Maria Meco Sanchez’s photograph celebrates London’s hidden drag king scene and those working to diversify it
Maria Meco Sanchez originally photographed London’s Kings of Colour drag troupe as part of a commission. The aim of the images was to highlight the role of black drag kings and other performers in the London drag scene, which is a predominantly white space.
“The photograph I entered into Portrait of Britain was of a gender-fluid performer named Coco,” Meco Sanchez explains of her subject. “They were very confident in front of the camera, which made the process easy and fun.”
Meco Sanchez cites her photographic style as intuitive; she works without following specific rules, leaning towards spontaneity, although she admits that this can sometimes feel slightly chaotic.“I’m really bad at directing people,” she says, “so I try not to take too much control – I don’t want to strip away their persona”.
Hailing from Spain, Meco Sanchez is now based in Bristol, where she is studying photography at the University of West England. Her work shifts between documentary, fine art and portrait photography, and her interests lie in people and emotion. “My work has to be emotive,” she explains. “And the work that strikes me the most is always filled with feelings that I can’t quite explain or understand.”
Meco Sanchez’s work with London’s drag king community was her first foray into this subculture, a scene that didn’t exist, as far as she knew, in Spain. Kings of Colour was set up by drag king Zayn Phallic in order to address the lack of diversity on the UK drag king scene. It’s aim is to celebrate and nourish performers of colour, by not only showcasing their talent, but also by providing mentorship and support to new kings of colour who are keen to take the stage.
The troupe performs across the UK, with shows encompassing renditions from Dreamgirls, alongside performance activism and spoken word. The portrait of Coco, which Meco Sanchez chose to enter into Portrait of Britain 2019, depictsthem in the dimly lit basement that became the backstage area for a London show. Embracing the camera with unabashed confidence, Coco dons nipple tassels and facial hair, which are some of the trademarks they have become known for during their time on the drag king circuit. “The people you are photographing are not just your subjects,” says Meco Sanchez. “Join them and immerse yourself in the experience you are photographing.”
After winning Portrait of Britain in 2018, Lang got back in contact with Roxy – the subject of his winning portrait – and created a new series
Photographer Joe Lang met Roxy at Margate Pride. The pair discussed the scenes surrounding them and Lang helped Roxy with her dress. Eventually, she agreed to be photographed. “Shooting at Margate Pride was a way to show my appreciation of the bravery of people who attend these events and the history of progress for human rights,” he explains. “I wanted to capture the diversity, beauty and liberalism that, given the chance, can be so rich in our country.”
Lang photographed Roxy against a backdrop of fairground and blue skies. The bright, sunlight leaps off of her, illuminating Roxy’s fiercely, red hair and contoured complexion. She gazes into the camera through her thick lashes, her head slightly cocked to one side. “The idea that people are allowed to present their true selves sounds like a basic right,” continues Lang, “but, this also can be a hurdle due to social pressures. Gay pride protests in Britain have been around for decades but they remain an ongoing revolution.”
Much of Lang’s work starts with a chance encounter; “fleeting yet significant moments,” as he puts it. His photography has taken him across America, India and Vietnam during which he has captured an eclectic mix of individuals. “I enjoy documenting such a broad spectrum and discovering people’s similarities and differences,” he explains. “From people distilling alcohol in a remote village near Kon Tum, Vietnam, to couples at sponsored mass Hindu weddings in India”.
Lang’s portrait of Roxy at Margate Pride was only the beginning. In 2018, he submitted the image to Portrait of Britain and it won. “Portrait of Britain was an opportunity to share some of the wonderful characters I have met, through my practice, with the world; it was a chance to get my work seen and judged by a panel of experts.” Being selected for the award inspired Lang to get back in touch with Roxy and to extend the single portrait of her into a series. “This is not something that I often have the opportunity to do,” he explains, “but, given that the portrait had the success that it did with PoB, I thought I should work to evolve it”. Lang has since established a relationship with Roxy that has developed beyond photographer and subject; the pair are now good friends, which “is one rewarding outcome”.
Being selected for PoB marked a turning point for Lang. It encouraged the photographer to reflect on his work both aesthetically and conceptually. “I have been considering the way that I approach people and if, and how, this affects the photograph,” he says. He stresses the importance of the award for diversifying our perspectives more broadly too: “Britain is a complex place and we can become sheltered in our own familiarities. Portrait of Britain provides an important, contemporary snapshot of life across the country. It is not only fascinating to witness this now, but it will also exist as a great archive in the future.”
