 10 images” I found myself wincing in my room, till I gather the funds and motivation I will resign myself to my iPhone and VSCO. 

The best and worst of life can be cultivated in the one-second motion of a camera shutter and as a Politics graduate, I find myself drawn to photography that has meaning and grit beyond a superficial aesthetic. Photography is personal- it has to be. Just consider the way we move in spaces and demand its attention, it’s personal to us even if it isn’t for the environment involved in it. Elijah’s work oozes personality that spans across all areas of society, transcends borders, and our understandings of race. 

“Second I came out I felt so wronged” 

In December 2019 Elijah like many young black men was arrested for a minor crime- walking between train carts. His arrest was justified on the basis that he had already been given a warning for having an unpaid ticket for riding his bike the wrong way. After this experience, he said, “let me liberate myself”- and an impromptu 10-day-long solo trip to Paris acted as a quasi-initiation (of kinds) into a new way of thinking. For Elijah, the devil is in the detail, something he comments on when observing the “little marks” that have made certain prints less than perfect in his opinion. Drawn to the process and despite having initial failings with cameras he made a smooth transition into developing after purchasing a scanner and gradually booking slots at dark rooms in New York. As an African American Elijah emphasises the importance of creating work that holds meaning, ‘intentionality’ is the word that frequently crops up in conversation; the concept of having photographs that carry a message. Hence you’ll notice his photos often have limited captions since “the photo should speak more than the caption”.

There has been no better time to develop photographs than in the midst of the George Floyd protests, US Presidential campaigns, and elections. The US has been an absolute hot pot and it’s both heartening and harrowing to see the best and worst of history frozen in a square post. Watching Elijah’s Instagram stories that documented his time at a Trump rally, I was struck with admiration and utter fear.  Luckily this doesn’t seem to affect Elijah as much- “I’m a big guy 6″2… every time I went I stood confidently and you notice they’re [Trump supporters] stood behind the cops like when a child stands behind its parent’s legs, it’s exactly like that”. Admittedly the news that a photographer had been shot in the eye with a rubber bullet in DC did give Elijah a perhaps necessary reality check. Now equipped with goggles and a gas mask he states that it was “all a matter of being prepared”. 

Something about him seemed distraught yet optimistic 

“Late in October, I see a kid out of the courthouse with Jordans on with no laces, something about him seemed distraught yet optimistic”.

On the topic of the future, Elijah brings up Laceless– a black and white photography project aiming to bring light to the “wronged” individuals that unjustly face penalties and discrimination with the law. Tensions run high between the police and ethnic minorities and this isn’t helped when the system financially benefits from having beds filled. With a disproportionate amount of black men in prisons, Elijah hopes his project will bring more attention to the stories behind the arrests- humanising those who face the criminal justice system. 

On a more light-hearted note, I did belly laugh (and may have even let out a tiny snort) when Elijah recalled the time a man charged at him when he tried to take his photo. I guess that’s the nature of the beast some people are more receptive than others but Elijah takes it all in his stride and he even “clapped at him”- I think this speaks volumes to his charming showmanship (you have to be able to make light of minor setbacks after all). Recent upgrades specifically to a Leica camera have perhaps created a loophole, with a sharper range finder it’s easier to take high-quality photos discreetly! 

At the core, Elijah’s photography tells a story of identity- both his own and that of an ever-changing America. With his Nigerian heritage, there’s a definite desire to tap back into a lost history which he says he feels more since Black Americans tend to be less aware of their ancestral roots. As Elijah said, “once I meet someone who’s Nigerian- you’re like a long-lost brother to me”. I won’t be the only person that can deeply resonate with this feeling of having a lost sense of identity. Being half-Venezuelan but raised in a culturally British household I have always felt such a distinct sense of belonging when I have met others with similar backgrounds to my own. 

Where does that leave him now? The pandemic has been a rough time for everyone, and I think for creatives it has been particularly difficult and at times uninspiring. A lack of work and opportunity could be daunting but Elijah simply said, “I’m not rushed”. Such a simple combination of words that I think totally encapsulates the attitude that we all need to have in our arsenal if we’re to successfully navigate this new normal.

Although he hasn’t ever monetised off of his work, Elijah is now running prints for certain photographs. Now more than ever we have to support small businesses and creatives and there’s no-one I could urge people to shower with love more than Elijah. 

1 thought on “Behind the lens: Elijah Mogoli”

  1. Elijah says:

    Yo I love ❤️🙏🏿🙏🏿

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