Interview: Ethel Nalule, Connected with a Sense of Digital Touch

"Tactile" by Ethel Nalule, courtesy of Ethel Nalule.

Last week, I sat down with Ethel Nalule to congratulate her on her feature in a National Geographic blog publication and talk about her photography work. I got introduced to this lovely lady’s Instagram account a few weeks prior to her recognition on the blog by an Arthur writer, Daniela. From the moment I met her in person she won my heart and brought me joy. Ethel, the sweetest girl I’ve met in a very long time, took time from her school work in a busy pre-exams time to answer some of my questions for the Arthur readers.

Before your eyes scroll down to read what we talked about, I need to warn you: this girl is in constant pain. Ethel has a disease, but most importantly she has a talent. Unless you were probably living in the same type of dorm room with her in first year, you didn’t know what she and her friends knew about: Lyme disease. Look out for another issue of Arthur to learn about Lyme disease, but meanwhile feel free to google the shit out of it.

[Above is her photograph that got featured, named “Tactile.”]

B: Could you tell me about the story behind this photo, how and when it was taken, and was it a spontaneous moment or was it planned?

E: It is called “Tactile.” It means sense of touch. For me one of my main symptoms for Lyme disease is pain. I have a lot of pain: so joint pain, muscle pain, nerve pain, all of the pains you can think of — but the most frustrating one would have to be Allodynia, which is pain from touch. We have to wear clothes, obviously, but just clothing causes pain, wind causes pain, hair… I chose to show my bare back in this photos because the most painful part of my body is my back. It’s always there. I’ve been in pain for 5 years now. I have been planning to do these photos for a while. There is a few of them from that morning. The sun that shines through my window in my room in the morning looks so nice. Every morning I would plan to do it but then I would feel way too tired and too sick in the morning. But one morning I got up and just decided to and did it.

B: What do you particularly like about this photo? Why did you choose this one?

E: It’s the area that shows the most pain. Actually the side of my face facing the camera is my right side, the most swollen side of my face that I’ve never showed in photos but I’m showing it in this one. I just wanted to show the area that is the most painful. You can see bumps on my back sort of, and those are in constant pain. The bones and everything, they are just not good. [laughs]

B: What was hard about taking this photo?

E: I planned how to take it and I did all the poses I wanted to pose with. I definitely did one showing the front side of my body, not just my back.

B: With which camera was it taken?

E: I used my T3i with just a regular kit lens on a tripod. I realized, I have a 50mm lens but when I’m using the kit lens, which everyone hates and looks down upon because it’s the lens that comes with the camera, I feel more creative with it. But you have to work hard to make the picture look good with it.

Photo by Ethel Nalule, courtesy of Ethel Nalule.

B: I need to say that I am a fan of your conceptual work, especially the one titled “there is plenty of fish in the sea”; a very relatable and – for me – a very sarcastic way of showing a struggle of perhaps many young girls who struggle with body image.

E: Thank you. That’s what I want to focus on more but I don’t know which ones are the ones people like. I’m definitely going to. I do like conceptual work, I just haven’t got into it much yet. But I love faces. One of the first things I said to a friend before we became friends was “You have a nice face” because I don’t know, I look at people and say “That’s a nice face” and I just want to photograph it. So I really have a thing for faces. Everyone is just so unique. I’m really into portraits and not-smiling pictures.

B: I guess one can find the basic information on you and perhaps more online with a little bit of searching: but let’s focus on your photography. So what kind of gear do you use?

E: I use both analog and digital. I have a Minolta XG1 and I just have a regular T3i, honestly not the best one to have. I hate it when people ask me what camera I use. When you think about photography it’s not the camera you have – it is how you use it. In the whole photography community, a lot of people like the professional photographs with blurry background and the most expensive equipment but I think it really doesn’t matter. You could use a point-and-shoot camera and still create something extraordinary.

B: What is your favourite lens?

E: I do have a favourite. I don’t own it but I have borrowed it from people. It’s a 35mm 1.4, that is my dream one. It’s so expensive though but it is a dream.

Photo by Ethel Nalule, courtesy of Ethel Nalule.

B: When you travel, what do you take with you?

E: Everything! It’s so hard to travel. I got to have my tripod, I’ve got to have my camera. And not just one but two. I also have a Polaroid because sometimes things had to be shot with a Polaroid. It’s obviously heavy and painful but I can’t decide on just one camera for travelling.

B: Among the gadgets that you own, is there something that you wish you hadn’t bought?

E: No.

B: Any specific settings you use for different kind of field works?

E: No, I just make it work in whatever lighting.

B: Could you explain, talk a little about your work flow?

E: I feel like emotions are my drive. I don’t take happy pictures. I like emotions, like seriousness, tears. I think pain is my thing. [laughs] Sometimes I will feel like I hate my pictures but then people are like “No, I can relate to them.” So my flow is just I don’t know, when I have an image in my head I have to capture it.

Photo by Ethel Nalule, courtesy of Ethel Nalule.