It was while exploring his new neighbourhood on-foot that Miechowski happened upon Musah – the subject of his winning portrait
In 2017, Max Miechowski moved to London from Lincoln – a small city in the East Midlands. The pace and scale of the capital came as a shock. In an attempt to navigate his new neighborhood, Miechowski explored on foot, photographing individuals that resonated with him. Engaging with his surroundings through photography gave Miechowski an insight into people’s relationships with the city, and, slowly, an understanding of what had drawn him to the capital too.
On one of his walks, Miechowski happened upon Musah – the employee of a fishmonger located just a short distance from the photographer’s former Southeast-London home. “There was an amazing light on him at the time, and after talking for a while about our different experiences of the city, I asked to take his portrait and we made this image,” says Miechowski. The photograph depicts Musah, his gaze fixated on the camera, standing bolt upright surrounded by the paraphernalia of his trade. Despite the dilapidated surroundings, Miechowski bestows his subject with an air of majesty.
Miechowski’s work centres around portraiture; it is through this genre that he explores the themes of community and urban culture across London. The portrait of Musah seemed like an obvious choice to submit to Portrait of Britain 2018 – an award dedicated to celebrating the diversity of the country – and it was selected as a winning image. “It gave me a lot of confidence to push my work further and to continue making portraits of the people around me,” he reflects.
His photograph of Musah is just one portrait from Miechowski’s extensive portfolio of work. “What continues to excite me about portraiture is the collaborative nature of it – two people sharing a moment, recognising and respecting each other, and making an image together,” he explains. For Miechowski, successful collaboration is key to creating a compelling image: both the photographer and subject must reveal enough for the photograph to exude intimacy and honesty, yet hold back sufficient that the viewer is left wanting.
For Miechowski, knowing what makes a strong portrait is instinctual; both the nature of the subject and their surroundings come in to play. “There’s obviously a visual dimension to it, looking for interesting lighting or pleasing colours,” he explains, “but, more importantly, it is about finding the right atmosphere to be able to create something. Often, when it feels comfortable to make an image of someone, something is revealed in the developed photograph that I did not see during the taking of the picture.”
Many of Miechowski’s portraits were taken in Burgess Park, south London. He spent the fiercely hot summer of 2018 photographing the local community amidst swathes of sun-dappled grass and trees. Despite the diverse range of individuals depicted, the work is united by Miechowski’s ability to mould and manipulate light. “Light plays such an important role in the atmosphere and feel of my work,” he says, “it contributes so heavily to the success of my portraits”. The subjects captured in Miechowski’s Burgess Park series are bathed in a golden glow that speaks of long summer evenings. “There is often warmth and optimism to my portraits,” he continues. “This is something I obviously look for and found it just at the right moment for the portrait of Musah.”
Through her photographs, Maryam Wahid addresses the lack of representation for the UK’s South Asian community
Maryam Wahid has been interested in photography since she was a child. The photographer would often spend her weekends perusing galleries with her family, but she was always struck by the lack of diversity on gallery walls. “I saw very little of my community in the art world,” she says. This was a stark contrast to the vibrant multicultural – particularly South Asian – community that surrounded her growing up in Birmingham.
Wahid is profoundly interested in multiculturalism, and uses her work to challenge misconceptions of Islam in the UK. Her photographs focus on the mass integration of migrants in Britain. More specifically, she explores her family’s roots in the Midlands, and their personal, yet arguably universal, experience as immigrants. In her series Archives Locating Home, Wahid positions family photographs from 1950s Pakistan among those taken in Britain decades later.
Using self-portraiture, Wahid draws on her own identity within the UK’s Pakistani diaspora. Her self-portraits pay homage to those taken of her mother at the time she migrated to Britain in the early 1980s. Wahid’s winning Portrait of Britain 2018 photograph employed this same approach. “I was inspired by my family albums,” she explains. “I created this portrait to champion first generation women from my community, and it comes from a wider series that attempts to tell their story in Britain’s history.”
At the time of winning Portrait of Britain, Wahid had just completed a BA in photography. “What appealed to me about Portrait of Britain was the opportunity to be part of a competition celebrating the changing faces of Britain,” she says. Her undergraduate projects, The Niqab and The Hijab, combine aspects of art and fashion photography to celebrate faith, culture and diversity in the UK and beyond. The result is a series of powerful portraits of women, wearing the garments and staring directly into the camera.
