“Since I can remember I’ve always been the one capturing moments of the people around me … it was just something I did,” says London-based photographer Serena Brown. “It was when I was 16 that I actually started to experiment with what went into my imagemaking and learning what and who was important to me when I took photos.”
Brown says she’s incredibly inspired by her Ghanaian heritage. “It’s a big part of my identity that I want to bring into my work much more,” she says. Brown’s upbringing in London also plays a big role in the work she creates. “It’s what I know and the people here are what inspire me. I spent most of my time at Falmouth Uni on nine-hour coaches back to London to shoot because I just couldn’t connect creatively in the same way I can when I’m around the culture here,” she says.
Since graduating, the photographer has put an emphasis on making her subjects the heart of each image. So representing them in the most authentic way has become key, and it’s led her to adopting a documentary style through a fashion lens. “I really enjoy shooting people with stories to tell, finding people who are overlooked and looking for beauty in the everyday,” Brown explains.
Using natural light, fresh-faced subjects and locations close to Brown or familiar to the people she’s photographing, she conveys a sense of honesty and community in every project. “My work celebrates being natural and knowing it’s okay to be different in whatever way that is. There’s a real richness in the experiences of the people I grew up with and I try to spotlight that in the work I do. I’ve always wanted to change how we see images of Black people in the white-washed media industry, and I think this will always be a major aim for me.”
Though still early in her career, Brown has already had a handful of big commissions including creating work with brands such as Nike, Footlocker, Converse, and Refinery29. “I’ve been really fortunate shooting for clients that I’ve always admired so early in my career and it’s nice that even my commissioned work is often mission driven,” Brown says. “It was super daunting at first but I always have confidence in my ability and my work which is probably why they trust me during the creative process.”
For Brown’s latest series, Class of Covid-19, she spoke to 16-18 year olds who had their worlds flipped upside down with exam cancellations. “I spoke to them about their concerns about class, institutional racism, higher education and their mental health,” she explains. “It was great to see big platforms like Refinery29 publishing the girls’ stories and amplifying their voices to a wider audience.”
Amplifying voices relatively unheard in the creative industries is important to Brown, and she feels there’s definitely work to be done for it to be more inclusive. “Personally I’d love to see more working class people working in the creative industries. I don’t think it’s a career path that’s seen as achievable unless you have a way in or parents who will fund you at the start,” she says. “It was never encouraged when I was at school, yet I’ve seen so many people I grew up with branch off the academic route and still achieve success despite these barriers.”
From her own experiences Brown says one of those barriers in the past has been money. “I’ve definitely felt I was held back from being able to achieve certain things because I couldn’t afford to execute it, especially at university. These things definitely shouldn’t hold you back from creating though, and even if your route is a little tougher than others it’s so important to continue creating in whatever way that is,” Brown says. “I’d love to see more initiatives encouraging people from low income backgrounds to work in the creative industry because we need to level the playing field.”
In regards to projects she personally takes on, Brown pushes for diverse casting to ensure everyone is represented and overall she does feel like things are slowly getting to a good place.
As for the work she’s doing on herself, it’s all about building confidence. “I’m definitely still learning and pushing myself every time I shoot,” she says. “I can’t see my nerves waiting for my film to come back from the lab disappearing any time soon, but I love being able to work with brands to create important work.”