This year’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition features 54 incredible portraits by 25 photographers, whittled down from 5,392 submissions. But who are the sitters on display and the talented photographers behind the lens?

We caught up with two of the Portrait Prize’s exhibitors and their sitters to find out more about them, their work together and what they hope you’ll take away from their image.

First up, is Oxford-based photographer Philippa James and her sitter Nicole Jameelah Shodunke, who features in Philippa’s portrait The Door of Opportunity in the exhibition.

Philippa James

PHILIPPA: I’m Philippa. I’ve been a photographer for years, but it was just at the start of 2020 that I developed my own personal practice with a project called 100 Women of Oxford. It was exhibited during Photo Oxford 2020 at The North Wall Arts Centre in Oxford, where I’ve been a propeller artist for the past year. I’m now studying an MA in Photography at Falmouth University.

NICOLE: I’m Nicole. I run a community interest company called Transition Lighthouse Empowerment Space, which has four projects established and operating in deprived, poverty-stricken areas in Oxford. These projects are built for women who have suffered and or live with traumatic experiences, such as domestic abuse, female genital circumcision, homelessness and substance abuse, to help them heal, recover and rebuild their lives through coaching and alternative therapeutic practices. I am an activist and an advocate for women’s rights and voices, with a zero tolerance for violence against girls and women.

The Door of Opportunity, from the series We Cannot Walk Alone by Philippa James (c) Philippa James

The Door of Opportunity, from the series We Cannot Walk Alone by Philippa James (c) Philippa James

Philippa, your series is called We Cannot Walk Alone, could you tell us a little bit more about the series and what initially inspired it?

PHILIPPA – I was approached by the charity Refugee Resource who had seen my project 100 Women of Oxford and were interested in me collaborating with their women’s group. I facilitated an online photography workshop for three months before curating an exhibition of their work for International Women’s Day 2021. It was fantastic, the women were incredible, and I was keen to meet more of the women from the group.

The theme for Refugee Week 2021 was We Cannot Walk Alone, which was an invitation to extend your hand to someone new and create an opportunity to connect and that’s where this project was born. I met fourteen women in total and I collaborated with them in a way I’ve never worked before; I was curious to see what they could offer in front of the lens… the result is a series of powerful portraits of strong resilient women.

And how did you get involved Nicole?

NICOLE – I got introduced to Refugee Resource through a friend who took me to one of their Zumba classes! A year later I became vulnerable myself and went back to the women’s group to seek help. I was in a coercive controlled relationship, living with a dominator (narcissistic personality) and the group became a safe place to share stories – international stories, it’s just such a diverse group. It was initially set up for refugees, but it’s open to all vulnerable migrants such as myself.

I now run my own support group, called WOW SPACE – Women of the World Space – it’s a safe place for women to visit; explore, learn and grow and that’s where Philippa and I met to take this photograph.

How did you find the photographing process, as both a sitter and photographer?

PHILIPPA – Haha, well, we all have a ‘camera face’ and as the photographer it’s my job to seek out what’s on offer behind that – and I can’t predict what that will be – it doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to the sitter. Nicole was a professional at showing me her camera face – and it took a bit of time before she allowed me to see beyond that. Once she did, this is what I saw.

NICOLE - When I saw it, I almost cried. The first time I saw it was at The Old Fire Station Art Gallery in Oxford, printed life size. It drew something in me, I was astonished. The next day I woke at 5am and was asking myself so many deep questions…who am I…who is this woman in the photo…why am I here… I don’t know the answers, but all I know is that I’m at the door of opportunity right now.

Photography of the portrait hung in the Portrait Prize exhibition at Cromwell Place (c) David Parrya

Photography of the portrait hung in the Portrait Prize exhibition at Cromwell Place (c) David Parry

What does it mean to you both for this image to have been selected for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize?

NICOLE - I didn’t know what the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize was, I mean, I had no idea what a ‘portrait’ even was. I’m 52 years old and I’d never even been in an art gallery before Philippa did this project, this isn’t a part of my world or language. The whole project has been such an amazing experience, for me and all the women involved in the series.

PHILIPPA – I’m truly blown away. I set up this side of my practice two years ago and it means so much to be recognised by such a prestigious photography competition.

What do you hope someone will take away from your image after seeing it?

NICOLE – When I look at this image, I see a strong powerful woman, an African woman at the door of opportunity. When seeing it in person at the Gallery it also started new conversations about it also maybe linking to the door of no return – a part of my history that I didn’t know and need to embrace. My story has so many layers.

PHILIPPA – I hope they see what I see, a strong, powerful, resilient woman. Nicole is a fighter, she is a survivor, and now she is supporting others to find their strength to grow and develop their legacy.

Although the exhibition is now be closed, you can continue to enjoy the works on the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2021 page.

Comments

We are currently unable to accept new comments, but any past comments are available to read below.

Laura Newland

12 February 2022, 11:53

Such beauty and strength. This portrait is inspirational to women everywhere. So many women stand in the doorway of opportunity and are blinded by poison and fear. This fills me with hope and courage. Well done to you both.

Melicia C

14 January 2022, 03:03

A door is the entry point to the known and unknown, and I believe this portrait magnified its true meaning. Both Philippa and Nicole personified that by opening a door, there are many wonderful opportunities on the other side. Thank you both for such an amazing portrait, inspiring stories, and the power of an image. Fierce! And Fabulous!

Dativa Martinez

07 January 2022, 01:45

Great story...wonderful photography and a besutiful merger of the two courageous women. Congratulations to Nicole and Phillipa.

Suzett A. Noel

06 January 2022, 09:03

Wow! Great biography. The epitome of grace and beauty of two strong women.

Elva Williams

05 January 2022, 05:34

Nicole I am so proud of you and the work that you are doing . Being an advocate for bartered and abused women is such an important platform .. May God continue to bless you as you continue in this process .

Dayna

04 January 2022, 16:28

I was struck and moved by the portrait and Nicole's story. I am happy to see her take control of her life while trying to help other women. Kudos to Nicole and congratulations to Philippa.

Shezza

03 January 2022, 21:23

WOW .. great article and great photo .. a photo can say so much without use of words - keep up the good work Nicole

Lorena Myers

03 January 2022, 20:59

I am very excited that Nicole has been chosen for this award. It is very well deserved for a hard working woman who goes out of her way everyday to help women on their path to healing and becoming better.

KD

03 January 2022, 20:54

Amazing truly beautiful

Khadijah Shodunke

03 January 2022, 20:53

Lovely lovely indeed

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