In her work, Wahid continues to challenge religious and cultural stereotypes. The photographer is currently working on Transforming Narratives, a project with Arts Council England and the British Council. The project seeks to improve cultural relationships between Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in Birmingham, by improving the exchange of contemporary cultural practices between these groups and their home in the UK. The project will take Wahid beyond the South Asian community in the Midlands, to Pakistan for the very first time: “I’m excited to finally visit my motherland,” she says.
“I am interested in communities and individuals that exist in a liminal state of belonging and abandonment; communities that are neither here nor there”
Kovi Konowiecki began his professional life playing football in Europe. He turned to photography to document his surroundings, and shed light on aspects of his identity that he did not quite understand. His focus has shifted from portraits of orthodox Jews – a series partially created in pursuit of learning about his heritage – to individuals living liminally between belonging and isolation.
Last year, Konowiecki’s portrait of identical twins Dick and Clark won a place in the Portrait of Britain exhibition, and his photograph of Antonia and Franka, also twins, earned a place in the first ever Portrait of Britain book. In 2016, Konowiecki was also part of the inaugural Portrait of Britain, and his winning image was featured among 100 others as part of the award’s first public exhibition.
Konowiecki has since been selected for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, and has exhibited his work in a group show in California. He is now preparing for a solo exhibition this Spring in Portugal. His first monograph, Borderlands, will be released at the beginning of next year. Below, BJP-onlinespeaks to Konowiecki about Borderlands, his chance meeting with Dick and Clarke, and finding beauty in the mundane.
Portrait of Britain is where everything came together in terms of photography. I first won the award several years ago. It was amazing to see my photograph across numerous screens and tube stations on my daily commute.
Photography exhibitions are usually pretty intimate, but Portrait of Britain allows viewers to engage with photography in a different way. I loved being part of an exhibition with such a wide-ranging audience.
Can you tell us about the picture you entered? What did you want to capture about your subject and modern Britain?
I took the portrait of twins Dick and Clark a few years ago when I was living in London. I met them while walking near my apartment, after seeing them on the opposite side of the road. Their sense of togetherness was fascinating. I asked to take a photograph of them, and Dick was kind enough to let me inside his apartment.
Dick lives in London and Clark travels from his home in New York to visit his twin brother once a year. I took a photograph of them holding a portrait of their grandmother, and we sat and chatted for a few hours.
What are your key interests as a photographer? How do you explore your heritage through your work?
People are the driving force behind my work. I began my practice using portraiture as a way to document the things around me, and to shed light on different aspects of my identity. Typically, I start a project with a group of people or place in mind, and I allow my instinct to take over once I begin taking photographs.
Portraiture is the most prominent aspect of my work. I am interested in communities and individuals that exist in a liminal state of belonging and abandonment; communities that are neither here nor there.
Can you tell me about your latest project Borderlands?
Some of my projects are intensely thought out and researched, while others come together without any real intention. Borderlands is the latter.
The project brings together photographs taken in California, Mexico and Israel. I began noticing similarities between many of the photographs I was taking, both visually and thematically. By piecing together these fragments, I found parallels between the people I was photographing, all of whom occupied transitional states between belonging and isolation.
The project is about physical and internal borders that can be disruptive, seeking to connect these disruptive human emotions with physical borders that exist in our surroundings. Ultimately, it is about figuring out how to cross these boundaries.
It was very exciting to know that my work was being seen by millions of people across the UK. Many of my friends sent snapshots of my photographs on bus stops and train stations on their way to work, which was really special. Having my photographs published in the first Portrait of Britain photo book was also particularly amazing, as it allowed people to take something physical home, which they can always open and go back to.
How has the award helped boosted your career?
Since my inclusion in last year’s Portrait of Britain, I have been part of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in London, as well as part of a group show at Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, California. I have also been busy making new work, and editing and sequencing my photographs for two new books.
Portrait of Britain has been a great platform for me. People seeing my work in the exhibition has lead to conversations with other artists and photographers, and has opened doors for me with different curators and publishers.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of entering Portrait of Britain 2019?
It is important to remember that often the most beautiful and interesting subjects are those that are closest to you. I would encourage photographers to try to find beautiful and captivating moments in the mundane and everyday.