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17 August 2015updated 05 Oct 2023 8:22am

Adama Jalloh interview: “I wanted black girls to see the photos and to see themselves”

As part of the Black British Girlhood exhibition, Adama Jalloh created the Identity project to show what's it like for black girls getting their hair done in South London.

By June Eric-Udorie

When I meet the photographer, Adama Jalloh, the first thing I notice is her hair. It is a perfect mount of afro kinky twists wrapped in a bun and accessorized with a headwrap, the kind of bun that I have tried and failed to perfect on many occasions. It came as no surprise to me that when Jalloh was a second year student at the Arts University Bournemouth, she chose to focus on a very important beauty ritual for black girls – the making of our hair.

“Hair,” she says “is part of my identity. When I was younger, I didn’t think my hair was important, and that didn’t change until I was older and at university. All the hair-touching at the silly questions started there and it made me realise how important and how much of a statement a black girl’s hair is.”

I first came across Adama Jalloh’s photography at the Black British Girlhood exhibition in Hackney, curated by Bekke Popoola. What struck me about her work was the familiarity of the images. As a young black girl growing up, hair was a huge part of my identity. I spent every other Saturday at the salon, experimenting with different hairstyles, aided by the versatility of my hair. Seeing Jalloh’s photo invoked a flood of memories about salons, hairdressers and being a black girl.

A young black girl with her new hairdo at a South London salon. Photo: Adama Jalloh

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I tell Jalloh this, she gets very excited. “I created the Identity Project not for a white audience, but for girls who are just like me, going through the same ritual process of doing their hair. I wanted black girls to see the photos and to see themselves. I wanted them to have the ‘I did that hairstyle!’ moment. I’m hoping that the way I project black girls will make them relate and feel less lonely and invisible.”

The invisibility of black women across British society is a huge problem and this is what makes Jalloh very happy about the Black British Girlhood exhibition, which brought the work of black women artists in the UK into one space. As we chat about the poor representation of black women in the media and the arts, Jalloh says, “When you’re a black girl, there’s always a stereotype of how you should be. And we are really invisible. You hardly see black girls in the arts. So even if you feel different to how black girsl are stereotyped in the media and beyond, you don’t see that. You don’t see the ranges to how we are as a whole.”

A black woman at a South London salon, doing afro kiky twists. Photo: Adama Jalloh

“The normality is that black girls exist, but we don’t see ourselves portrayed in a good light. Whenever it’s to do with a black girl, it’s either that we are misrepresented or we’re being seen in a way that’s not positive. And the representation of black women is really important. New generations of black girls can see these images and not only feel less invisible, but feel like this is something that they can do too. These images are not of the stereotypical angry, aggressive, sassy black women. They are positive and the truth.”

It becomes very clear to me from chatting to Jalloh and from observing her work that she cares to represent and focus on black people – especially black women – in her work. It doesn’t bother me that she does, but I feel like I might be walking into uneasy territory by asking her why she chooses to do so. After all, I doubt that I would ask a white man or woman that question. But Jalloh answers it with fierce passion and conviction, touching on the problem with having a single story about black people in the world around us:

I don’t want t be worried about focusing mostly on black people or black women in my projects. At university, I wondered will people would judge me if I focused too much on black people? Then I had a moment and realised that my work was not for them. It was for black people and it isn’t wrong to tell our stories. I document this positivity of being a black girl so there are alternatives. So even if people are giving me a side eye, I don’t care. I am a black woman and I want to focus on black people. I take photos of us because we should be seen. 

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