Zeitgeist: Donavon Smallwood

A project conceived during the Covid-19 lockdown in New York led photographer Donavon Smallwood to explore themes of home, nature and civil rights

Each year, as part of the Photography Annual, Creative Review’s editorial team selects five photographers that have made an impact over the past 12 months as our Zeitgeist winners

People have this really romantic idea of New York City,” explains Donavon Smallwood, who was born and raised in Harlem. “For me, growing up here was pretty sheltered. I stayed in my neighbourhood. I didn’t take the train and go places. I was just hanging out around my apartment complex, or inside playing computer games. I didn’t have this New York movie experience.” Instead, Smallwood spent a lot of his childhood fascinated by palaeontology and survival books. His free time was spent on fake digs, idolising Indiana Jones, and contemplating how to survive if he ever ended up stranded on a desert island. A byproduct of this vivid imagination was an ease with solitude – feeling at home in himself – a quality that unites every photograph he makes. 

Smallwood’s work inhabits the unusual space of contemplating life’s joys and ruptures at once. His quietly disarming images, rich and reflective, invite the viewer to cultivate a deeper sense of consciousness. At its core, his work is about intimacy, the ­politics of reflection, and simply being ­together – gestures that feel more urgent than ever. Like ­poetry, which informs Smallwood’s practice conceptually and philosophically, his work demands commitment as layers of meaning slowly unravel, evoking profound emotional truths. “The open-ended quality of an image makes it divine,” Smallwood says. “When people come in contact with that kind of thing, they can be changed forever.”

All images from the series Languor; © Donavon Smallwood