B: How do you educate yourself to take better pictures? I am aware that unless you are trying too hard for it, usually it depends all on the luck.

E: I think mine is just luck. I see something and I take it. That’s basically it. I got in to OCAD University and I went for the portfolio interview and they were like “Where is your sketchbook?” and I didn’t have one. So yeah, it just comes to me and I take it. That’s all.

B: Here might be the hardest question of all: among your works which is your favourite and why?

E: My favourite one is the one of my brother. It is called “Immerse.” It won 4 awards. They were all in first place. I took it in 2014, in the bathtub. I filled the bathtub with water obviously, milk, flour and black paint and placed my brother in there. The way our bathtub was the window would shine on to the bathtub, so I used that natural lighting to shine on top of him. The whole point of that was to portray someone feeling stuck. The light on his face is to symbolize hope, like there is always a way out. It’s just not darkness. When I actually entered my first art show with it, they declined it because they thought I didn’t take it. My teacher was the one who submitted it because I only shared my pictures with my teacher and she said they didn’t accept it because that’s how good it is. I was like “Oh, okay.”

B: Whose work has influenced you most?

E: I have a few. Brooke Shaden, Emily Sotto… also my current favourite I have to share it is Brooke Didonato. She is very conceptual. They are all conceptual artists. Emily Sotto is more portrait and fashion but she has a really nice style.

B: Although I personally don’t agree with any kind of formal trainings in photography, I must ask for those who are wondering about you: do you have any formal training?

E: No. I’ve been taking pictures since I was seven. I came to Canada when I was seven years old. I flew by myself. The flight attendants were the ones who were in charge of me, watching me over, making sure I was okay because I was seven. I think I had seen cameras before but never used one, I guess because I was so young. One of the flight attendants had a Polaroid camera and I [went] in the back sometimes, because I was bored — it was a two-day flight. He showed me how his Polaroid worked and I still have those pictures. So ever since that plane ride I loved photography. When I came here my mum had a lot of film cameras and I just used them all the time. Every Christmas ever since, I’ve always asked for a new camera.

I’ve grown definitely, some of the stuff you look at when I was younger are hilarious. It’s still the same style but it has gone better. I think I’ve just gotten better by taking more and more. That’s how I taught myself.

Photo by Ethel Nalule, courtesy of Ethel Nalule.

B: Do you collaborate with second shooters or assistants?

E: Not really. I have started recently. My friend Manuela shoots a lot of film; I met up with her a few weekends ago. I went to Toronto and met a lot of other Toronto photographers. So I am starting to finally make some connections with other photographers, but no main ones yet, I guess. I would like to make more connections though.

B: Different photographers have different end goals for their work. The most successful ones are those who consistently get their work to say what it is they want in the media even when they cannot articulate what that is or how that happens. What is it you want to say with your photographs and how do you actually get your photographs to do that? I guess you said emotions at the beginning.

E: Yeah, to me photography is more of a way of expression I guess. I do want to focus on my conceptual work more, I do talk about that better, it makes me happier to talk about than my regular portraits. I would like to make pictures that make people feel. I want to take pictures that make people feel confused or just make them think. That’s what I like most.

Photo by Ethel Nalule, courtesy of Ethel Nalule.

B: Which do you find more powerful, black-and-white or coloured?

E: I like both. But if I have to take a favorite I think it would be black-and-white.

B: What is it that interests you most about photography?

E: The idea of capturing light. I’m a deep thinker so it is amazing how you can just capture the fact that we are all reflections of light, it’s just how we see each other. To take a picture and capture all of someone’s light is just amazing- to me at least.

B: What motivates you to continue taking pictures — economically, politically, intellectually or emotionally?

E: I don’t get paid or anything. What motivates me is just my love for photography. I just love it. Not even just emotions, I just love photography. There is nothing I love more. I could be sad and you could bring up the topic of photography and I would be happy for the next two days. The camera I guess motivates me.

B: One of the most famous silent films, Metropolis has inspired many artists like Madonna in their work. Do you have any other influences in your work, like artists, writers, music, films, philosophers, architects?

E: I don’t think so, but there has to be. I just take pictures. I do definitely scroll through Flickr and see what other people are taking but I don’t think there is any certain film or music or something.

B: Lastly, I want to ask you what me and my friends joke about all the time: do you find yourself always looking at the World wondering how it would look as a photograph?

E: All the time. Yes. Yes I do. [laughs] I always regret never bringing my camera to places because I just see things even when if I’m walking with my friends and I’ll be like, “Stop, that is perfect.”

So now that you know a little about Ethel’s photography, please go on your smartphones to search for her Instagram account, @ethel and @ethelnalule, and be sure to check out her website.

If you are too eager to learn about Lyme disease now, you can also check her interview with Carol Anne Meehan on YouTube, or her own YouTube channel videos.

Here is my favorite line from her writings (yes, she is also a great writer): “Screw ableism.”

Click here to contribute to Ethel’s GoFundMe for Lyme disease treatment.