It's an unseasonably warm Saturday, and I'm almost breaking out in cold sweat as I totter up a hilly street to meet Miguel Ammah.
I'd like to think of it as a one up for all the times an interviewee has kept an interviewer waiting by pretending that being late was my plan all along. But no, I have tedious weekend engineering works on the London underground to thank for my tardiness.
'You're late,' Miguel greets me tersely, and the affectionate 'hating on' London transport I'd imagined us doing whimpers and dies quickly. To be fair, he lives in Glasgow, and from the look of things he apparently hasn't had any cause for complaint where the underground is concerned. I have an apology ready, but almost immediately, he leans over and folds me into a bear hug, his face creasing into a warm smile.
Whew. Alright, still.
|Face in Motion - Miguel|
We meet on the set of his latest photo shoot in Finsbury Park, and the bright day that has allowed this to take place in the open, airy park has him waxing lyrical about natural lighting and 'sunny London.' (He doesn't agree later on when I remark on the slight chill in the air, and I have to remind him somewhat tartly that it's because he is down from Glasgow, which, let's face it, is hardly sunny California.)
I am to direct the shoot. 'I have faith in your creativity,' he tells me with a twinkling certainty in his voice, and for five seconds I permit myself a small fantasy where I wonder when Mario Testino is going to make that call for my services. Delusion is a healthy habit, I always say.
The closest I've come to a professional photo shoot is a few dodgy poses at the Trocadero in Paris, simulating variously disastrous kissing-the-Eiffel Tower shots. But soon, I find myself helping with nipping and tucking the model, Claudia, into a cleverly pinned Kente cloth.
She is a British Ghanaian beauty, with dark, luminous skin glowing from the generous amount of baby oil lathered on her body. But she also radiates an attractive inner charm that is borne of her engaging personality, winning smile and spontaneous energetic movements (she occasionally breaks into a dance routine between takes, in step with the hiplife songs that are playing in the background). Miguel bobs his head a few times when the music catches him, and I’m reminded of the Christmas parties from years ago when we were young and he would outdo every other child on the dance floor with his dance skills while the rest of us looked on, a mixture of admiration and envy etched on our faces. So later when he tells me, ‘I love dancing,’ I rearrange my face into a picture of innocence, but my voice is teasingly sarcastic, ‘Oh, that’s news to me!’
Miguel is looking for something from Claudia. 'A unique allure; a magic, pivotal moment that defines a distinct image and makes me fall in love through the lens of the camera.' It is a subject he comes back to often, this indescribable feeling of falling in love each time he is behind the camera, with a rejuvenating vividity that continues to drive his passion for doing something he really loves. He has an enduring image in his head of real passion at work from his days as a school boy in Ridge Church School in Accra. He remembers converging with an enthusiastic crowd of students looking on with raw admiration as fellow student, Kawann ‘Ohene’ Shockley, six years his senior and now a hip-hop and jazz fusion musician, rapped and beat boxed through various hip-hop hits of the day. ‘I often questioned back then what drove a person to continually do what they love. Now I know.’
There is an undercurrent of steely determination behind his gentle approach with Claudia. Having had some experience with modelling himself, he channels that into creating a comfortable atmosphere for her. He has a face that dissolves easily into laughter, a silly sound that tickles those around him, so how she manages to hold the poker-faced poses is beyond me. He is jokey on set, yet ruthless in wringing the best out of everyone, and the feeling of wanting to give it unreservedly slowly creeps in on us all. Has he had specific moments in his life that drive this resilience?
‘Many,’ he laughs. ‘I was born and raised in a slum in Accra called Ayalolo. It was a tough neighbourhood that injected you with a never-back-down attitude to life, but it was also culturally driven. There was always something happening.’ So he has learned to have an appreciation for colour and diversity in a world that is bursting at the seams with different multicultural offerings from all corners. All the better for him, as his curiosity has since taken him to Denmark as an AFS cultural ambassador and, later, Baraboo in Wisconsin (‘another cultural adventure’), which soon became the scene of his blinding moment of clarity, not so much on a Damascene scale as a quiet realisation in the home of his friend and muse, Cari Ekes Buchanan, whom he credits with setting him on his journey as a photographer. ‘She was mesmerising. The manner and zeal with which she would hang pictures she had taken on her wall, and the satisfied look on her face when she sat back to admire them was captivating.’
