The other side of the lens – Chi Modu finds something to laugh about.

Hip-hop, up close and personal.

SixDegrees sits down with American street photographer Chi Modu, whose exhibition Uncategorized is on display at the Pori Art Museum until 14 September. The show showcases pictures of the biggest icons of the hip-hop movement, including Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G., Mary J. Blige and Snoop Dogg during the 1990s, before many of them were famous.

Today you are a world-renowned photographer, you have shot for publications such as The Source (the world’s second longest running hip-hop periodical), Rolling Stone and JazzTimes, and this summer you have brought Uncategorized to Finland. A long journey, how did it start?

The minute I picked up the camera – at Rutgers University – I felt really comfortable with it. It was a way for me to move around and enter different environments with my camera in hand. Sure, in my family there was a camera, like when my father was taking pictures of me and my brothers and sisters as kids, but it was when at Rutgers that I really went for it.

Was there any photographer that inspired you growing up?

As you may know, in the States, with the exception of a few names like Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava, there aren’t many commercially famous African-American photographers. So when thinking about inspirations, I lean more towards street photography, and more specifically into French street photographers of the early 20th century, such as Brassaï and Eugène Atget. In terms of contemporary photographers there hasn’t been anyone in particular that I would say inspired me.

You have been enjoying a successful career for many years now. How would you describe yourself as a photographer? What is it that you try to achieve?

The camera allows me to stare at people. Most documentarian photographers are very curious, so, as such, you want to learn more about others. Where they go, what they do, what they eat… What I want to do with my style is showing the community from inside the community, I don’t want to be just an observer – I want to be both an observer and a participant.

In addition to this, I also try to get the ‘other picture’. Here’s what I mean by this. In July I attended the Pori Jazz Festival but, unlike most photographers at the event, I wasn’t in the front row that often. I was more in the back, trying to access and capture the moment from a different angle. My mission is to try to show you a perspective that you may not have already seen. That’s the creative challenge.

You have been shooting for The Source, as Director of Photography in the ‘90s. What does it mean to be a photographer for the world’s second longest running hip-hop periodical?

When I started doing freelance work at The Source, it wasn’t nearly as popular. Hip-hop was starting to bubble up; people began to hear about the movement. At those times, there wasn’t much competition and that definitely helped me.

When I was in photography school in 1990, I kept hearing about this hip-hop ‘thing’. I knew it was going to get big. I mean, already in the 1980s there had been groups like Run DMC, but it was in the 1990s that the hip-hop revolution began to take place. And at the beginning, I didn’t even realise that the musical revolution was starting!

And then you went on and became the most important photographer of the hip-hop movement. You took pictures of stars like Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J and Mary J. Blige when they weren’t famous. How did it feel to shoot those big names, when they weren’t that known at the time?

The thing with very big stars is that you notice right away that they’re not like everybody else. Take Tupac for example. For my generation Tupac is like Elvis or Bob Marley. Some may even argue that he was even bigger, in a strange kind of way. He was my generation’s voice.

Like within every kind of art form, there are different people. There are good rappers and then there are the Tupacs. I’m comfortable saying that I have been able to spot the stars right away. You can’t look away from them; you know you’re in the presence of a star as soon as they enter the room.

I covered hip-hop during what some people like to call the ‘Golden Era of hip-hop’ – in rock ‘n’ roll that would be the 1960s – and I’m very happy about it. I think that it’s been great to be involved in hip-hop during those defining years. I don’t want to disrespect anyone, but I don’t think anybody is going to motivate me more than the Tupacs and the B.I.G.s I shot pictures of at that time.

I also think that today there’s a different level of honesty compared to those days, so I’m glad I got the chance to did what I did, when I did.

Until 14 September, art and photography enthusiasts in Finland have the chance to see Tupac, LL Cool J, Snoop Dogg and all the other hip-hop stars up close at the Pori Art Museum with your exhibition Uncategorized. What can people expect?

With Uncategorized I try to bring a specific kind of photography to a part of the world, where people may not have the opportunity to get access to these subjects from so close. In June and July I had the chance to be at the Pori Art Museum and host my show… it was an incredible feeling to see visitors of all kinds!

Through Uncategorized you can look into the eyes of these young black superstars, which I think is a very unique thing. Sure, people hear about them and read about them, but don’t get the chance to get so close to them.

I believe that people having a better understanding of each other encourages peace. A lot of problems we have around the world are based on people being afraid. Fear triggers a lot of racism, insecurity and many other things. So, I tried to take the fear away by exposing things that some might be too afraid to ask about, even though they’re curious. Look at the Uncategorized pictures: these guys are human beings!

The way I see it, the exhibition is not for the art per se, but for the people.

I’d like to thank all the people at the Pori Art Museum, curator Pia Hovi-Assad in particular. She was really remarkable, I can’t say enough about her! She embraced the show and my work and really pushed Uncategorized to where it is today. I hadn’t been to Pori before the exhibition, but managed to do this kind of production – which was done remotely, using a 3D computer model in New York, and then produced in Finland – and the result was simply amazing. You can only do this kind of show when you have great people on your team.

I can’t really express the amount of love and respect I have received from Finnish people. Unique and inspirational, like no other place!

Earlier you talked about observing people, what they do, where they go, etc. Today, with social media, smartphones and apps it really looks as if pretty much anyone can be a photographer. What are your thoughts on photography apps like Instagram, are they good?

They’re absolutely fantastic! I’m one of those photographers who loves the fact that there are more photographs being taken by all people. That really helps photography.

And to those who would like to become photographers, be it using a smartphone or a camera, I would say this: make sure to have your own vision, to know what you would like to achieve by taking pictures. Have your own voice and make sure to take a lot of pictures… today, that’s a lot easier and cheaper than it used to!

And what about honesty? A moment ago you said that today there is a different level of honesty compared to the past. Does this also apply to social media and apps, where people don’t always publish pictures that have been taken spontaneously, but rather a little staged?

You see, that kind of photography – where you ‘arrange the environment’ before taking a picture – has always existed, even among professionals. There’s plenty of people that make heavily styled, staged photo shoots.

We even included a social media aspect to the Uncategorized exhibition where we encouraged people that visited the museum, to upload a selfie taken in the hall to our social network ephotos.com in order for their image to be included in the show.

So, even though it’s true that with social media you’re going to get more of that kind of photography, you’re also going to get more spontaneous, street and photo-journalistic photography. When it comes to me, I’m a documentarian, who doesn’t like to alter the environment, both online and offline.

What are your plans for the future?

We’re thinking of moving the exhibition around Europe for a couple of years. No other Finnish city, though. For now, I would like to leave Pori as the place that welcomed Uncategorized in Finland.

If you’re reading this interview, but are living outside of Finland keep your eyes open, because the show may be coming to your city soon!

Yannick Ilunga
Image: Chi Modu

More info: www.chimodu.com