Jude Lartey Is On A Journey To Tell Untold Stories to the World
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Future Forward: Image-Maker Jude Lartey Is On A Journey To Tell Untold Stories to the World

Courtesy of Jude Lartey

In a series of cameraphone-shot images, Jude Lartey speaks to the power of self-discovery and the importance of honoring one’s innate interests.

When Jude Lartey was growing up, he found his dad’s photobook from the ’60s and ’70s and was surprised at how compelling the images were despite the simplicity of its contents: parties, places in Ghana, and portraits of his dad. He also found his family’s photobook of images of his grandfather who was a personal bodyguard for Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the West African country’s first prime minister and then elected president when the country gained independence from Britain. In these photographs, he uncovered his hidden artistic roots, something that inspired him to pursue image-making as a profession.

Jude was born and raised in Accra, Ghana’s largest city and its capital. His images have gone on from the spotlight of PhotoVogue to the pages of GQ Middle East, reportage in National Public Radio and The Guardian, and campaigns for brands such as Levi’s, Converse, and Adidas. The 23-year-old has had an interesting career trajectory since he started modeling in high school. From there, he’s gone into styling, creative and art directing, set design, and then photography. His previous creative lives are all poured into his images, whether it’s a carefully staged tableau in his house or sensually-styled lookbooks for Accra-based fashion labels such as Palmwine IceCream.

Courtesy of Jude Lartey

Lartey prefers to be called an “image-maker,” which emphasizes his skills in visualizing images from the ground up. From his days on sets where he basically did everything at once, he joked that all that was left of him was to “press the camera’s shutter” himself.

“I was literally the one directing the sets,” he says. “It’s like theater. It was through that I became a photographer. I used to create stuff myself, jotting down notes on how I wanted everything to turn out. So I told myself that I really want to control everything on my own.”

But Jude’s choice to call himself an “image-maker” is also a response to a time when people had a photo studio ready in their pocket. “I feel [like] everyone can be a photographer, but as an image-maker, you need to have some sort of sense of directing everything on your own,” he elaborates, “which makes you the engine of the art piece.”

However, his ability to start shooting independently was also enabled by the democracy of the cameraphone. Lartey started shooting when he was 17 with an iPhone 6 in 2017, hitting the streets of Accra with his friend and collaborator Kweku Yeobah (who has also appeared in PhotoVogue), trying street photography. “The quality [of the iPhone 6 photos were] amazing though. I still have some images from it. I love it. I’m proud of how I started and why I’m better now. There’s more for me to grow, to become a better person,” he shares. “Every day is a learning process for me.”

Courtesy of Jude Lartey

Jude and Kweku started working together years ago. They photographed each other and also styled and shot models in the streets of Accra. But they were stylists and art directors, not photographers. They didn’t even own cameras. So they called photographers who would be interested to work with them, but they encountered problems with that.

“Sometimes photographers wouldn’t show up on the day of shoot, that’s why we took everything into our own hands,” Lartey says. “That is one of the reasons why I shot with my camera phone because it was [more] feasible. Some of the images you see today are produced from my phone.”

The images that Jude is able to produce using his camera phone (it’s still his weapon of choice) are startling, unraveling his eye as an image-maker: portraits reveal more depth, moments of everyday life uncover historic waypoints, and stylish productions combine intent and magic. His more personal images underline his motivations for taking up photography: his desire to document his people and his culture. Jude photographs the people who are close to him: his community, friends, and family (he shot his mom for a GQ Middle East feature). The sittings are sometimes done in his home: props are taken from rooms, blankets serve as backgrounds, and bare walls and windows speak of lived-in familiarity that adds more complexity to the image.

“I gain a lot of inspiration from my environment,” Jude says. “[The] daily intricacies in and around my community are the source of my expression for the love of my motherland [that] you see in my images. [I’m] on a journey [to tell] untold stories to the world.”

Jude Lartey self-portrait. Courtesy of Jude Lartey

However, the semi-DIY approach to image-making is only one side of his practice. In an assignment for National Public Radio, Jude photographed a new settlement of the African diaspora in Asebu, Ghana.

In his journalistic work for National Public Radio, the images are just as well thought out as his beloved photographs in his hometown: farmers stand closely in the land that they tend to; a 69-year-old woman called the “Diaspora development queen of Ghana” sits smiling on a wooden throne; and an overview of the town is captured in vivid colors under the sun. Jude admits that he loves colors. Shocks of reds, greens, yellows, and blues permeate his work, making them more alive and intricate; so cinematic, as he calls it.

“I love my images to be lively and present even though I sometimes love to play around black and white because [it’s a] classic that even a hundred years later I’m still gonna feel the same [with the images]. But I love to play with color a lot because it determines my mood.”

In commissions like this, Jude is careful with the subject since he is documenting people who may not be familiar with him or his ways of working.

“I always want my subjects to feel comfortable, I love to interact with them while we’re shooting, to create a bond. This also makes them feel at ease in front of the camera.”

Jude’s work also focuses on masculinity but is bent in a way that is special to him and his community. There are bodies by the beach, smiling, riding a horse, a silhouette in a colored curtain, brothers just hanging out, or even a self-portrait where he sports blue hair, shot with a pink background. This is their experience of what masculinity is, growing up as a young man in Ghana or Ghana today, where the parliament has passed an anti-LGBTQ bill.

Courtesy of Jude Lartey

“I feel masculinity is a very broad topic. Being masculine doesn’t mean you can’t cry. It doesn’t mean you can’t cross-dress,” he says. “Masculinity in my work can either feel tough or soft sometimes. I also feel the brain is a powerful masculine tool. It is through the brain one can possibly execute a task.” Lartey cites his image of a young boy wearing wings and rearing with a horse on a beach shore as a representation of this point, of capturing and conceptualizing masculinity. “That’s a masculine tool right there, so I think masculinity is a very broad subject on its own.”

Jude is part of a new generation of African photographers and creatives. They are part of a wave who, as GQ Middle East puts it, draw “inspiration from the African diaspora and interpreting their homeland’s rich cultural history through the evocative lens of street and documentary-style photography.”

In his work, Lartey always looks forward. Much like the inspiration he got from his father and grandfather’s photobooks, he wants to preserve an image of Ghana (as seen through his lens) for generations to come so they can see images of their hopes and joys.

“Thirty years from now, I would still be documenting people and my culture for the world, maybe expanding to tell new sto- ries from different perspectives,” the image-maker says. “[I want] the images I’m producing today to be a source of inspiration or interaction for tomorrow.”

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