Back in June 2020, photographer Nadine Scarlett was busy getting involved in the Black Lives Matter protests that were filling the streets of central London at the time. Then just 20 years old, she had begun taking her camera along to capture the energy of the movement as it unfolded and gradually she realised how historical these events were. "Being a part of them made me really question my understanding of my own culture and it started a fire within me," she says.
Now 23, Scarlett is talking about the series of events that led her to begin making her newest project and photobook, An Ode To, a gorgeous portrait series celebrating Black British culture through fashion, people, subculture and place. "Taking the protests as inspiration, I first completed a smaller project called Hairstory, about growing up with Black hair types in the UK, and this then led smoothly into the start of An Ode To, which I began in October 2022," she explains. "I wanted to make a series that recognises the presence of Black culture throughout British history, so I conceived this project to remind us of where and who we have come from, acknowledging those who paved the way for the birth of Black culture today."
We shot at Tilbury Docks in Essex, the first place the Windrush boat came into Britain via, and experienced the walk across the Windrush bridge – the very same footsteps some of our ancestors took.
Based between Hertfordshire and London for the past few years for university, Scarlett was born and raised in Luton by her Jamaican parents and remembers the formative influence of Luton Carnival. "The atmosphere of Caribbean Mas Camp (the place where all the Carnival costumes are made) is unmatched, and the culmination of arts, music, food and all-around creativity screams Caribbean culture," she remembers warmly. Her love of photography came later, while studying art in college. "I just fell in love with the idea of capturing people and the real world, and that’s what I still love to this day. It catches a moment that may never happen again. Photography tells a story that may never be understood through words."
An Ode To is full of radiant, joyful images of young people, many of them Scarlett’s good friends, as well as some models who reached out to her via social media after the project took off. "Once I explained the purpose behind what I was doing, they were just as excited as me to be on board, which shows that An Ode To is not just my story but the story of many. So for me, any opportunity to build a community through the project was key."
Each photoshoot in the series is an ode to a definitive moment from Black British history. "An Ode to The Panthers", for instance, is named after The British Black Panthers – a Black power organisation formed in the UK in the late 1960s – while "An Ode to the Block" pays homage to council estates which, Scarlett says, "have homed thousands of Black Brits since our migration to the UK and are an important part of our communities".
To tell each story, Scarlett used carefully chosen and relevant styling, as well as locations pertaining to each theme. "The further I researched into documentaries, galleries, books and interviews, the more stories I found, and whenever I discovered a new story, I would research the places it happened, the people involved, and turn each shoot into a mini project," she says. Some of the time, the people in her photographs would help her with styling but mostly she would look through archives of Black photographers for inspiration – artists like Charlie Phillips, Neil Kenlock and James Barnor, who were legends of their own eras.
The first photoshoot Scarlett did for the project was "An Ode to Windrush" and the resulting pictures are some of her very favourites from the series. "It was Black History Month when I began shooting and I remember at the time there was still a lot of talk going on about the Windrush generation, so I just began researching further into it," she explains. "I used young subjects so that it could speak to my generation but the styling and location would heavily resonate with those of the generation before mine. We shot at Tilbury Docks in Essex, the first place the Windrush boat came into Britain via, and experienced the walk across the Windrush bridge – the very same footsteps some of our ancestors took." Pointing to one particular image, she says: "This shot I just love for the sense of love, joy and happiness it brings." What made this shoot particularly meaningful is that Taryn, the young woman in the picture, had a personal connection to the subject because her grandad was part of the Windrush generation.
Another image that stands out to Scarlett is one she took in Brixton of her friend Joy dressed in a tangerine-hued, '60s-style get-up. Describing the atmosphere of the day, she says: "This shoot with Joy was SO much fun. Shooting in the middle of Brixton Market was something I was nervous about because it was so busy and loud, but something about it all made me feel at home. Joy styled the shoot to fit the '60s brief I had sent her and the outfit complements her skin tone so well. I just remember shooting and having bystanders stopping, watching, cheering and shouting us both on. The community support was surreal and brought out a new level of confidence in us both."
Then there are the images Scarlett took for the chapter "An Ode to The Grove", which pays respect to the cultural scene of Ladbroke Grove, London. "History was made there in places like The Mangrove restaurant and even the streets of Notting Hill where the carnival still takes place every August bank holiday weekend," she says. Picking out a close-up image of a young girl having her hair done, she explains: "People always say your best moments can be the most unexpected and this one sure was. The hairstylist was just fixing the subject’s hair mid-shoot and I took this photo intending for it to be behind-the-scenes footage. Little did I know it would be one of the most, if not the most successful photo I have taken to date. It has received recognition on an international stage and has been shortlisted twice for international awards. I think the shot just feels very warm and still. The beautiful details of her slicked curls alongside the loud 'babygirl' earring screams '90s youth."
A shimmering constellation of stories just like these can be found within the images of An Ode To and Scarlett has worked hard to create something that pays homage to the fullness of community, legacy and culture as she’s experienced it. With this in mind, she says, the series for her is primarily about educating people on Black British history in subtle ways.
"It doesn’t force information onto you but instead speaks of the many smaller stories that make up the bigger picture, to make you question how much of Black British history you know yourself while being captured by beautiful imagery," she says. "Whether someone feels happy, moved, sad or annoyed about my pictures, I don’t have a preference. I just want people to take away some new knowledge." If someone spends time with her work and goes away with something to think about or research, she concludes, then the pictures have done their job.