A conversion was taking place after all. Before this trip Miguel’s dream was to be a 3D animation artist after studying Communication Design at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, but his friendship with Cari struck a chord that soon became a full-blown orchestra.
He bought a small camera, (‘a small Sony Cyber-shot camera from Walmart!’) and has never looked back since. Small start, big dreams.
These days it is he who is on the other side of the camera, capturing shots with a confidence that comes from the wealth of experience he has since gathered. But he often goes back to another pivotal moment that set him decisively on his path once he embraced photography. He returned to Ghana from Wisconsin armed with a camera, a new dream…and a disconcerting ‘what next?’
‘I wasn’t really certain yet which aspect of photography I wanted to specialise in…’ But his good friend and established photographer, James Armah, was about to hand the uncertain Miguel a massive shot in the arm: an invitation to assist him on a shoot for Aya Morrison Clothing at a beach in Tema. And right there on home territory, Miguel knew the decision he had made in Wisconsin was not a fad. It had come to stay.
He bought his second camera, a Canon 400d, and christened it The Caribear (no prizes for guessing where the name came from), and was soon understudying Dennis Dartey. ‘I like to call him The King of Light for his exceptional use of lighting in photography,’ he smiles.
His love and zest for life has taken him places - Norway, Sweden, Holland, Belgium and Germany - but he can’t stop coming back to his first experience of Paris in November 2011 when he got the opportunity to participate in Paris Photo, an international art fair that brings photographers from all over the world. It had always been a dream of his to visit Paris, and see some of the historic art and iconic buildings he had heard of his entire life.
On the Mona Lisa: ‘I was disappointed by how incredibly small the painting was. I thought it would be much bigger.’ (I laugh at the memory of my own disappointment on first seeing it at the Musée du Louvre, and the awe I felt that it also happened to be opposite a large painting of Jesus at the wedding in Cana that almost dwarfed the wall it was on.)
On the Sacré Coeur basilica: ‘I would sit on the stairs leading up to it and gaze in wonder at the artistic beauty of Paris. I wanted to live there forever. Do you know that feeling?’
Mais oui, only too well. Paris is a city full of beautiful memories and desire; sometimes that persistent child that won’t stop tugging until it’s got your rapt attention, other times the warmth that wraps itself around you until you can’t remember a time when it hadn’t existed, and always the seductress that draws you in and teases with feather light touches. Little things like seeing an ancient man playing his accordion on the métro, the smell of freshly baked baguettes and pain viennois, the endlessly fascinating things your eyes cannot wait to take in…indeed, it doesn’t take that long before they slip noiselessly into your heart and stay. Miguel is confident that one day another door will open and he will walk into a second amour fou with the French capital.
His dreams are all coming true with the dawning of each day. He is working on his website and a fashion photography project that showcases the blossoming Ghanaian fashion culture in the UK. He finds inspiration in the works of Joel Grimes, Jean Paul Goude and Annie Leibovitz, and has a growing fan base, from the people he’s worked with - including Trigmatic, Raquel, Jennifer Koranteng, Bubushiiky, Makafui Ninkcabs – to a wider audience who have an appreciation for photographic art in all its forms. But he is always hopeful that the best is yet to come.
So I ask him my last question: who would be his dream person to photograph?
‘My mother,’ he says without hesitation. ‘Since I started out in earnest, I haven’t had a chance to have a photo shoot with her.’
As we finish with the day’s proceedings, I think what a proud mother she would be.
The photographic medium will never cease to intrigue us; from mindless shots borne of widespread social media use in a digital age where anything possible, to arresting images over the course of the 173 years since Louis Daguerre’s invention, it seems we are more preoccupied than ever with seeing. And like great photographers whose works have captured attention and never let go, Miguel wants to leave a legacy. ‘I don’t want my works to be forgotten. I hope in years to come they will be the propelling force behind someone’s decision to take up this beautiful craft.’
Mama’s boy has done good. Miguel has come home at last to his real passion.
And that’s a wrap.
Facebook: Miggified Photography